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.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform
The statement on Syria by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on October 17 was full of strong rhetoric and empty of substance. The actions of Russia and Syria against the wretched civilians of eastern Aleppo in recent weeks, including attacks on hospitals, are of course the responsibility of those who carry out the bombings; but Western inaction must share the blame.
Stepping up sanctions against both Russia and Syria is the minimum that the West should now do, but the EU has failed to do it. If Russia suffers no penalty for supporting a government that carries out atrocities and faces no consequences for its forces violating international humanitarian law, what chance is there of progress toward a political settlement in Syria?
The EU and the United States should work together to identify Russians with command responsibility for operations in Syria. They should impose financial and visa sanctions on them, but they should also start collecting evidence that could be used in war crimes trials at a later date. And they should fund open-source research into social media posts and mass media reporting to find out which Russian units or individuals have been involved in operations against civilian targets or using banned munitions. There should be no impunity.
Perry CammackAssociate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program
Only as part of a sustained, comprehensive approach.
International sanctions can be a powerful tool (see the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, 2013–2015). Too often, though, they reflect policy incoherence (see U.S. policy on Cuba, 1960–2009). Russia constitutes a significant but surmountable threat to global norms. To be effective in response, additional sanctions would need to translate Russian economic pain into Western diplomatic leverage. This requires several ingredients.
First, a wide-ranging approach by Washington and Brussels must isolate Russia for its intransigence in Syria and elsewhere; build NATO’s capacities to respond to emerging threats, such as cyberwarfare; and make clear that interference in transatlantic domestic politics will trigger appropriate retaliatory responses.
Second, forget regime change or a reversal of Moscow’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. The West needs realistic objectives, such as deterring Russian interference and leveraging a diplomatic process in Syria.
Third, Moscow must believe that any sanctions regime is sufficiently malleable that modifications in Russian policy will be met by a recalibration of economic pressures.
Fourth, with U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump expressing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin the man and for Putinism as a governing philosophy, a tougher posture against Russia is possible only if Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is elected U.S. president.
John LoughAssociate fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House
Yes. The West needs to send a strong signal to the Russian leadership that its behavior in Syria and its intransigence in Ukraine are unacceptable. Sanctions are a tool for doing this—albeit a potentially double-edged one because the Kremlin can use economic sanctions to justify to the population its view of Russia as a besieged fortress under attack from the West. Personal sanctions are therefore a preferable route.
There are strong grounds for expanding sanctions to target key individuals in the Russian propaganda effort designed to misinform both domestic and foreign audiences about Western goals and behavior toward Russia. This is consolidating support for a system and set of policies that are becoming increasingly dangerous and threatening to Western security interests.
The United States and the EU should move together to impose asset freezes and travel bans on the heads of state media organizations as well as editors, presenters, and reporters involved in official disinformation efforts.
In the case of the bombing of civilians in Aleppo, the West needs to present evidence of Russian involvement and on that basis sanction relevant decisionmakers and military officials.
Nevertheless, sanctions must not become a substitute for a broader strategy to deal with Russia.
Bruno MaçãesNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe
U.S. policy on Syria has been entirely discombobulated. The Russian problem was created by successive errors of judgment by the United States. Remember that the Russian intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, was welcomed and applauded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the time. Right now, the best course would be to try to correct those errors and adopt a more active policy.
Sanctions against Moscow have the long-term goal of moving the balance of power in Russia’s disfavor. They would do nothing to address an urgent military, political, and humanitarian situation in Syria. An important difference between the cases of Syria and Ukraine is that the Ukrainian army has been a constant source of pressure on Russia. No such counterpoise exists in Syria at the moment.
Sanctions in the context of Syria are yet another way to evade the real problem: Washington’s reticence to exercise its considerable power and Europe’s absence from the great global questions.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
No. It has been quite a miracle, but Europe has—so far, at least—managed to remain united vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Many lobby groups, German industrialists, French and Italian farmers, and right- and left-wing anti-Americans have been pushing to halt the current sanctions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has used his propaganda tools magnificently, and Russia is now more popular in Europe than one could have imagined when the Berlin Wall tumbled down in 1989.
If indeed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is going to be elected U.S. president in November, Putin will face a much more hawkish White House. Dodging the cerebral U.S. President Barack Obama has been a ball for Putin, like a boxer trying to wrestle a chess master. If the United States challenges Russia again, then Europe could play the good guy in the Western world’s version of bad cop, good cop. Of course, if Republican candidate Donald Trump wins the election, the Europeans will have to deal with a Russian quisling in America. Ouch!
Eugeniusz SmolarSenior fellow and member of the Board of the Center of International Relations in Warsaw
Yes. There has been no change in Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, so the reasons for the introduction of current sanctions remain. What is more, the West should extend the measures.
Through its March 2014 annexation of Crimea and direct involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has been attempting not only to subjugate Ukraine and other sovereign states in the post-Soviet region but also to destroy the post-1945 rules-based order in Europe. Under the slogan of indivisible security, Russia is trying to gain the right to decide about the basis of security in Europe by force. The Kremlin strives to foment disunity in the EU by using all levers of influence: from massive mendacious propaganda and support for anti-EU populist movements to the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. More recently, one can add to that list a shocking disregard for human lives in Syria.
Russia cannot be allowed to achieve its objectives. That means the West should impose more sanctions on Russia. Existing measures are limited in scope and cannot influence the conduct of the rulers in the Kremlin. But sanctions are as much about Western interests and values as well as the foundations of future relations with Russia as about Russia itself. Sanctions are necessary as a potent symbol of the West’s condemnation of Russia’s behavior.
Ulrich SpeckSenior research fellow at the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute
Joint EU-U.S. sanctions against Russia would signal to the Kremlin that the West disapproves of the way Russia conducts its war in Syria, that Western countries are united in this disapproval, and that the West is ready to impose at least some costs on Russia.
If such unity among EU member states and the United States emerges, and if everybody agrees to escalate the sanctions if Russia continues its devastating attacks on Aleppo, Western leaders will be able to send a serious warning to Russia.
To what extent such a warning might influence Russia’s conduct of its war in Syria is impossible to know. But it is at least possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin would conclude that the cost of a second serious break with the West would be too high and that he would be inclined to accept a compromise in Syria. The West should give sanctions a try.
Susan StewartSenior associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
Sanctions imposed as a result of Russian actions in Ukraine have sent a crucial signal to Russia about the unacceptable nature of those actions and have negatively affected specific individuals and enterprises (although others have indirectly profited). Sanctions have not led to desired changes in Russian behavior, however, and there is no reason to believe that they would in Syria either.
Furthermore, in the Ukrainian case, sanctions were embedded in a larger strategy that included support to Ukraine and continued dialogue with Russia. The discussion on sanctions regarding Syria seems to be triggered primarily by frustration and a sense of helplessness, rather than oriented toward developing a strategy consisting of various mutually reinforcing elements. This makes it unlikely that sanctions will play a coherent and effective role.
Because Russia is problematic on many fronts, it would make sense to devote less time to discussing sanctions and more to devising ways to address major issues without Russian participation. If Russian leaders are not willing to play a constructive role, they should be shown that others are increasingly inclined to work without and around them.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
It is more important to hold to current sanctions on Russia than to add new ones.
There is already a good deal of unhappiness in some EU member states about the present sanctions regime, so introducing new measures would only open the door to a rejection of both new and current sanctions. The EU should rather extend the existing sanctions for a longer period than the current six months, either to one year or indefinitely. Forcing the EU to decide whether to renew the sanctions every six months just creates more opportunities to loosen the measures without any real change in the Russian position on Ukraine.
The discussion of new sanctions for Russia’s behavior in Syria should be an opportunity for the West to realize that the policy of compartmentalizing Russian actions in Syria from those in Ukraine is now dead—as are any real prospects of serious Russian efforts to resolve either conflict peacefully. This is bad news, but that is the reality the West will confront for a rather long period of time.