As soon as Angela Merkel returned from her summer vacation, the German chancellor was on the telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Russia invaded Crimea and annexed the peninsula last March, Merkel has spoken to the Russian president at least 30 times. With each conversation, Merkel’s position has hardened. Her vote was crucial to the European Union’s decision to impose a batch of much tougher sanctions in early August.

Even though Putin has retaliated by banning a wide selection of European food products, from Norwegian fish to Polish apples, Merkel has stood firm. Not only that. Merkel is threatening further sanctions if the Kremlin does not change its policy toward Ukraine.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Germany has the most to lose from the sanctions. Its 6,000 companies working in Russia understand the costs of the sanctions. Yet Merkel has taken the view that it is no longer possible to return to “business as usual” with Russia.

She is right about that. Putin has challenged the post–Cold War order by invading a sovereign country. As if that was not bad enough, he has also consistently supported the rebels who downed a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight on July 17.

The problem is that several European leaders do not share Merkel’s view. Paradoxically, these countries are among those occupied by the Red Army after 1945 and remained under Communist rule until 1989.

Over the past few days, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia have criticized the EU’s sanctions against Russia.

Miloš Zeman, the Czech president, told Czech Television on August 13 that all sanctions are nonsensical and ineffective. That can be disputed: in the case of South Africa, for instance, sanctions did contribute to the end of the apartheid regime even though it took a very long time. Sanctions, in the end, precipitated change from within.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has forged close ties with Putin, also criticized the sanctions. “The EU shot itself in the foot with Russian sanctions,” he said. Linas Linkevičius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, was quick to reply: “Better to shoot in the foot rather than led to be shot in the head,” he wrote on Facebook.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico also said EU sanctions against Russia were nonsensical. Fico (and Zeman) also opposes any motion to have NATO transfer troops or bases to the alliance’s Eastern members.

At least Slovakia’s president, Andrej Kiska, challenged Fico, arguing that the EU has to put values before interests. “Sanctions can bring us a certain economic loss but we must be prepared to accept this loss,” he said. “Business interests must not stand above the fundamental values of freedom and democracy.”

Forging a strong consensus among 28 EU states is always difficult. This is why Russia, as well as other nondemocratic countries, has been able to play EU countries off against each other. The Ukraine crisis is no different, except for one major shift: Merkel has been as tough as possible in her dealings with Putin. And that has influenced the EU’s policy toward Russia.

In Germany itself, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats—Merkel’s coalition partners—has all but abandoned his party’s belief in the policy of Ostpolitik, in which closer engagement with Russia would eventually lead to a more open economic and political system.

There are, of course, Social Democrats who still believe in such engagement, regardless of Russia’s behavior. But even Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who hosted a meeting of French, Russian, and Ukrainian foreign ministers on August 17 in Berlin, knows how wide the gap of understanding is between him and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart.

Yet European leaders had better accept that sanctions will take time to bite. As long as Putin enjoys the widest possible support from the Russian public, he is unlikely to be deterred by sanctions. Change has to come from within, from an awareness both of the increasing risks and costs of continuing down Putin’s road and the benefits of changing direction.

But if sanctions aren’t suited to provide a quick fix, developing a strategy focused on strengthening Russia’s neighbors becomes all the more urgent. Germany, along with Poland and the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, needs to focus much more on Eastern Europe, with full support from the incoming European Commission and EU foreign policy chief.

This is the time for the EU and European leaders to cease looking at Eastern Europe through a Russian lens and grasp that fundamental change in the region is going to be long and difficult. It will require sustained political and economic attention by the EU until serious reforms and democratization take hold in the region.

It’s not as if the EU doesn’t have enough experience of Central Europe and the Balkans to know how long it takes to develop a vibrant political culture, overcome endemic corruption, and counteract Russia’s influence. In this context, Germany’s role is crucial. Angela Merkel has proven her leadership by holding firm against Putin. Now, her initiative is needed for the EU to develop a strategy for the East.