John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Moscow’s actions in Syria are set to harden the EU’s position on sanctions over Ukraine. The EU should take this opportunity to make them more effective.
Vladimir Putin talks to media following the 8th BRICS summit. Photo by Getty Images.Putin’s efforts to seek relaxation of EU sanctions and his aim to achieve irreversible facts on the ground in Syria ahead of the US election are in conflict. Photo by Getty Images.

Moscow’s timing is remarkable. Ahead of a European Council discussion on Thursday that was widely expected to show further indications of a fraying EU consensus on sanctions, Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo has seen it labelled as a pariah state amid accusations that it has committed war crimes.  

In this context, EU member states will be unable to contemplate lifting sectoral sanctions against Russia over Ukraine that are in place until the end of January next year.

Russia’s recent behaviour in Syria has already led some EU governments to consider personal sanctions against members of the Russian government responsible for the bombings. It has also brought about a recent sharp deterioration of Russia’s relations with Paris in particular. Russia’s blocking of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria tabled by France led to the postponement of Putin’s visit to France planned for Wednesday. The visit had been widely expected to increase momentum for the relaxation of sanctions.

The Russian leadership wants EU sanctions lifted for two reasons. First, because they are causing damage – Western sanctions are already estimated to have cost Russian economy $280 billion in capital inflows and to be creating a roughly 0.5% annual contraction of GDP.

Second, because they offer an opportunity for Moscow to try split the EU on the issue and, in the process, undermine solidarity between the US and Europe on policy towards Russia. This has the potential to weaken the consensus in NATO on how to respond to Russia’s willingness to use military force to achieve its goals.

Instead, the European Council’s discussion on Russia is unlikely to result in any change to EU policy towards Russia. This policy is heavily focused on upholding the principle of Ukraine’s territorial integrity while incentivising Russia to moderate its behaviour. Since 2014, the EU has suspended its policy dialogues with Russia and adopted a set of sectoral sanctions measures targeting a number of state financial institutions and energy companies to discourage the destabilization of Ukraine. Mirroring US sanctions, from March 2015 their focus shifted to encouraging Moscow’s compliance with the Minsk Agreements. It has also imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 146 individuals deemed responsible for undermining Ukraine’s independence.

It appears that, for all the difficulty in responding to the multiple challenges posed by Russia in Europe and the Middle East, Moscow is creating increasing dilemmas for itself. In this situation, EU leaders need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture beyond sanctions.

The combination of economic stagnation, declining living standards, growing authoritarianism and the manifest inability of the current leadership to offer any vision of reform amid growing confrontation with the West is likely to exacerbate intra-elite tensions and create increasing pressure from within for a change of course. 

The challenge facing the West is to reduce the current dangers of the Kremlin’s pursuit of confrontation in response to weakness at home, and encourage Russia back on to a reform path. This will require identifying areas in which both sides have an interest in dialogue while maintaining levers of pressure.

To keep the sanctions policy effective, it will be essential to de-couple sectoral sanctions targeting state financial institutions and energy companies from the Minsk process and re-cast them as an instrument to constrain aggressive behaviour Russian towards Ukraine and other countries in the common neighbourhood. 

It is time to recognize that the Minsk Agreements cannot be implemented because of Moscow’s determination to use the process to make the West extract concessions from Ukraine that the Ukrainian government cannot give. In the absence of the return of the border with Russia to Ukrainian control, it is politically impossible for Kyiv to adopt legislation giving devolved powers to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk currently under the control of Russian-backed insurgents. Ukrainians did not fight a war that cost over 10,000 lives to surrender sovereignty over this part of the country to Russian proxies.

To show serious intent towards Russia, the EU also needs to be prepared to increase the targeting of individuals responsible for and contributing to the conduct of policies designed to destabilise the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.

These should include all senior civilian and military officials in occupied Crimea, the heads of Russian state media as well as editors, news presenters and reporters engaged in state propaganda operations designed to provide falsified reporting of western policies towards Russia and neighbouring countries.

The state media’s Orwellian programme to misinform Russians about the West and its behaviour towards Russia has not just caused damage to Russia’s relations with Europe that will take decades to repair. It is also artificially prolonging the life of a regime whose efforts to preserve its rule at home are creating increasing security problems for Europe as a whole. The UK’s decision to freeze the bank accounts of RT is a first and long overdue step in this direction.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Putin’s efforts to seek relaxation of EU sanctions and his aim to achieve irreversible facts on the ground in Syria ahead of the US election are in conflict. The West should take advantage of Russia’s lack of a joined-up strategy to develop its own.

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