A woman choses sweets at a counter with imported food stuffs at a supermarket in downtown Moscow
A woman choses sweets at a counter with imported food stuffs at a supermarket in central Moscow

Mounting evidence of a Russian military intervention in war-torn Ukraine is stiffening the spines of some eastern European leaders to embrace tougher EU economic sanctions against Moscow.

Officials in Slovakia and Hungary, which in recent months have been two of the EU’s most outspoken sceptics of the sanctions regime due to strong economic ties with Russia, told the Financial Times that they would support additional steps to respond to Moscow’s moves.

“If dialogue does not work, we have to do something. We cannot stick to diplomatic speeches if nothing is happening,” said Andrej Kiska, Slovakia’s newly elected president. “No one likes the sanctions. But there is no other way. And we have to show [Vladimir] Putin that we are taking steps against his aggression.”

The change is particularly pronounced in Hungary, where Viktor Orban, prime minister, has not only spoken out against sanctions, but has in recent months struck deals to build a Russian nuclear plant and backed a Moscow-led pipeline project that would allow Russia’s Gazprom to bypass Ukraine when delivering supplies to Europe.

But Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister, said Russia’s recent actions were “unacceptable” and that Budapest would be “part of the common position” on sanctions.

“Central Europeans know what it means to have a neighbour like the Soviet Union and we never want to experience that again,” Mr Szijjarto told the FT. “The big and strong countries need to put the proposals on the table; they can count on our support for all solutions which bring the conflict to a swift conclusion.”

Over the summer, the EU imposed two rounds of wide-ranging economic sanctions against Russia’s financial, energy and arms industries. Although EU foreign ministers will meet on Monday to discuss the recent Russian moves in Ukraine, EU officials said they are unlikely to agree new broad-based economic sanctions against the Kremlin.

Instead, they are expected to discuss adding new names to a growing list of officials slapped with travel bans and asset freezes. A particular focus will be those involved in this month’s elections in eastern Ukrainian regions, which were not backed by the government in Kiev.

Still, officials said Britain, Sweden and the Baltic states have begun agitating for a further expansion of sanctions and the issue could return to the EU agenda if recent troop movements lead to an all-out attack by Russian regulars.

A hardening of views in the so-called “Visegrad Four” – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – is not universal. Peter Kazimir, Slovakia’s finance minister, said he and Robert Fico, prime minister, continued to be wary of new sanctions because of their economic impact and suggested the government had divergent views from President Kiska. Similarly, Andrej Babis, Czech finance minister, said he remained a sceptic.

“It brings nothing, these sanctions. They will only have a negative impact,” said Mr Babis on the sidelines of the Tatra Summit in Bratislava, a gathering of Visegrad politicians and businessmen.

But Peter Javorcik, Slovakia’s European Affairs minister, said that despite lingering fears in Bratislava about the economic ramifications on the country, his government would support increased sanctions.

“If there is common drive to strengthen [sanctions] because of the worsening situation on the ground then I do not think that Slovakia would be blocking the process,” he told the FT.

And Mr Kiska, an ex-businessman who handily beat Mr Fico in March presidential elections, compared the Russian moves to Czechoslovakia’s history of annexation and invasion by Germany in 1938 and the Soviet Union in 1968 and argued Bratislava must be the first to support actions to protect small countries from threats from larger ones.

“I hope that Mr Putin realises that . . . we are the European Union and we have to do sanctions, we have to give a hand and help if any small country is being occupied by a big country.”

He also took a thinly veiled swipe at Mr Fico for speaking out against the sanctions.

“Slovakia approved all sanctions,” Mr Kiska said. “I think it is correct that if someone agrees to sanctions, then also in his speeches he should say that he agrees with them and stands behind them.”

Additional reporting by Christian Oliver in Brussels

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