Germany’s deputy chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, has warned against destabilizing Russia through too severe sanctions. French President Francois Hollande said Western sanctions against Russia should be lifted if progress were made in resolving the Ukraine crisis. And Hollande expects there will be some progress in Astana. Would you say these are sings that Europe will be probably more visibly divided re Russia politics in 2015, or not and why? Read few comments.
Susan Stewart, Deputy Head, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Division, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs
I do think that there will be more visible divisions within the EU regarding the sanctions against Russia in 2015. I would say that Gabriel’s comments are more of a sign of this that Hollande’s. So far it has been consensus that if progress is made in resolving the Ukraine crisis, then sanctions will be at least partially lifted. So what Hollande has said does not seem to go beyond what has been said before, although of course there is a question about how to define “progress”. However, comments by Gabriel and some other German actors introduce another aspect, that of a potentially severe economic deterioration in Russia. The idea seems to be that sanctions should be eased because they are contributing to a developing crisis situation in the Russian economy, independent of whether progress is made regarding the situation in Ukraine or not. This could lead to less cohesion in the German position, as well as to others in the EU who are opposed to sanctions availing themselves of this argument.
Paul Ivan, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC)
Difficult to say what will happen. I don’t think these two recent declarations show that Europe will be more divided. The EU member states have different views and interested regarding Russia but they also managed to come together and agree on a common policy, which also includes costly economic sanctions. I expect to continue to see these divisions in 2015, especially when approaching the decisions to extend or not the current sanctions.
Obviously, much will depend on what happens there, in Eastern Ukraine, and on Russia’s attitude. If the war freezes, there will be calls to lift the sanctions as there will also be calls to maintain them until Russia returns the territory to Ukraine.
Jörg Forbrig, Senior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe, Director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy, German Marshall Fund
First of all, I think these statements mark an interesting next stage in the debate on sanctions against Russia over the last year. The first stage was, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea, when the EU imposed a number of personal sanctions and threatened economic ones, should Russia not help to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. Back then, opposition to sanctions was mainly led by our business lobbies that warned against the fallout for EU economies of sanctions against Russia and countersanctions by the Kremlin. That fallout never materialized. The second stage was then, after the imposition of economic sanctions in the wake of MH17, when Russia escalated the situation in Donbass. Quite a few political leaders argued that whatever the cost imposed by economic sanctions, the Kremlin would not change its course. Now, the third stage asserts that Russia is being weakened so much that it is at risk of breakdown, with unforeseeable economic and political consequences also for the EU. This is an interesting evolution of arguments from self-protection of interests to resignation before Russian aggression to fear of Russian weakness.
Second, and relatedly, each of these arguments of opponents to sanctions was based on wrong facts. The first stage overstated our economic dependency on Russia. The second ignored that without economic sanctions, Russia would likely have invaded larger territories of Ukraine by now. The third, current stage blows the impact of Western sanctions out of proportion. Russia’s finance minister publicly estimated the damage to the Russian economy by Western sanctions at $40 billion but that of the falling oil price at $100 billion, and President Putin stated that Western sanctions accounted for about 30 percent of Russia’s current economic troubles. In short, Western sanctions are not the primary problem according to the Russian leadership. Those fearing a Russian economic breakdown had better talked to the Saudis, rather than the West.
Third, nothing prevents the Kremlin from genuinely de-escalating the situation in Ukraine, and in return see Western sanctions relaxed or even lifted. Yet for a year, despite numerous warnings, talks and negotiations in various formats, Russia has only ever further escalated the crisis. This suggests that the Kremlin is willing to incur some economic cost for its political adventures, and that it estimates those costs as bearable (rather than dramatic as suggested by opponents of Western sanctions). Consequently, the Kremlin will stay its course, hoping that the oil price will recover and the Western sanctions regime falter before rising costs to Russia will force it to make political concessions to Ukraine and the West.
In this poker game, Western strategic patience and unity is paramount. Yet that unity in facing up to Russia is constantly undermined by some in the EU, and not because they have an alternative and potentially more effective policy that they propose in response to the Kremlin aggression. Instead, both Hollande and Gabriel use the issue of Russia sanctions solely to score political points before their domestic audiences. It is revealing that Gabriel warns of further sanctions at a time when no one seriously proposed such an extension, and that Hollande raises hopes for progress at the Astana talks that he has himself co-initiated. Their intention, obviously, is merely to impress publics at a time when both German social-democrats and French socialists are rather shaky. They are really concerned with Angela Merkel, not with Vladimir Putin.
Similar fissures exist, of course, in other EU countries as well and complicate a unified Russia policy of the EU. Judging from the last year though, it clearly has been possible to maintain European unity and to find a joint response. Indeed, it has been quite remarkable how unified Europe (and the West) have been in the face of Russian aggression, much to the consternation of the Kremlin that did not expect such a response. Hence, I am rather optimistic that divisions will not overtake and unity will prevail, I understand that the Chancellery here in Berlin works hard to keep Europe united, and I expect Russia to continue its aggression and to provide the West with fresh reasons not just to keep existing sanctions in place but, regrettably, to expand them even.
Sean Roberts, Lecturer in International Relations and Politics, University of Portsmouth
It looks likely that the EU will be as divided as ever over Russia in 2015, along what the Americans once called ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe lines. In very general terms, countries like France, Italy and the UK are largely dismissive of the security threat posed by Russia, while member states such as Poland, the Baltics and, increasingly, Sweden and Finland have exaggerated Russian intentions and capabilities for their own narrow agenda. Europe is schizophrenic in its relations toward Russia, without a clear set of policies and arguably lacking even a rudimentary understanding of the post-Soviet space. Perhaps a bigger reason to suspect a continuation of mixed signals from the EU is the fact that Russia is so important economically. Unless there is a quick resolution to the Ukraine crisis or a quick unravelling of the Putin regime, the pressure from vested economic interests to ease sanctions will grow. Western media have done a good job in highlighting Russia’s economic woes and (at times) overstating the impact of Western sanctions without acknowledging the EU’s own woeful economic position. In short, the EU and Russia have high levels of interdependence. It’s not just about the damage that this stand-off is having to the EU’s economy, but the fact that any significant deterioration in the Russia economy, as a result of sanctions or otherwise, will impact the EU even more. It’s a vicious circle, a lose-lose game. This makes the whole Ukraine saga puzzling and counter-productive. Instead of using Ukraine as a bridge to boost economic development between Europe and the post-Soviet space, the EU has managed to gain an indebted, corrupt and highly expectant Ukrainian market of 40 million while losing the Russian market of 140 million. Unless there is a realistic chance of regime change in Russia through sanctions, this state of affairs has to change – a fact that no doubt resonates among some (but not all) EU member states.
Florent Parmentier, Programme Director chez Sciences Po
Sanctions against Russia were a European answer to the Crimea conquest. It was probably the least the Europeans could do in such a situation – a military intervention was excluded. Yet, the Europeans have not agreed when they should step down the sanctions; it is a problem for the credibility of sanctions themselves. A new consensus will be difficult to reach: when some European officials call for giving weapons to the Ukrainian Army, others are not desirous to follow this line. Yet, if the French, German and Poles can work together on this issue, a balanced position might be acceptable for the various parties in Europe. The debate is now strong in France:, as the decision to sell the Mistrals was from Nicolas Sarkozy, it is defended by his supporters and those of the Front national (Far-right party); the debate is polarized and President Hollande should soften his position, at a time when unemployment is at a high level in France. The debate is not new vs. old Europe (even the Visegrad group is divided on this issue), but is now more complex than ever before, mixing various parameters not only based on member states.
Juliane Fürst, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Bristol
My line would be that France was never quite behind the sanctions, because Eastern Europe outside Russia has little meaning for them (note that many white emigres have come out in favor of Putin and many of them are in France). Also remember that battle ship France wanted to sell and only reluctantly withdrew. The key to everything is once again Germany. If Germany were united, it could probably drag everybody with them, but given the divisions within Germany – see Pegida’s support for Russia – and the historical complexities associated with the Russian/Ukrainian crisis – everybody can hope that Germany will go their way. So yes, with the fault lines in Germany becoming harsher and harsher (Russia question via Pegida linked to immigration and EU issues), Europe will seem less united too. However, there is also a matter of perception. Hollande seems to imply that no further aggression is progress, while Merkel still insists that only a reversal of certain things – most notably the quasi-miliatry dictatorship in eastern Ukraine – could be considered progress. Interestingly Crimea seems to have been accepted as lost by everybody even though human right concerns vis-a-vis Tartars could reopen that question. Again historical background is important here. France feels no guilt vis-a-vis Eastern Europe. Germany does and is hence more concerned about the right of these states to exist. Finally, Germany is simply closer to it all, geographically speaking.