Don't Model Russian Rapprochement on Iran Deal

Ending sanctions on Russia wouldn't be a "win-win." For Ukraine, it'd be a disaster.

Petro Poroshenko is less than thrilled.

Photo: Lennart Preiss/Getty Images

What if the nuclear deal with Iran led not, as some have hoped, to the resolution of other conflicts in the region, but to the destruction of the trans-Atlantic unity that until now has existed on Ukraine?

That possibility was in the air at this year's Munich Security Conference, where diplomats such as the European Union's foreign policy coordinator, Federica Mogherini, were pushing the idea that the deal she helped to negotiate with Iran shows that "win-win" approaches work, and should be applied to "other fields."

Mogherini didn't specify that she was talking about Ukraine and the EU's strained relationship with Russia, but her position is well-established: For at least a year, she has been gently pushing for a different approach to Russia that might lead to lifting sanctions: a more-carrot, less-stick approach to getting President Vladimir Putin to pull his tanks and troops out of Ukraine. Her first effort was embarrassed by a Russian military offensive that undermined her case. But her position hasn't changed, and EU sanctions will expire in July, unless the bloc's 28 members vote to renew them. With the U.S. and German Chancellor Angela Merkel still firmly behind the sanctions, it remains likely that they'll remain unless something changes in Ukraine -- but the game is on.

You could hear the same yearning in comments from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is more sympathetic toward Russia than Merkel. Steinmeier volunteered that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev didn't really mean it when he said, just minutes before, "We are rapidly rolling into a period of a new Cold War."

"This differentiation between black and white, between good and evil, doesn't really help us," Steinmeier went on to say of the relationship between Russia and the West. "We can make an effort to start over." That's what Medvedev had been suggesting.

You can understand how the Iran deal might make Russia's big European trading partners want to repeat that experience with Russia. Billions of dollars worth of trade and investment deals were announced between European companies and Iran within weeks of the deal's implementation. Governments rolled out the red carpet for President Hassan Rouhani's European lap of honor, and a damaged relationship with an important company was restored. Medvedev clearly understands this. After his warning about a return to the Cold War, the prospect of which he knows Germans find especially disturbing, he went on to attack the sanctions regime:

How many joint initiatives have been suspended because of sanctions! I have just met with German businessmen and we discussed this issue. Have we properly calculated not only the direct but also the indirect costs for European and Russian business? Are our differences really so deep, or are they not worth it? All of you here in this audience -- do you really need this?

On Syria, Russia is offering itself as a white knight to rescue the European Union from its refugee crisis, always with an eye to breaking support for the Ukraine sanctions. Here Medvedev appealed to anti-immigrant fears, even prejudices, in Europe:

[H]undreds and thousands of extremists enter Europe under the guise of being refugees. Other migrants are people of an absolutely different culture who only want to receive monetary benefits without doing anything to earn them. This poses a very real danger to the common economic space. The next targets will be the cultural space and even the European identity. We watch with regret how invaluable mechanisms, which Russia also needs, are being destroyed. I am referring to the actual collapse of the Schengen zone.

For our part, we are willing to do our best to help address the migration issue, including by contributing to efforts to normalize the situation in the conflict regions from which the majority of refugees come, Syria among them.

This is all surreal, along with Medvedev's portrayal of Ukraine's "civil war" as a common challenge caused by the EU's efforts to create a stable neighborhood through friendship agreements. It's as if none of it had to do with Russian actions, such as invading a neighbor, imposing trade embargoes, annexing territory or creating tens of thousands of new refugees through a nonprecision bombing campaign in Syria. No wonder a worried Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko felt the need to push back hard:

This is not a civil war in Ukraine; this is your soldiers, who occupied my country. And this is not a civil war in Syria; this is your planes bombing the civilian population. And this is just a demonstration that we are living in a completely different universe with Russia!

He went on:

Yet there are opinions that the sanctions do not work, that sanctions are hurting Europe more than Russia. No, sanctions are not a punishment; sanctions are an instrument for Russia to remain at the negotiating table. There is no other instrument.

Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of Kiev's parliament in Munich with Poroshenko, said she spent the day grabbing European foreign ministers and officials in the corridors, trying to find out if there was truth to rumors of a plan for a half-lifting the Russia sanctions in return for a half-completion of the Minsk accords. By evening, she remained unsure.

The Russian attempt to test the waters in Munich for a new "dialogue" also seemed inconclusive. Sergey Karaganov, the doyen of Russian foreign policy analysts, said that last year the NATO-heavy audience in Munich knew they were against Russia, This year, by contrast, "they don't know where to go, or what to do, or how to react. There's this big divide," he said. "The Americans and some others want to contain Russia, but that wouldn't solve any problems. The others understand that, but … it's crazy. They don't know what to do."

Ukraine doesn't help its case by failing to follow through with its part of the Minsk II agreement. But Ukraine also doesn't have troops in Russia; the sanctions weren't designed to bring it to the negotiating table. And Poroshenko is right that rewarding Russia in Ukraine, in the hope it might stop bombing Syrian civilians and turning them into refugees, would be wrong on multiple levels.

This is the danger in treating the flawed if necessary Iran deal as a model for anything. Sanctions brought Iran to the table and are being lifted in return for dismantling much of its nuclear fuel program, alleviating concerns that it might develop nuclear weapons at least for now. What would the equivalent be in the Russia-Ukraine case, which isn't about a potential invasion but one that already took place? Only to pull its troops out and restore the border to Ukrainian control. To lift sanctions with those conditions unmet would not be "win-win." It would be weakness. And it would tear Europe apart.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.