Europe’s shaky resolve over extending economic sanctions against Russia, combined with a U.S. president-elect weighing warmer ties with the Kremlin, should spell the end of the penalties tied to Russian encroachment in Ukraine, right? Wrong, say European Union insiders.
The future of the bloc’s sanctions against Russia will hang over an EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels on Nov. 24 as Donald Trump makes inroads with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and puts in place a new American foreign-policy team.
With the penalties due to expire on Jan. 31, EU governments are likely to prolong the measures for another six months because the main condition set for lifting them — full respect of a pact aimed at ending the Ukrainian war — has yet to be met, according to five European officials who are familiar with the confidential deliberations and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. A sixth official went as far as to exclude any other scenario.
Since Putin annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March 2014 and lent support to rebels in eastern Ukraine, the EU has imposed a package of penalties that include a ban on share or bond sales by state-owned Russian businesses such as Sberbank PJSC and curbs on technologies for the energy and arms industries in Russia.
Steered by a German-French alliance and emboldened by similar U.S. measures under Barack Obama, the 28-nation bloc mustered the unanimity needed to introduce the penalties in July 2014 for a year, expand them two months later and renew them three times for six months each.
During this two-and-a-half year period, a group of sanctions-skeptical EU nations including Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Hungary has bowed to pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Obama for western unity vis-a-vis Putin and refrained from exercising their veto power.
Growing awareness in European capitals of Russian disinformation, financing of foreign political parties and military threats has been a galvanizing force and helped to keep the lukewarm EU governments on board, according to one of the officials. So too has deeper Russian involvement in the Syrian war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, said the official.
Ukraine was the focus of some of Trump’s most controversial comments about foreign policy as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. In a television interview in late July, more than two years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he said Putin is “not going into Ukraine.” Trump also said that he would “take a look” at recognizing the Russian territorial takeover and that, were he to become American president, “we’ll have a better relationship with Russia.”
As EU governments wait for Trump to clarify his intentions, European capitals haven’t been shy about pressing him to uphold the current U.S. and European stance while stressing the value of keeping communication channels with Moscow open.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said that while it’s understandable for the American president to seek a dialogue with Russia, “international law mustn’t be broken.” European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini echoed the point, saying “the European Union has a very principled position on the illegal annexation of Crimea and the situation in Ukraine. This is not going to change regardless of possible shifts in others’ policies.”
Obama weighed in on the matter last week while speaking in Berlin with Merkel, who announced on Sunday she would seek a fourth term as German chancellor. He urged Trump to “stand up” to Putin and not to “simply take a ‘realpolitik’ approach.”
Beyond this, sticking to the sanctions gives EU governments a chance to show Trump their own sacrifices and leadership after he questioned whether European members of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization were contributing enough to it.
The western sanctions have cost European businesses 10 to 11 times more than U.S. ones, according to internal EU estimates that link the damage mainly to a Russian retaliatory ban on food imports and a recession in the country.
European officials are unsure whether the question of renewing the economic sanctions will make its way onto the agenda of the next meeting of EU leaders on Dec. 15-16. A draft summit agenda late last week included the point. To date, the political consensus underpinning the measures has generally enabled their extension to be pushed through by Brussels-based EU and national diplomats without higher-level debates — a process that has narrowed Russia’s room to sow divisions in the bloc.
In any case, with Trump not due to take office until Jan. 20 and all the main European political actors still in place, any EU summit involvement this time would probably end up highlighting Europe’s commitment to the penalties, according to the officials.