Outraged by Russia’s intensified air strikes on rebels in Syria, the European Union is now less likely to ease sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine, diplomats say, and some in the bloc are raising the prospect of more punitive steps against the Kremlin.
While the EU says conflicts in Syria and Ukraine need to be kept separate, the latest military offensive by Damascus and its ally Moscow on rebel-held eastern Aleppo further clouds the strained ties between Moscow and the bloc.
That weakens the hand of Italy, Hungary and others who have steadily increased pressure for easing sanctions, returning to doing business and reengaging with Moscow after first hitting it with punitive measures for annexing Crimea in March 2014.
“It’s clear that the assault on Aleppo has changed the mindset of some. It will be impossible to back an easing of sanctions on Ukraine in the current context,” said one EU foreign minister.
A French diplomatic source echoed the view, saying: “The prospect of the Russian sanctions over Ukraine being lifted are practically nil after Aleppo.”
France says the Aleppo attacks amount to war crimes and wants Syria and Russia investigated. EU and NATO officials on Monday (10 October) said the Ukraine sanctions on Russia should be kept in place.
French officials have been grappling for ways to put new pressure on Russia after Moscow vetoed a French-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. French officials’ growing anger over a Russian-backed Syrian government onslaught against rebel-held areas of the city of Aleppo had led them to reconsider whether to host Putin on 19 October.
“There is just no appetite for an easing of sanctions now. Ukraine is one thing, but what is going on in Syria creates no atmosphere for any overall improvement in ties with Russia,” said one diplomat in Brussels.
EU leaders will discuss their ties with Moscow on 20-21 October in Brussels. The bloc’s main economic sanctions against Russia over Ukraine are now in place until the end of January.
The sanctions include restrictions on Russia’s access to international financing, curbs on defense and energy cooperation with Moscow, a blacklist of people and entities and limitations on doing business with the Russian-annexed Crimea.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has long called for a substantial debate, saying that the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia backs rebels in the country’s east, must not rule out more economic cooperation.
Italy is backed by Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Hungary in calling for doing more business with Russia, the EU’s main gas supplier, not least to help economic growth.
“Things are going from bad to worse. No one will dare to ask for an easing. At this stage, the doves will be happy if things stay where they are,” said another diplomat in Brussels
Russia says it will never return Crimea to Ukraine. Efforts led by Germany and France to implement a broader peace deal in east Ukraine have stalled for many months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to meet some leaders of the EU and Ukraine on 19 October for more talks.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko is expected in Brussels at the time of the 28 EU leaders’ summit and the bloc will then hold a high-level meeting with Kiev on 24 November.
New sanctions seen as a long shot
Diplomats said France was leading discussions on whether to impose new sanctions on Russia specifically over Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad in the five-year-old war.
Russia last week vetoed a French-drafted UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate end to air strikes and military flights over Aleppo.
While Paris has said it is vital to keep dialogue going with Moscow and not sever relations, events in Syria have damaged their ties as the two countries support opposite sides in the conflict.
Describing Russian air strikes in Syria as “war crimes”, French President François Hollande said it was still necessary to talk with Moscow, but only if discussions were “firm, frank”, otherwise it would be a “charade”.
“With Russia, France has a major disagreement on Syria and the Russian veto of the French resolution at the UN Security Council has prevented the cessation of bombings and enablement of a truce,” Hollande said at the Council of Europe.
“I’m ready to meet President Putin if we can advance peace, end the bombings and announce a truce,” he said.
France’s foreign minister said on Monday his diplomats were working to find a way for the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor to launch an investigation into war crimes it says have been committed by Syrian and Russian forces in eastern Aleppo.
Germany is seen as opposing new sanctions on Moscow and diplomats in Brussels cast doubt on chances for any swift move on that, saying there was no critical mass among EU states.
“But even if it’s is too early for the whole bloc to arrive at a common position, the sole fact that these discussions are taking place does send a signal to Russia,” one said.