Did Juncker get too cozy with Russia?

EC President Juncker said that Russia had to make huge advances, but we must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia and that we can’t let our relationship with Russia be dictated by Washington. Do you think the mood in the EU may shift towards abolishing the sanctions against Russia? Read few comments.

Derek Averre, Senior Lecturer in Russian Foreign and Security Policy, University of Birmingham

Juncker’s comments will be welcome in Moscow, which also sees the future in terms of a more pragmatic relationship and points out that Europe has a very different perception of Russia from Washington. Chancellor Merkel has led European foreign policy on the Ukraine conflict and has held the line of sanctions on Russia; however, as time goes on she is under pressure from other EU member states and indeed from some constituencies within Germany, who are unhappy about long-term sanctions. There are signs that Russia wants an end to the conflict but a big problem is that Moscow is proving very intransigent and it is difficult to talk to its leaders – this may reflect divisions within Russia’s governing elite. At the moment the conflict has abated to an extent but the political settlement process – which Moscow insists must rigorously stick to the Minsk-2 Agreements – is moving very slowly and may reignite; and the Crimea question remains, with no prospect of Russia returning it to Ukrainian sovereignty.

Juliane Fürst, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, University of Bristol

I would say that the EU has always been split about sanctions in the first place – both between nations and even within nations. The further East the more vociferous the voices for sanctions – exception Hungary, which has its own peculiar reasons to be in a strange quasi-mental alliance with Russia. Key is as always Merkel. As long as she is committed to sanctions – and all signs seem to suggest she is – I think Europe will more or less toe the line. But it is a very fragile agreement. Ironically a lot will depend on what is happening in Syria. If Putin unleashes a new stream of refugees, countries like Hungary might want sanctions on him for very different reasons. Russia is very much on the brink of becoming an international pariah. At the moment things can still turn out either way. But Putin is by now fighting on many fronts.

Tomas JaneliūnasAssociate Professor at Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

This invitation by Mr. Junker to improve relations with Russia and be more pragmatic deserves a regret only. It is exactly what Russia expects – to put aside all Russia’s faults, breaking of international law, aggression, and annexation of Crimea and to return to “business as usual”. Did Russia change it’s politics or attitude’s towards neighboring countries? Did it declare and prove more peaceful behavior recently? Of course, nothing even near of it. In such circumstances there are no reason to reward Russia with any softer politics from the EU side. I can only hope that this comment by Mr. Junker is not related with a proposals from Russia to build another Nord Stream pipeline (Nord Stream 2) because this would be the worst example of lobby interests winning over the moral obligations of the EU. And I hope Mr. Junker will not become “Schroder the Second”, serving Russia’s interest in Europe.

Susan Stewart, Deputy Head, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Division, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs

There have always been numerous voices in the EU – among both the political and the economic elites – which supported weakening or even abolishing the sanctions. Of course if Juncker makes Russia-friendly comments this carries some weight, but it does not yet imply a change in course on sanctions. The EU has committed itself in written documents to keeping the sanctions until the Minsk agreements are completely fulfilled, and it will not be so easy to back away from this line. It could be more feasible to enhance cooperation with Russia in areas unrelated to the sanctions. I believe that the way this debate develops will depend on how constructive Russia is perceived to be in the Syria crisis, as well as how things go in the Donbas. The role Russia is seen to play in getting the Minsk agreements implemented will be crucial, as will the perception in the EU of whether or not Ukraine is contributing to their implementation as much as it can. Still, Juncker’s comments are disturbing, because they sound as though he has adopted the Russian discourse about treating Russia as an equal and not allowing the US to dictate policy on Russia.

Marek Menkiszak, Head, Russian Department, Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW)

Generally I think these statements reflect moods in part of Europe. For example they somehow echo various remarks made by vice-chancelor of Germany Sigmar Gabriel or Italian PM Matteo Renzi or PM of Hungary Victor Orban. It’s a matter of consensus that we would prefer having good, pragmatic relations with Russia but it was Russia’s choice, not ours, to invade neighbouring European country and occupy more than 7 % of its territory. So we (EU) were forced to react properly to such grave violation of basis of international law and European order. I am aware that some governments among member states, partly due to the pressure of some business lobbies, are interested in putting mutual sanctions between the EU and Russia to an end, especially those of economic nature. There are people in Europe, also among politicians, who would like to return to “business as usual” with Russia. But we have to remember that even if Russia (and separatists in Donbas who are fully controlled by Moscow) made recently some gestures towards deescalation of the conflict, occupation of part of Ukraine continues as well as Russia’s military, economic and political support for separatists.

Russia, due to its worsening economic situation, to which Western sanctions contributed only slightly, obviously started prioritizing normalization of its relation with the EU and starting the process of relaxation of western sanctions over reaching its strategic goals in Ukraine fast. These goals, I believe, haven’t change. Moscow strive for the strategic control over whole Ukraine, influencing both its internal and external policies, blocking any kind of European-oriented integration of Ukraine and essentially bringing Ukraine into Russia’s self-declared sphere of influence. Moscow realized achieving that goals will take more time and it preferred now using political, diplomatic, economic and energy instruments rather than military ones to achieve these in mid-to long-term perspective.

I believe it would be a strategic mistake of the EU if consensus over another roll-over of economic sanctions – to be decided in December – is to be broken. Especially while all know that implementation of Minsk accords are not possible in previously agreed time frame, even if Moscow would have a good will to do that. We shouldn’t be trapped in Russia’s blame game towards Ukraine.

On the contrary, relative weakness of Russia, due to its economic crisis, increases chances that economic pressure of the EU (by the sanction regime) will be forcing Moscow to fulfill gradually its (meaning also separatists’) obligations towards Minsk accords. In that context full withdrawal of the Russian forces, so-called volunteers and military equipment from Donbas, securing truly free and fair local elections there in safe environment as well as bringing back Ukraine’s full control of its Eastern border are essential. If these are fulfilled we may consider gradual lifting of sanctions. But Crimea-related sanctions should be still in place until Crimea remains under Russian occupation.

Finally, we should remember: there will be no safe Europe until the current regime, which continues anti-European course of internal development and adventurous foreign policy, stays in Moscow. We are not able to change that as it is up to the Russian people but we shouldn’t support and help to prolong that regime and even reward it by giving up our economic levers. We should help Ukraine to perform successful transformation based on European norms and standards instead as it will provide Russia with alternative model and create incentive for positive change in Russia in a long term perspective.

And Obviously Juncker’s comments reveal once again a problem of growing anti-Americanism in part of Europe’s elites and societies.This is precisely what Russian propaganda (as RT) aims for and utilizing. Moscow tries hard to drive a wedge between the EU and US suggesting that Europe has to “free itself” from US’s influence and build “Greater Europe” with Russia instead.

Orysia LutsevychManager, Ukraine Forum, Chatham House

I read two important messages. 1) Europe should have its own strategy and policy towards Russia. And I agree that this is very important, despite all the difficulties in finding a common denominator among all EU member states. Second, is that we need to still talk with Russia. This talk could deliver difference messages, not necessarily towards appeasement or reconciliation. Officially, EU sanctions are locked with the implementation of Minsk II, which would mean Ukraine’s control over its Eastern border. Until this happens, I hardly see solid arguments for softening the sanction.

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