EU Fatigue Over Russia Sanctions Shows as Putin Reset Looms

  • Leaders say no agreement to impose new penalties over Syria
  • Existing sanctions over Ukraine rolled over for six months

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Dushanbe on Sept. 15, 2015.

Photographer: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

European Union differences over Russia were exposed as leaders arrived for their last summit of the year, underlining the 28-nation bloc’s fatigue with a sanctions regime that is losing support globally.

Even as EU leaders agreed to roll over economic penalties imposed on Russia over Ukraine, they sent divergent signals on whether to widen sanctions against the Kremlin in response to Russia’s bombing of civilians in Syria.

The mixed messages underscored the shifting mood in Europe as well as in the U.S. in favor of resetting relations with President Vladimir Putin even as Russian forces are blamed for escalating a humanitarian crisis in the final assault on the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“To talk again about sanctions as the first response -- let’s first provide aid in the most practical way possible,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters as he entered the summit in Brussels on Thursday.

During his election campaign President-Elect Donald Trump made overtures to Putin, calling for an alliance with the Kremlin to fight Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and hinting at easing sanctions against Russia. French presidential candidate Francois Fillon, the frontrunner to succeed Francois Hollande after next year’s elections, has spoken of his “admiration” for Russia and said that he wants to revive France’s relations with Moscow.

‘Already Inevitable’

EU leaders gave their consent to extending for another six months economic sanctions on Russia over its involvement in the unrest in Ukraine, with the official procedure to roll them over to be completed on Friday, an official said. “All member states understand that it’s already inevitable,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told reporters, adding that the “written procedure is already in place.”

On Syria, where Putin has framed his support for President Bashar Al-Assad as a campaign against terrorism, the EU is not ready to sanction Russia. Some leaders still want the bloc to consider it and the summit will leave the door open to make that decision at a later date.

“All available options” over Syria are on the table, leaders will say, according to a draft of the summit conclusions obtained by Bloomberg News. The EU’s 28 leaders must agree unanimously on sanctions before they can be imposed.

“I don’t know if more sanctions will be the step that makes a difference right now,” Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said. “But one has to be ready to do so.” His Swedish counterpart, Stefan Lofven, said that he too was “prepared to push for sanctions also going forward given what’s happening in Syria.”

Diplomatic Failure

Russian-backed air strikes have seen Assad’s forces retake Aleppo in the biggest victory against rebels in almost six years of civil war, which has killed about 300,000 people.

Asked about sanctioning Russia for its role in the war, Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, said that “this has not been the approach the Council” of EU national governments “has chosen in the last session.”

A German government official told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that leaders would keep Russian intervention in Syria separate from the discussion on EU sanctions for Russia’s role in supporting the armed rebellion in Ukraine.

Fillon, who was in Brussels to meet with leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the war in Syria was a “failure of western and above all European diplomacy.”

“Indignation is necessary, but has never saved a life,” he said.

— With assistance by Arne Delfs, Alex Morales, Nikos Chrysoloras, John Follain, Flavia Rotondi, Anne Van Der Schoot, Gregory Viscusi, Esteban Duarte, Caroline Connan, Ott Ummelas, Tony Czuczka, Karl Stagno Navarra, and Peter Levring

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