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reflections

Oct 18, 2016 | 00:39 GMT

6 mins read

The EU Wrestles With a Response to Russia

The EU Wrestles With a Response to Russia
(JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The European Union's foreign ministers met Monday in Luxembourg to discuss the bloc's foreign policy. Finding common ground among the 28 EU members on any subject can be difficult, much less in an area such as foreign policy, where decisions have to be made unanimously. The task becomes even more complicated when, like Monday, Russia is on the agenda. After the meeting, the European Union issued a statement criticizing Moscow's involvement in the Syrian conflict and its veto of the U.N. Security Council resolution to restore the cease-fire and allow humanitarian access to the city of Aleppo. But despite weeks of speculation that the bloc would consider more sanctions, the statement did not contain any mention of punitive measures against Russia over Syria.

Before the foreign ministers' meeting, EU members had been discussing ways to increase pressure on Russia to get it to stop its airstrikes against Aleppo and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to the city. The United Kingdom and other countries have suggested the introduction of expanded sanctions against Russia, and European media published articles saying Russian officials linked to the airstrikes could be sanction targets. But different EU members have very different — and often conflicting — energy, trade and security priorities when it comes to Moscow, which means that discussions within the bloc about Russia are never simple. At a time when the Continental bloc is struggling to decide what to do with the sanctions imposed on Russia over the situation in Ukraine, the prospect of new punitive measures is just another headache for the European Union.

The application of Ukraine-related sanctions was controversial from the start. The European Union's first reaction to the events in Ukraine was to approve asset freezes and visa bans against Russian officials involved in the conflict, a measure that had no real effect on Russia's economy. But a few weeks later, Moscow's annexation of Crimea, coupled with pressure from the United States, prompted the European Union to introduce economic and financial sanctions against Russia.

Growing political pressure within the bloc will make sanctions increasingly difficult to maintain. For countries such as Poland or Estonia, sending the message that the European Union is united and willing to maintain a strong stance against Moscow is important to discourage potential Russian aggression. The prospect of a rapprochement between Moscow and Berlin worries those governments, which have pressured Germany to keep the sanctions in place and even to expand them. In Italy, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece, on the other hand, a combination of strategic calculations and economic interests has prompted their governments to advocate lifting the sanctions as soon as possible. This is why the sanctions cycles are becoming shorter: When the economic sanctions initially expired in June 2015, they were extended for a year. When they expired again, they were extended for just six months and now are set to expire in January.

The German government is trapped in the middle. Germany needs to protect its trade and energy ties with Russia. Berlin also understands that the European Union needs Russian cooperation to face some of its geopolitical challenges. It also, however, needs to reassure its eastern EU members that Russia's actions in Ukraine and other regions will not be ignored. Germany has linked the lifting of sanctions with the full honoring of the terms of the Minsk peace agreement, which establishes a series of goals that have not yet been reached. If they wanted to lift some of the sanctions, Berlin and the rest of the European Union would have to find a way to establish that a partial honoring of the peace agreement would be sufficient. Domestic political calculations also play a role, because the members of Germany's coalition government are divided on the issue of Russian sanctions.

France and Italy are dealing with dilemmas of their own. On Ukraine, both decided to follow Germany's lead and support the sanctions, even though Moscow slapped restrictions on their exports of food and other products to Russia. The governments in Paris and Rome now face pressure from agricultural and business lobbies to lift the sanctions and resume trade. Opposition parties are also accusing them of making things worse in Ukraine and Syria by refusing to cooperate with Russia. In addition, Paris has concerns about the security implications of a prolonged conflict in Syria. French criticism of Russian actions in Syria even prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel last week's scheduled visit to Paris. Rome hopes that a normalization of Russian-EU relations would allow both parties to focus on the situation in Libya, one of its main foreign policy concerns.

Rome has demanded a debate on the future of the European Union's policy on Russia during the two-day European Council summit, which starts Thursday. But Rome is also under pressure from the United States not to veto the continuation of the sanctions. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday, and Russia will be one of the topics on the agenda. With all these conflicting pressures, it will be hard for EU members to reach consensus on any additional meaningful sanctions against Russia because of the events in Syria — though minor sanctions may be easier to push through.

Moscow is trying to taking advantage of those divisions and has been lobbying heavily across the European Union all year. Though Moscow is attempting to persuade the European Union at least to ease the most damaging sanctions by early next year, it is preparing for the worst. The current drafts of next year's Russian budget account for continued sanctions — and the subsequent poor foreign investment climate and its need to borrow from the West that they would entail. In a press conference Sunday, Putin said Russia would take additional measures to protect its citizens and its economy. That statement, however, comes in the wake of his asking Russian citizens last week to bring home their children studying abroad in the West for fear of harm from expanded sanctions. Putin's fear-mongering turned to bravado Sunday when he told journalists that the "Western sanctions could go screw themselves," hinting that he believes that the West will continue its pressure on the country in some way, despite the major divisions among Western powers on a course of action.

Moscow has long linked its negotiations over Syria to those over Ukraine, while the United States and Europe have sought to keep the situations separate. Russia's position is stronger in Syria, which it hopes to leverage to gain concessions in Ukraine. It now seems, however, that Russia's tactic is backfiring. Even if the West does not expand sanctions against Russia over Syria, the Russians' actions in Syria may be just the justification needed to maintain sanctions over Ukraine.

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