Putin Tests European Resolve on Ukraine With His Syria Move

Why Is Russia Pulling Out of Syria?
  • Withdrawal could splinter EU unity on sanctions over Ukraine
  • EU leaders have always sought to separate the two conflicts

European officials have insisted there’s no link between the sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine and the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria.

Russia’s move to scale back military support for President Bashar al-Assad is about to test that resolve.

The influx of millions of refugees fueling political turmoil, threatening the passport-free travel zone and even shaping the debate over whether Britain should leave the European Union, has made Syria’s five-year civil war a critical issue for the bloc’s leaders. While Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s calls for a detente with Russia have so far failed to win much support, the prospect of a Syria settlement may add weight to his argument.

“Russia is playing a very smart game,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the school of government at Luiss University in Rome. “Italy would not be the only one who would have an interest in supporting Putin. Germany would have an interest too because of the refugee issue.”

EU governments on Tuesday welcomed Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian forces will begin withdrawing from Syria, but held off judging its consequences because none know just how far the Russian president is prepared to go and what effect the move will have on peace talks getting under way in Geneva.

Skeptical Europeans

U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons in London Tuesday that a “genuine” move by Putin toward ending the conflict would be welcomed.

“But, as in all matters related to Russia, it is the actions rather than the words that count,” he said. “We shall be watching carefully.”

After Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader fled in 2014, Putin said that he wouldn’t annex the Black Sea outpost of Crimea and continued to deny Russian troops were operating on the Ukrainian territory after they had taken control.

A first group of planes that were in Syria, including Su-34 bombers, have already returned to bases in Russia and troops are “loading equipment, logistics items and inventory into transport” planes at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said Tuesday on Twitter, less than a day after Putin’s announcement caught world leaders by surprise. The Russian air base and a naval facility in Syria will continue to function.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a Russian withdrawal would add to the pressure on Assad to negotiate a peaceful exit “if it materializes,” while Romain Nadal, spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said that if Putin makes good on his word “then it would be a positive development.”

Sanctions on Russia

German and French officials have always said there’s no link between the EU sanctions imposed over Ukraine and other issues with Russia, such as the war in Syria and nuclear negotiations with Iran. The officials also say that Russia has never sought to link the issues.

The U.S. also rejected any link between Russia’s new, conciliatory tone in Syria and the sanctions over Ukraine.

“Everybody knows exactly what needs to be done for those sanctions to be either rolled back or removed entirely,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington Tuesday. “And there is no ambiguity about that, and they relate directly to Russia following through” on its commitments under a peace accord signed in Minsk, Belarus in February 2015.

The sanctions, aimed at pushing Russia toward restraining separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, have been renewed several times by all 28 EU governments, with skeptical nations such as Italy, Greece and Hungary yielding to calls from the likes of Germany, Britain, Poland and the U.S. for a united front.

With the main restrictions on trade and investment due to run until July 31, EU leaders are under no immediate pressure to reassess their stance. They’ll have a chance to discuss the implications of Putin’s announcement at a summit meeting starting Thursday in Brussels and the bloc’s leading powers will sit down with U.S. officials when the Group of Seven nations meets in Japan in May.

“If Russia is able to convince Assad that he has to give up and create conditions for a change, then Russia could be the winning power in the Syrian crisis,” Fabbrini said. “I expect some discussion on Russia and Syria at the EU summit this week because the refugee crisis is very much linked to the Syrian situation.”

The sanctions imposed by the EU and the U.S. have added to the travails of the Russian economy as it struggles to weather the plunge in oil prices. Output has contracted for the past five quarters and the country is facing its longest recession in almost two decades.

“There could also be something else behind this move” to withdraw from Syria, Estonian Defense Minister Hannes Hanso said in an interview with the KUKU radio station. “Financial strains are very significant right now, to the degree that even defense spending is starting to be cut, in my opinion by more than what Russia is saying publicly. Maybe this project became too costly for them.”