Russia sanctions and magical thinking

Sanctions are clearly not an end in themselves. They are a tool and as such should be responsive to ensure maximum leverage. But this flexibility should not come at the cost of credibility.

ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has caused a kerfuffle in Europe by criticising sanctions against Russia – just days before the EU is expected to extend them for another six months. He has said that the all-or-nothing approach to sanctions has failed to yield results in Ukraine and that Europe should consider a gradual easing of sanctions if Russia makes progress on implementing the Minsk agreements.

These sanctions – the lifting of which are conditional on the complete implementation of Minsk – have now been in place for two years. But there has been hardly any progress in ending the fighting or finding a workable political settlement to resolve the conflict in the eastern Ukraine. Instead, the war rages on, with almost 10,000 dead and many more wounded. Russia maintains troops and heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine, controls the border, and continues to fuel the fighting. It has taken virtually no steps in the past few months to stop the violence.

The political track is also stuck. There is no agreement on the modalities for holding elections in the areas controlled by Moscow’s proxies. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is unable to muster the two-thirds support that is needed to pass constitutional amendments to grant special status to parts of the Donbas.

Instead of implementing Minsk, Moscow is trying to split Europe and undermine the sanctions policy.

So is Steinmeier right to blast the current sanctions policy? Would a more “flexible” approach to sanctions push Moscow to implement the Minsk agreements?

No. This is magical thinking. Moreover, by criticising the sanctions, Steinmeier is undermining the policy itself and Germany's position as a leading nation in handling the crisis.

Russia has no intention of living up to its obligations in the Minsk agreements and a gradual or all-or-nothing approach to sanctions will not change this. Moscow's current strategy in Ukraine largely runs counter to its obligations in the agreements. It continues to fuel the war in the Donbas, to destabilise Ukraine, and force Kyiv to grant veto power to Russia’s proxies or, better yet, lead to collapse of the Ukrainian government. Even if Russia achieves these goals, it is unlikely to pull out completely from the Donbas and hand back control over the border, as required by the agreements.

Instead of implementing Minsk, Moscow is trying to split Europe and undermine the sanctions policy. President Putin’s embrace of Commission President Juncker and Italian Prime Minister Renzi in St Petersburg was part of this effort, as was Putin’s recent visit to Greece and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Hungary. Russia is also providing political and economic support to anti-EU and pro-Russian political parties throughout Europe.

Russia is not implementing the Minsk agreements because it believes that the sanctions policy will eventually collapse. It sees European leaders sending mixed messages about the sanctions and their usefulness and has taken note of certain European countries' wavering commitment to the policy. Every time a European politician says that the sanctions do not work or predicts that they will come to an end or, indeed, demands that they be gradually eased, Russia becomes more certain that the sanctions will soon disappear.

Moscow interprets these mixed messages as a sign of European weakness. The signal is that Europe’s unity on this issue is fragile and that all the Kremlin has to do is hold out and wait for the sanctions regime to fall apart.

Moscow interprets these mixed messages as a sign of European weakness.

The fact that Steinmeier – one of the central personalities in this conflict – comes out criticising the sanctions has particular resonance in Moscow. Germany is effectively undermining the very foundation of EU policy on Russia.

This is a problem for Europe. Germany and France have taken the lead in handling the crisis, which for many member states is seen as being about the foundations of European security. If Germany is not able to hold a firm line, it undermines faith in Berlin's leadership and willingness to take seriously the essential security interests of smaller European states. And the elections in Germany next year may only accentuate these mixed messages as Steinmeier will be looking to define himself more clearly against Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

So what would be a more effective sanctions policy? A more credible one. European leaders, in particular in Germany, need to stop sending mixed messages about the sanctions and their efficacy. These messages play into decision-making in Moscow and only make peace more elusive. Moscow will only revise the cost-benefit analysis of its objectives in Ukraine if it believes that Europe is serious about the sanctions.

Sanctions are clearly not an end in themselves. They are a tool and as such should be responsive to ensure maximum leverage. But this flexibility should not come at the cost of credibility.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme