Europe's Herky-Jerky Russia Sanctions
A cease-fire is agreed in Ukraine, and the European Union responds by imposing sanctions on Russia. Then the EU hurriedly meets again to delay the sanctions it just agreed on.
How does this make sense?
There is a straightforward explanation as to why the EU went ahead with adopting the new punitive measures despite the truce: It holds a deep suspicion that Russia -- which still denies any role in the Ukrainian conflict -- promoted a temporary deal precisely and solely to stave off those sanctions.
The real issue, therefore, is not whether ground offensives halt for a few days, but whether President Vladimir Putin withdraws his troops and equipment back to the Russian side of the border and seals it. So far -- and admittedly here we are largely reliant on information from unreliable witnesses, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine's government -- that doesn't appear to be happening.
If the EU really were delaying imposition of the newest round sanctions against Russia's state-owned oil companies and banks to leave time for Putin to start pulling back his troops, that would be smart. There are two reasons, though, to suspect that isn't the case.
The first is that in announcing the delay, EU President Herman Van Rompuy didn't mention a withdrawal. He talked in the vaguest of terms:
This will leave time for an assessment of the implementation of the cease-fire agreement and the peace plan. Depending on the situation on the ground, the EU stands ready to review the agreed sanctions in whole or in part.
The second reason to doubt EU resolve (apart from its generally weak foreign policy record) is the identities of the nations that demanded the delay, which reportedly include EU countries that have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into supporting sanctions against Russia in the first place -- such as Austria, Cyprus and Slovakia.
We'll see if the terms of the cease-fire are implemented by both sides, in particular the sealing of the border by international monitors, and removal of all illegal units and equipment from Eastern Ukraine. And we'll see whether the EU responds by imposing the latest sanctions, should it become clear that Russian troops aren't pulling out. Georgia is still waiting for Russia to honor the terms of its cease-fire agreement, six years after the war there ended.
The other question, of course, is whether sanctions are the right policy at all. One line of argument says they have failed to change Putin's behavior, so why continue? This is, of course, a counterfactual: What might have happened differently had Russia faced no response at all to its annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine? I don't know the answer to that, but neither does anyone else.
Just to cite one example: would Putin have abandoned his hostility to letting Ukraine's presidential elections go forward in May (as he did), if German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama had not threatened sweeping economic sanctions if the vote was obstructed? Perhaps, but it certainly isn't self-evident. Might he have sent more regular troops into Ukraine, sooner and to go further, had there been no risk of incurring costs?
Putin is claiming the right to determine the foreign and trade policies of his neighbors. He has claimed the right to intervene militarily in any country where Russian-speakers live. He has said as a matter of policy that Russia is the heart of a separate civilization, defining it against the values of Europe, and leaving open the question of where that civilization begins and ends.
This is frightening stuff when carried out by a nuclear power that is re-militarizing. So the sanctions policy shouldn't be seen as an attempt to secure victory for Ukraine (it will have to cut a deal). Nor should it be seen as an attempt to make Putin unpopular at home, or to get his inner circle to revolt (a ludicrous hope), as sometimes suggested. The sanctions should demonstrate what behavior Europe is unwilling to accept in a partner and what rules it will stand up for -- even at the cost lost business and a bad relationship with Russia.
If that potential division of Europe sounds depressingly familiar, it should.
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