The United States and the European Union on Monday unveiled a set of sanctions against several Russian officials — one of the first concrete retaliatory moves by the West since the beginning of the Crimean crisis. While coordination was expected from the West in applying sanctions against Russia, a discrepancy between the list of officials targeted by the United States and that of the European Union points to a wider-than-expected divergence of interests between the two partners.
The sanctions were announced following a referendum in Crimea that saw citizens of the breakaway Ukrainian region overwhelmingly vote to join the Russian Federation. Washington and Brussels both chose to limit the scope of this particular round of sanctions to travel restrictions and asset freezes targeting specific Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean leaders.
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There is little overlap between the list of 11 individuals targeted by the U.S. executive order and the 21 people sanctioned by the EU legislature. Only four individuals have been jointly sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. Of those, only two are Russian.
The U.S. sanctions clearly and deliberately target members of the highest echelons of power in Russia. These include leaders of Russia's upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as key strategic advisers to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, most notably Vladislav Surkov — the architect of the Putin-era political system. The European Union's list may be longer, but it targets less-significant individuals. Two-thirds of them are Ukrainian or Crimean — which doesn't really matter to Moscow. Meanwhile, the Russian officials targeted are either military officers or vocal but relatively unimportant members of the Russian parliament.
Until now, Brussels and Washington have presented a united rhetorical front in condemning the Russian intervention in Crimea. But as Stratfor has pointed out throughout its coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, the stakes are not at all the same for the European Union and for the United States. Europe is much more vulnerable to Russian countermoves because of its strong economic ties to Moscow, whether related to Central Europe's dependence on Russian energy, Germany's large industrial investments in Russia or even the enormous amount of Russian capital flowing through London's financial district.
For its part, Washington sees an opportunity in the Ukrainian crisis to curb Russia's recent resurgence in its periphery and prove that it can be a dependable foreign policy ally to the sensitive nations of Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The United States additionally feels the burden of having to respond to the humiliation it incurred at the hands of Moscow during the Snowden affair and the near-fiasco of possible intervention into the Syrian civil war.
Reciprocally revoking travel visas and freezing foreign assets of medium-level officials has become an almost routine form of diplomatic exchange between the West and Russia in the past decade. The operating term had thus far been "medium-level." By targeting more important officials, Washington has raised the stakes in its diplomatic confrontation with Russia. However, it has done so because it believes it can afford the cost of whatever response Moscow can produce, which is almost assured to go beyond a simple reciprocal ban of officials.
The Europeans do not feel as confident as Washington that losing Crimea is worth an escalation in tensions or a complete break in relations with Moscow, itself a significant partner. The European Union's priority continues to be the management of its internal economic crisis. The more nuanced political relationship European powers like Germany and France have with Moscow makes it difficult for Brussels to match the aggressiveness of U.S. sanctions.
The rift between the interests of the United States and those of the European Union is likely to widen as the standoff with Russia continues. This particular round of sanctions will do little to sway Moscow's position regarding Crimea, and the West has already threatened additional sanctions as part of the ongoing negotiation process with Russia. However, it will be nearly impossible for common ground to be found between the United States and Europe on sanctions that carry real weight — a division Moscow is sure to exploit to its advantage as it tries to regain influence in mainland Ukraine.