As the July 31 deadline approaches for the European Union to decide whether to renew sanctions on Russia, Moscow is working to curry favor with its allies in the bloc. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in Athens on Friday, but on Thursday he was touting Greece's importance to Russia in an article published in Kathimerini, a leading Greek daily. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a trip to Budapest on Wednesday, where he highlighted Russia's ties with Hungary.
The timing of these trips, so close to the European Union's decision on sanctions, is no coincidence. Ever since it imposed economic restrictions on Russia over two years ago, the European Union has voted unanimously to continue them. But of the Continental bloc's members, Greece and Hungary are two of the friendliest to Russia. Any threat to EU unanimity in the upcoming vote would likely come from them. In fact, during Lavrov's visit, Hungarian officials reiterated their stance that extending the sanctions is not a forgone conclusion and will be the subject of vigorous discussion.
Despite the public comments, the European Union will probably not lift, or even ease, the sanctions in July. Barring any last-minute breakthroughs or crises, all signs point to another unanimous vote to extend them, something that European Council head Donald Tusk and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini confirmed this week. Even so, the European Union's unanimity on the matter cannot be expected to last forever; Russian media quoted anonymous sources who suggested that the bloc may lift or ease the restrictions at the end of this year.
It is in Russia's interest, then, to search for any give in Europe. But diplomatic visits are not Russia's only tactic for dealing with the sanctions issue. Moscow is taking a complex and multifaceted approach to influence the European Union's debate and, indeed, Russia's relationship with the West more broadly.
Take, for example, Russia's involvement in various conflicts across the Eurasian landmass. Russia's role in each of these theaters contradicts the West's interests in one way or another. In eastern Ukraine, Moscow supports separatist rebels against the pro-Western Ukrainian security forces. In Syria, it backs President Bashar al Assad's forces. In Nagorno-Karabakh, it is facilitating skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, selling each side weapons while declining to intervene. Nonetheless, some cooperation has come from this rivalry. Russia's hand in these conflicts has opened intense diplomatic negotiations with Western countries.
The crisis in Ukraine is a great example. Russia has made several conciliatory gestures toward Kiev and the West in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko was released from Russian custody. Moscow also signaled this week that it would tolerate an Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe presence in Donbas. Although several important caveats accompanied its signals, Moscow nevertheless demonstrated a willingness to negotiate over an issue that bears on the EU sanctions debate. Furthermore, Russia stopped conducting airstrikes in Syria, at least temporarily.
Another area of contention in which Moscow is showing signs of compromise is in its military buildup. Over the past two years, Russia has been amassing military forces and equipment in and around the borderlands of Central and Eastern Europe, much as NATO and the United States have been beefing up their own military presence in the area. But the buildups are intended less for direct military confrontation — something both sides would rather avoid — than they are meant to enhance both sides' defense postures and influence decision-making. In fact, the increase in military presence may actually spur negotiations between the two sides to reduce arms, like the arms control talks that took place in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period between Russia and the United States.
In a host of arenas — from diplomatic visits to negotiations over Ukraine and Syria — Russia is maneuvering to achieve its goals, both in the sanctions debate and in its standoff with the West. Of course, Moscow's jockeying cannot guarantee that the European Union will ease its restrictions on Russia. And as Russia's political and economic circumstances evolve, its strategy may change. Still, Russia will try to use what avenues it can to shape Europe's decision.