The Case for More Sanctions on Russia Over Syria Bombings: Q&A

  • U.S., U.K. leading push for penalties over Aleppo air raids
  • Many European countries are skeptical about need for sanctions

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, search for victims amid the rubble of a destroyed building following reported air strikes in the rebel-held Qatarji neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo, on October 17, 2016.

Photographer: Karam Al-Masri/AFP via Getty Image

Vladimir Putin’s backing for the relentless air bombardment of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo has provoked some foreign governments to accuse Russia of carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The U.S. and some European Union countries including Germany are considering whether to impose new sanctions as a way of exerting diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin.

With about 275,000 civilians under siege and reports of bombed hospitals and the gassing of non-combatants, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken of “crimes against humanity” as Russia lends support to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Even though there’s widespread condemnation of Russia’s actions, there’s little consensus over what the repercussions should be. As the devastating raids continue and with little appetite for western military intervention, there’s still no agreement on whether to step up sanctions and in what form.

What’s being considered?

The U.S. and some EU nations have raised the prospect of punitive measures against Russia if the bombing continues. The sanctions could come in the form of travel bans and asset freezes on individuals deemed to be directly involved in the aggression in Syria. Less likely would be the establishment of broader economic sanctions on Russia, similar to those the U.S. and EU introduced after they blamed Putin for stoking unrest in Ukraine. The U.S. and the EU already impose sanctions on the Syrian regime.

Who is in favor of a move toward sanctions?

The U.S. and the U.K. have been most vocal in their support for exploring sanctions. Kerry, who met with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Sunday, said the possibility of additional sanctions is now on the table and the U.S. would “see where we are in the next few weeks.”

Johnson, who discussed potential punitive measures with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, said sanctions were among “a large list of ideas, proposals,” and declined to rule out eventual economic sanctions when speaking to reporters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will broach the subject later this week at a summit of EU leaders, raising the possibility of sanctions aimed at Russia’s aircraft industry and defense ministry, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, citing officials it didn’t identify. Merkel’s chief spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday that the “merciless” bombardment of the civilian population of Aleppo by Assad’s forces wouldn’t be possible without their backers and that “all options must be considered.”

Who is against more sanctions?

In Europe, the French and Italian governments have sounded the most cautious with France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warning against a “cycle of sanctions for sanctions’ sake.” His Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni said on Monday in Luxembourg that sanctions related to Syria were “unrealistic and not viable.”

“We don’t believe the tool of sanctions is a tool that can be particularly useful to tackle the tragedy of the city of Aleppo, which must be tackled in the next few weeks, not with tools which if adopted could have effects in a few years,” Gentiloni said.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, also distanced herself from the sanctions option, saying that the bloc’s governments haven’t put a proposal forward.

What are the political pressure points?

Even within governments there are differing views. While Merkel’s spokesman on Monday signaled that sanctions could be considered, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the junior partner in Germany’s coalition government, used his arrival at an EU meeting in Luxembourg to express skepticism about their effectiveness. And Italy’s resistance could be tested when Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visits Barack Obama this week.

Eastern European countries’ attitudes can’t be separated from their approach to whether the EU should extend penalties already in place for the Kremlin’s violent interference in Ukraine, which shares a border with the EU nations of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The most punitive of those sanctions need to be renewed before the end of January 2017 and there’s no guarantee that every EU country will agree to that.

Do the markets have a view on sanctions?

Ruble bonds have fallen and the cost of insuring Russian debt against default rose to the highest level since August as investors weighed the possibility of new sanctions. Russia’s credit default swaps climbed to 238 basis points on Monday, the highest level since Aug. 3.

What happens next?

The issue was discussed by the EU’s foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday and is likely to be broached again when the bloc’s 28 leaders meet in Brussels later in the week. The government chiefs won’t draw up the specific sanctions themselves at the summit, that would be left to diplomats and officials in the days and weeks afterwards. If and when the EU does draft a list it would need the unanimous agreement of all EU countries.

What sanctions are already in place?

The EU has added progressively tougher sanctions on Russia since March 2014 for the Kremlin’s involvement in violence in eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea. At first these included travel bans and asset freezes on Russian and Crimean officials and, from July 2014, economic sanctions which blacklisted Russian companies, stopped some financial trades and banned lending to public-sector projects in Russia.

The U.S. has imposed similar sanctions since 2014, preventing Russian companies from accessing U.S. equity or debt markets for new financing with a maturity beyond 90 days.

What’s prompted the U.S. and EU to act?

The Russian and Syrian bombing of opposition-held eastern Aleppo, once a city of 2.3 million near the border with Turkey, has eased only slightly after a punishing wave of strikes from late September to early October. Activists said the attacks killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed hospitals. Russia on Monday announced what it called a “humanitarian pause” in its bombing, giving time for civilians and rebels to leave the city during a period of eight hours on Thursday, RIA Novosti reported, citing Russian General Staff.

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