EU Tackles Specter of Summer Invasion With Russia Sanctions Push

The European Union’s push to tighten sanctions on Russia before the summer recess signals a determination to keep the conflict in Ukraine from becoming a rerun of Russia’s war with Georgia.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels today will discuss tougher economic measures against Russia with the lessons of the five-day conflict in the Caucasus in August 2008 hanging over them. Those hostilities ended with Russia recognizing the independence of two breakaway regions from the U.S.-backed government of Georgia, a former Soviet republic like Ukraine.

EU leaders “want to take action before anything happens and before everyone breaks for summer vacation,” Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said in a telephone interview. “They remember what happened with the Russia-Georgia war.”

European leaders are under pressure to show the political resolve to prevent Vladimir Putin imposing his will on former Soviet Republics that are looking to deepen their ties to Europe and the U.S. The Russian president has failed to meet a pledge to stop the flow of heavy weapons across its border into eastern Ukraine, according to German officials.

In the summer of 2008, as Europe was getting to grips with the first phase of the global debt crisis, Putin declared war on Georgia and Russian volunteers poured over the border to defend the breakaway region of South Ossetia following clashes with Georgian troops. The EU brokered a peace deal between the sides five days later.

Planned Sanctions

At today’s meeting, EU leaders may agree to penalize Russian companies, halt lending for investment projects in Russia, stop bilateral cooperation programs and further clamp down on commerce with Crimea, according to their draft statement obtained by Bloomberg News.

“That would be considered a rather weak response,” said Orysia Lutseyvch, a Ukrainian national who works as a research fellow on the Russia and Eurasia program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. “There has to be more. Russia has not done anything to de-escalate.”

Eleven Ukrainian soldiers died in fighting in the east of the country since yesterday, Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. One person was killed and nine were wounded in a battle in eastern city of Luhansk, while 11 more died and eight were wounded yesterday when a residential building was bombed in Snezhnoe, near Donetsk. The village was attacked by an unidentified plane that was not from the Ukrainian military, Interfax reported yesterday, citing Lysenko.

Trading Partner

“Russia is preparing for some kind of interference in Ukraine,” Forbrig said. “It may not be an invasion but it will be more than just helping the separatists as they are now.”

Russia was the EU’s third-biggest trade partner last year after the U.S. and China, according to Eurostat. Europe depends on Russia for about 30 percent of its natural gas and businesses in Germany have been pressing Chancellor Angela Merkel to avoid broad economic sanctions. EU trade with Russia dipped to 326 billion euros ($441 billion) last year after reaching a record 339 billion euros in 2012.

“These kinds of sanctions are mainly symbolic with limited immediate economic impact,” said Steffen Halling, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a Berlin-based research group that’s funded by the German government. “These sanctions won’t hurt Putin,” they’re “a political signal.”

The summer lull in European capitals may not offer Putin the same opportunity as it has in previous years as officials’ vacations have been staggered.

“It’s always smart politics to do stuff in the dog days of summer,” Jan Techau, director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, said in a phone interview today. “But I would note that the NATO people have been off and they’re all coming back next week to prepare the alliance’s September summit.”

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