For Ukraine, EU sanctions on Russia hang in the balance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Viktor Orbán and Petro Poroshenko in Brussels on 17 March. [President of Ukraine]

Ukraine needs the West more than the West needs Ukraine, and the government is in no position to pressure the European Union, writes Stratfor, the global intelligence company.

As an EU vote on the future of sanctions on Russia approaches, Ukraine is busy lobbying the continental bloc to maintain a hard line against Moscow. On 17 March, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with several EU leaders and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Brussels. During the meeting, the Ukrainian leader urged against easing sanctions. Over the next few months, Ukraine will likely employ various tactics as it attempts to keep the European Union united against Russia when sanctions come up for review in July. In doing so, however, Kyiv will face a number of domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Russia’s standoff with the West over Ukraine has led to significant changes in Kyiv’s geopolitical position. Since the 2014 Euromaidan uprising, Ukraine has swung away from Russia and toward the West. In the process, Ukraine has become embroiled in a war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country who oppose this reorientation. Politically and economically, Western support for Ukraine has increased substantially. At the same time, the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for its role in the Ukrainian crisis.

Now, more than two years after the conflict began, the EU consensus on sanctions may be in jeopardy. While EU member states have voted unanimously to preserve the sanctions each previous time they have been reviewed, certain countries are indicating that they may choose to discontinue them at the next EU vote. If they are not renewed before then, the sanctions will expire July 31. Countries such as Italy and Hungary — both of which are traditionally moderate on, and have strong economic ties with, Russia — have suggested that an EU extension of sanctions is not guaranteed.

A possible change of opinion

This prospect is extremely unnerving for the Ukrainian government. Kyiv has relied on the European Union not only to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine but also to back Kyiv in ongoing Minsk talks on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. These negotiations have stalled over disagreements between Russia and Ukraine on implementation. Kyiv argues that security measures such as a full cease-fire and the restoration of its border must be in place before any other measures, while Moscow and Ukrainian separatist militants argue that Ukraine must first delegate greater political autonomy to the eastern regions.

Until now, the European Union has supported Ukraine’s position, pressuring Russia to do more to fulfill the Minsk agreement. But opinion within the bloc on this issue appears to be increasingly divided. Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius said on 15 March that, at a recent EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, some EU nations had called for Ukraine to decentralize before the situation on the ground improves. Linkevicius’ announcement essentially echoes Russia’s position. Although it is not binding, this statement nevertheless indicates that more EU countries may be willing to consider easing the sanctions on Russia.

Still, a vote to mitigate EU sanctions on Russia is far from inevitable. Germany is the most important voice in EU decisions, and Berlin is firm in its resolve that Russia must implement the Minsk accords before sanctions are lifted. And the countries most likely to vote against renewing Russian sanctions — Italy, Hungary and Greece — have all followed Berlin when the time came to vote on sanctions, despite spouting Russia-friendly rhetoric beforehand.

Trouble at home

But Ukraine has other problems to contend with when it comes to maintaining a united front against Russia. Domestically, Kyiv has come under considerable strain. Three coalition partners have left the government, and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk faces growing pressure to resign, despite narrowly winning a no-confidence vote in February. Plans to overhaul the Cabinet and replace Yatsenyuk could be arranged before the end of March. Most major political actors — including Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk — have an interest in avoiding unscheduled elections in the near term, so as not to lose financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s political instability makes certain EU member states skeptical of Ukraine, especially those that are friendlier with Russia. In fact, some EU nations have accused Ukraine of dragging its feet on economic and institutional reforms in spite of Poroshenko’s recent promise that the country’s political crisis would be resolved by the end of this month.

This could explain why reports emerged in Ukrainian media that Kyiv is already planning for a scenario in which the EU eases sanctions on Russia. This “Plan B” would have Kyiv strip Donbas residents of their citizenship and hold a referendum on the political fate of certain areas in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. In contrast, the “Plan A” currently being pursued involves Ukraine implementing the Minsk agreement in exchange for continued sanctions against Russia. The comparatively hawkish “Plan B” amounts to a pressure tactic; Poroshenko recently reiterated that Kyiv has been keeping its end of the Minsk deal but needs to see more cooperation from Moscow to continue.

Ukraine still needs the West more than the West needs Ukraine, and the government is in no position to pressure the European Union. For this reason, Kyiv will continue to employ a range of tactics, including diplomatic measures and threats to intensify the conflict if sanctions on Russia are eased. Regardless, the European Union’s sanctions decision will rest on factors largely beyond Ukraine’s control.

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