Sanctions off the table as EU holds ‘strategic discussion’ on Russia

Close-up of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square. [Mariano Mantel / Flickr]

European Union leaders will review the whole range of their “selective” cooperation with Russia – including on the Syria conflict – when they meet in Brussels today (20 October). Expanding EU sanctions on Moscow is off the table at this stage.

The discussion among the EU’s 28 leaders will “deliberately” stay away from slapping more sanctions on Russia for its military support to the Assad regime in Syria and its failure to implement the Minsk peace agreement in Ukraine, according to diplomats in Brussels.

Poland and the Baltic countries did press for adding Russian names to the EU’s sanctions list but they “did not push very strongly,” said a senior diplomat.

EU divided over Russia in Syria and more sanctions

Russia’s role in Syria has led to calls for more sanctions against Moscow, but the deadline for deciding whether to renew the current raft of punitive measures is fast approaching. There are powerful figures on both side of the argument. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict “will be brought up” at the summit but there isn’t “much appetite for further sanctions” on Moscow, the diplomat said.

In the European Parliament, MEPs have taken a more aggressive stance. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the liberals (ALDE) and the Greens, have co-signed a joint letter calling for “tougher sanctions against Russia” at the EU summit opening today.

“The EU needs concrete leverage to stop Russian war crimes in Syria and a tougher sanctions regime targeting Putin and his inner circle is the most efficient way to  achieve this in the short term,” said Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE Group.

That is unlikely to happen, however.

“I think the oxygen has gone out of that discussion,” one diplomat said. That view was confirmed by a diplomat from another EU country who pointed out that existing sanctions on Moscow were already renewed in the Autumn and won’t come up again for discussion until they expire in January and March next year.

Progress over Ukraine war at Berlin summit with Putin

Moscow and Kiev agreed Wednesday (19 October) to end a deadlock on the conflict in eastern Ukraine by the end of November, Ukraine’s president said, after a four-way summit in Berlin with the leaders of France and Germany.

‘Serious discussion’

Russia’s “negative role” in Syria will be denounced “in strong terms”, however. And those responsible for war crimes in Syria will be held accountable before international tribunals, the two diplomats stressed.

And although sanctions won’t be discussed, “it won’t be an academic pointy-head discussion on Russia” either. “This is going to be quite serious,” one diplomat warned.

Up for discussion at the summit is the EU policy of “selective engagement” with Russia in a wide range of foreign policy matters – including the Middle East Peace Process and Syria – where there is a clear EU interest. This “selective engagement” policy also covers areas such as counter-terrorism, climate change, the Arctic, maritime security, education, research, and cross-border cooperation, according to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief.

At today’s EU summit, some member states will push for the bloc to fully review this policy of “selective engagement” with Russia, which was first spelt out by Mogherini in March this year.

Some EU leaders are expected to share concerns about Russian-funded lobby groups, media organisations and political groups operating on their territory.

Russia Today's bank accounts closed in UK

Kremlin-funded television network RT said today (17 October) that Britain’s NatWest bank is closing all its accounts in a unilateral decision.

‘Selective engagement’

Selective engagement, according to one diplomat, means putting demands and expectations on Russia “to do what it can to cease the murderous attacks on civilians in Aleppo” and “take immediate steps to allow unhindered humanitarian aid access” to the war-torn city.

“The European Council, I think, will call for immediate cessation of hostilities,” the diplomat said. “And there will have to be some accountability for those responsible for breaches of international and humanitarian law”.

Fredrik Wesslau is Director of the Wider Europe Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think tank. For him, “selective engagement” is not a shift in policy as such but rather the implementation of existing policy. “It’s one of the five guiding principles for EU relations with Russia agreed in March. In a sense, the EU has been engaging selectively since the annexation of Crimea.”

“What is happening now is a review to see whether there are other areas in which the EU has an interest in engaging with Russia,” Wesslau said. “But given events of the past few weeks, it’s difficult to see any major new initiatives to engage. To the extent there are new avenues for engagement, these are likely to be technical.”

According to Wesslau, the EU’s policy towards Russia seeks to strike an internal a balance between countries pushing for engagement and those pushing for restrictive measures such as sanctions.

“The European Council is likely to reflect that in its discussions. It’s important for the EU to affirm its policy – but I don’t see any major shifts in policy coming from the discussion,” Wesslau said.

EU ministers redefine policy with Russia, Eastern neighbours

The foreign ministers of the 28 EU countries have redefined yesterday (17 October) the Union foreign policy priorities for 2016 and the basis of its relations with Russia and the countries of the Eastern neighbourhood.

Among EU countries, the European South is traditionally in favour of maintaining good relations with Russia, according to another diplomat. This includes Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Portugal. Most aggressive against Russia is Poland, while Slovakia and Hungary are in favour of maintaining good relations with Moscow.

France, meanwhile, is seen as having a more neutral stance. Germany, for its part, is highly dependent on Russian gas and doesn’t want to jeopardise this although they won’t admit this publicly, the diplomat said.

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s EU ambassador in Brussels, said he wouldn’t divide EU countries as “black” or “white” when it comes to relations with Russia.

“Those are 28 shades of grey,” he said.

Until Russia's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, the European Union had labelled Russia its “strategic partner”.

But in the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, unveiled at the end of June, the bloc labelled Russia its “strategic challenge”.

Regarding Russia, EU countries have adopted five guiding principles in March 2016 :

  • Implementation of the Minsk agreement on Ukraine as the key condition for any substantial change in the EU's stance towards Russia.
  • Strengthened relations with the EU's Eastern Partners and other neighbours, in particular in Central Asia.
  • Strengthening the resilience of the EU (on energy supply security, so-called "hybrid" threats on security, and strategic communication).
  • The need for "selective engagement" with Russia on issues of common interest to the EU.
  • The need to engage in people-to-people contacts and support Russian civil society.

EU to label Russia a 'strategic challenge'

Until the illegal annexation of Crimea, the European Union had labelled Russia its "strategic partner". But in the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, which is expected to be unveiled at the end of June, the bloc will label Russia its “strategic challenge”, a diplomat said yesterday (30 May).

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