Fredrik Wesslau / May 2016
Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Photo: European Union
Will they or won’t they? EU sanctions on Russia are up for renewal this summer. And Brussels is increasingly playing its favourite parlour game of guessing whether the sanctions will be extended.
European politicians of every stripe, most recently in the French National Assembly, have grumbled about the sanctions since they were imposed on Russia two years ago. This has raised the prospect of the EU’s unity on Russia falling apart and sanctions not being extended – in spite of negligible progress on implementation of the Minsk agreement and increased fighting in Donbas.
But despite this vocal opposition, it’s looking likely that the sanctions will be renewed when leaders meet at the European Council on 28-29 June.
Moscow has been actively pushing a narrative that it should no longer be under sanctions since Kyiv is to blame for the lack of progress rather than Russia. But few buy this. While it is true that Poroshenko has been unable get constitutional amendments through the Rada to give special status to the Donbas, it is still Russia that maintains troops in Ukraine, controls the border, and ferments fighting in the Donbas to destabilise Kyiv.
Even the most creative diplomat would have a hard time denying this, let alone pointing to constructive steps taken by Moscow in the past few months. The lack of progress on the Minsk agreement means not only that the condition of fully implementing the agreement remains unfulfilled. It has also effectively killed the idea of a partial and symbolic easing of sanctions as a way of showing Moscow that positive steps will be rewarded.
The lack of progress further increases the political cost for any member state thinking about blocking an extension. EU member states recognise that Russia is a divisive issue and that the existing unity has been hard-won and is fragile. To break that unity would amount to vetoing a set policy that a large constituency of member states feels strongly about and, at the same time, undermine transatlantic unity on Russia. Member states recognise that this is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Even someone like Orban of Hungary, who opposes sanctions and has predicted their demise, says that he is a “loyal member of the EU” and that he will not veto them. A veto would be tantamount to using the nuclear option – as Orban himself has put it – at a time when the EU is under considerable strain from other crises.
Since the last extension, the EU’s unity on Russia has actually been strengthened. On 14 March, the Foreign Affairs Council discussed the EU’s relations with Russia for the first time in over a year. The discussion was a good one that stayed away from the histrionics of previous debates. It also helped bring the various groupings within the EU closer together around five guiding principles for relations with Russia. The pro-sanctions crowd felt reassured that the EU would stay the course on Minsk while the sanctions sceptics gained support for selective engagement with Russia.
The EU’s policy on sanctions has also received a boost by Angela Merkel, the main champion of the sanctions policy, having weathered the refugee crisis. At the beginning of the year, there was plenty of speculation that she might not survive the spring if the refugee crisis continued unabated. But the deal with Turkey has stemmed the flow of refugees into the EU, and Merkel’s position seems secure.
The backdrop to the sanctions debate has been continued poor relations with Russia. Incidents such as the recent buzzing of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea by Russian jets show that Europe’s problem with Russia is not merely about Ukraine but is a more fundamental issue about differences over the European security order. In such circumstances, arguing for an easing of sanctions becomes difficult.
Even the argument that sanctions have to be dropped for Russia to be cooperative on other issues, especially Syria, has not been borne out. A sufficient degree of compartmentalisation – from both Europe and Russia – allows sanctions to exist alongside cooperation on Syria. Russia pursues its objectives in Syria and its objectives in Ukraine and has, so far, not linked the two or tried to extract concessions in one theatre through action in another. It’s wrong to believe that dropping sanctions would mean Moscow becomes more conciliatory on, say, Assad’s future.
Finally, the other challenges Europe faces – Brexit, the refugee crisis, the EU-Turkey deal, and the euro crisis – mean that there is too much on the agenda this summer for member states to want to open up another dicey issue such as sanctions. If the Brits vote to leave the EU on 23 June, the European Council on 28-29 June will be a crisis Council of historic proportions. No one will want to have a divisive sanctions discussion at the same time. And even if the Brits vote to stay in, the other crises are likely to be back on the agenda by the end of June.
There is however the risk of contamination. Sanctions could be taken hostage by a member state to gain concessions in other areas. A hint of this was seen in December when Renzi blocked a technical rollover of the sanctions and demanded a political discussion. His move did not have much to do with the merits of sanctions, but rather his irritation with Berlin over Nordstream II and his efforts to relax EU rules on budgets. But in the end, he was satisfied with a token political discussion. This was more about making a point than being a spoiler.
One to watch is Greece since it risks being on the losing end of both the refugee crisis and euro crisis this summer. In order to counter pressure from Brussels or Berlin, Tsipras may threaten to block sanctions renewal. But this tactic is risky since it could backfire and only further alienate other member states. In the past, Athens has made vague threats on sanctions but, in the end, always followed the consensus on sanctions. Chances are that it will do the same this time too.