A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Elmar BrokChair of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Having good relations is in the interests of both the EU and Russia; this is crucial for securing peace and stability in Europe. It is clear, however, that good relations are possible only in compliance with international law, which is a principle for internal cooperation in Europe. Consequently, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements is indispensable. Only then can the EU lift the sanctions imposed in view of Russia’s actions to destabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine. The restrictive measures in response to Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, including the city of Sevastopol, will be suspended once the peninsula is returned to Ukraine.
The duration of the sanctions is therefore linked to Russia fulfilling the Minsk agreements. Regrettably, this was not achieved by the initial deadline of December 31, 2015. While it is Russia’s turn to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders, it is the responsibility of all parties concerned to work on the implementation of the Minsk accords. Therefore, it is important to maintain dialogue with Russia and—if and when the Minsk agreements are fulfilled—to offer prospects for EU-Russia relations.
Piotr BurasHead of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations
The rollover of the EU sanctions on Russia in July 2016 seems certain, and recent noises from German Social Democratic Party grandees Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier do not change much. Well-informed sources maintain that this summer, no EU member state intends to break the consensus among the 28 countries that links sanctions to the implementation of the Minsk II agreement to end the war in eastern Ukraine. Also, Moscow seems to have priced in a prolongation of the sanctions until the end of 2016.
However, the economic impact of the sanctions on the EU is only one reason to expect some wobbling in the fall. The signals from Berlin are telling in that respect. Germany sees the use of sanctions in the first place as an instrument to advance the political Minsk process, not as a tool to punish Russia. This is Steinmeier’s message.
But what to do if the process has stalled? If there is effectively a frozen conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region with no agreement in sight, the temptation to ease the sanctions or change their philosophy will become stronger. The EU will then have to square the circle and define its concrete conditions for lifting the sanctions when full implementation of Minsk II is very unlikely to happen. The EU’s unity may start fraying then.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Centre
There are a few wobblies, but Europe has been remarkably united in imposing and maintaining sanctions against Russia in the wake of its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Given Russia’s traditional and ongoing efforts to divide and rule, the sanctions have been a major success for the EU. The measures are also biting, so this is not the time to let up. G7 leaders made this clear at their May 26–27 summit in Japan, as did European Council President Donald Tusk in his press conference at the same meeting.
Russian action in Ukraine was a flagrant violation of international law, and the sanctions imposed by the EU were the least that could be done. The way forward is quite clear: fully implement the Minsk agreements on ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the sanctions will be lifted. The EU cannot retreat from this position.
Knut FleckensteinVice chair of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament
The EU’s sanctions on Russia were adopted in response to Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and its political destabilization of eastern Ukraine, which involved military support for so-called separatists.
Neither the EU nor its transatlantic partners wanted to engage militarily in this conflict. However, there was broad agreement that Russia’s transgression of basic principles of peace, security, and cooperation on the European continent could not go unsanctioned. Therefore, restrictive measures and sanctions—in the diplomatic and economic fields—emerged as the only means to counter Russia’s actions and to try to bring the country back to more constructive behavior.
The EU has tied its sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements aimed at resolving the conflict. In doing so, the EU has clearly communicated its expectations. Lifting the sanctions without any substantial progress on the Minsk accords would mean putting at risk what little has been achieved so far.
The EU cannot be satisfied with the slow implementation of the Minsk agreements. EU policymakers should therefore discuss a step-by-step approach for lifting the sanctions depending on progress on the Minsk accords. The clear priority must be that Ukraine regains full control of its eastern border.
Stefan MeisterHead of the Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia Program at the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations
There are many different voices in the EU member states who question the effect of the EU’s sanctions against Russia and argue that they should be lifted as soon as possible. There is also a growing impression that relations with Russia are too important, that other crises in Europe and the Middle East are too challenging, and that the EU needs to fix at least this problem.
But this is an illusion, because the Ukraine conflict and the crisis with Russia will not go away if the EU eases or lifts the sanctions. It might alienate Ukrainian society from the EU even more than the April 6 referendum in which voters in the Netherlands rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. At the same time, the Russian leadership will not give up its main sources of legitimacy—its conflict with the West and its description of the EU as a failed institution.
The question is: What weakens the EU more, lifting the sanctions with an incomplete implementation of the Minsk II agreement to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, or facing the ongoing destruction of a united EU approach toward Russia? Both are attractive to the Kremlin. At the moment, the impression is that it is more interesting for Russian President Vladimir Putin to endure the sanctions and see European politicians outpace each other to chum up to him. If that goes on, the EU’s cohesion and credibility will reach a new low.
Amanda PaulSenior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre
The EU cannot afford to wobble, because Moscow will interpret any lack of resolve over the bloc’s sanctions on Russia as a sign of weakness. This will result in Russia boosting its already-considerable efforts to target the EU’s weakest links. Undermining the EU’s sanctions policy is a priority for the Kremlin in its ultimate goal of weakening the EU and its role in the shared neighborhood.
There are no grounds for lifting the sanctions. The condition that the EU attached to ending the measures—full implementation of the Minsk agreements aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine—has not been met. While some member states would like to go back to business as usual with Russia, at the same time there is broad recognition of what it would mean to break unity on the sanctions. Such a move would not only further undermine the EU’s credibility at a time when its image as a values-based actor has been harmed by its sorrowful response to the refugee crisis, but it would also give the impression that the EU accepts the Russian concept of spheres of influence.
Europe needs to play the long game on sanctions, maintaining unity and a readiness to formulate quick response to new challenges.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Yes, but it has been wobbling since day one. German and Italian companies lobbied Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hard, hoping for a quick end to the very unpopular sanctions. The Italian business press is awash with frenzied figures: “Anti-Russian sanctions have already cost Italian companies . . .” and then an ever-growing string of zeroes—millions, then billions.
Prominent politicians and columnists left, right, and center keep arguing that the right way is to engage Russian President Vladimir Putin, not to isolate him. European public opinion—discombobulated by populist war cries from France’s Marine Le Pen, the UK’s Nigel Farage, Italy’s Beppe Grillo, and their assorted foot soldiers—does not dislike Putin. He is considered a strongman. His manners may not be suited for a think tank seminar, but his bulging muscles do have a brutally macho appeal. U.S. President Barack Obama, nuanced, gentle, and cerebral, receives kudos from the educated enclaves, but the angry, populist crowds eschew his Hamletic doubts.
So not much stands between the Kremlin and the lifting of sanctions. Just one woman, Angela Merkel. She has single-handedly enforced the sanctions as a stern sign of a late European moral standing. She has to hold on until November, when the United States will vote for a new head of state. Then Merkel may have the support of the first female U.S. president or, if the other guy wins, her last stand will crumble in a matter of months.
Ulrich SpeckSenior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy
Yes, Europe is wobbling over the sanctions on Russia, but it’s going to hold the line—for now.
A tough policy toward Russia was never strongly supported by a majority of political forces in Europe. It was open Russian military aggression that forced the EU into imposing serious sanctions. Europeans had almost no choice in this matter as long as Russia was militarily advancing in Ukraine, unwilling to engage in serious diplomacy.
As Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region moves toward a frozen conflict, there is a growing unwillingness to keep a tough line against Russia. But the economic and financial sanctions are officially linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements—that is, Ukraine regaining control of its border—a condition that has been endorsed by the 28 EU member states and by the United States.
Many Europeans feel deep unease about the tensions with Russia. Some are attracted by economic advantages offered by the Kremlin, others are afraid of a military escalation. Moscow is playing with both groups, using carrots and sticks skillfully.
As a consequence, the pressure is rising to remove the sanctions, even if Russia is doing nothing to honor the Minsk agreements, either in deed or in spirit.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Europe is wobbling but is likely to maintain its sanctions regime on Russia until the end of 2016. It must be kept in mind that the imposition of sanctions is an EU policy and not a member state decision, so that while a number of states may prefer to reduce or even eliminate the current measures, individual countries are unlikely to be able to break with the broader consensus.
Germany remains the key national player. Although a recent decision to move ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to link Germany and Russia is a cause for concern, it will not cause German Chancellor Angela Merkel to change her position that sanctions can be removed only with the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. That means the government of Ukraine must regain control of its border with Russia.
The year 2017 is likely to see some further slippage in the implementation of the EU’s sanctions, but the United States will continue to keep its sanctions policy—barring a reversal by the administration of a president Donald Trump—and U.S. sanctions will limit the extent that European measures can be lifted in practice. The less onerous sanctions on Crimea are likely to remain.
The bigger challenge for the West will be to maintain support for Ukraine’s economic and political development during a time of increasing Ukraine fatigue. This will have a greater policy impact than the sanctions regime.