Chafing at sanctions, Moscow pokes and pries at EU unity
Standing before a classical Greek frieze at a press conference in Athens last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented his visit in terms suggesting a thinly disguised quid pro quo.
He promised to expand Russian investment in Greeces hard-hit economy and asked for Athens support in lifting EU sanctions on Moscow. "Greece can affect [Russias] relationships with the European Union, " he said, before adding with a verbal wink, "even if we dont expect the Labors of Hercules in the courtyard of the European bureaucracy."
The Russian leader got the response he wanted. Standing beside him, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said, "Everyone recognizes that there cannot exist a future for the European continent with the European Union and Russia at loggerheads."
The exchange was notable for its timing. It came just weeks ahead of an EU heads-of-state summit where the blocs leaders will consider whether to renew the trade and financing sanctions they slapped on Moscow in 2014 over its actions in Ukraine, where it seized Crimea and has allegedly lent military support to separatist fighters.
There is slim hope for Moscow that the EU leaders meeting in Brussels on June 28 and 29 will opt not to renew the sanctions, which expire in July.
Diplomats in Brussels tell RFE/RL privately that EU leaders are so confident that their countries will agree beforehand to do so that theyve scheduled only a very brief time for discussing the sanctions at the summit itself. That is so attendees can devote most of the summit to discussing the fallout from Britains June 23 Brexit poll instead.
But torpedoing the renewal of the sanctions this month is not what Moscow is asking Athens or anyone else to do. Instead, Moscow is reaching out to EU states to undermine the blocs unity in hopes of encouraging them to use their power of veto to ultimately end or dilute the sanctions regime, which requires unanimous renewal every six months.
"Its a way of over time slicing into the Western unity that has held so relatively strongly vis-a-vis Russia over the last two years and to create a dynamic whereby, one by one, countries will be returning to what seems to be business as usual with Russia, " says Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based Russia expert with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
"Even if the Russia sanctions are being extended by the EU now, they will be up for renewal again at the end of the year, " he says. "And then against the backdrop of this dynamic it will probably be much harder to do this."
Putins trip was part of a flurry of recent Russian diplomacy that also saw Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visit Budapest a day earlier. As Lavrov promised increased trade, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto suggested Budapest could respond by pushing for greater debate over the sanctions in the future. "We are against using an automatic procedure [for extending sanctions], " Szijjarto said, "We want discussions [in Brussels] on a high political level."
Divide And Conquer?
Moscows strategy seeks to persuade Europeans that as the sanctions move through their third year, it is not only Russia that is suffering.
For Russia, the sanctions, coupled with low oil prices, caused its gross domestic product to drop by 3.7 percent in 2015, with the World Bank forecasting a further drop of 1.9 percent this year. The EU, like the United States, has cut off Russian state enterprises from access to Western financial markets, making it ever harder for them to get the capital they need to grow.
But the EU is also hit by shrinking business with Russia, its third-largest trade partner. A study by the independent Austrian Institute of Economic Research in Vienna in June 2015 estimated that Europes economy stands to lose 100 billion euros ($111 billion) due to the Russia sanctions, putting around 2 million jobs at risk. Russia has tried to add to the pain by slapping its own sanctions on the EU in the form of import bans, most of them affecting agricultural products.
Whether this means EU resolve over the sanctions can be cracked, however, is another question.
Several countries, including Greece, Hungary, Italy, Cyprus, and Slovakia, have been vocal in complaining about the economic pain they feel. But so far, none of the grumbling has translated into signs of open revolt.
"It is quite unlikely to have just one or two countries deciding to veto the prolongation of the sanctions, because they would really isolate themselves inside the EU and would face a lot of pressure from the other EU member states, " says Paul Ivan of the European Policy Center in Brussels.
Any revolt would put the mostly Eastern European and Balkan states that were once closely tied to the Russian market up against the sanctions strongest backers: Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Poland, and the Baltic states. That is a battle few of the states Russia is courting are in a position to wage.
Greece, for example, is heavily dependent on Germany and France as the main creditors of its eurozone bailout. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is already under fire in Brussels over his unilateral actions at the height of Europes migrant crisis last year.
Germany and France are committed to the sanctions because lifting them is tied to full implementation of the Minsk II accords negotiated between Kyiv, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow in February 2015 to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine -- something that looks unlikely at this point. The EU imposed sanctions on Russia after Moscow occupied and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, then stepped them up later that year over Russia-backed separatists challenging Kyivs authority in eastern Ukraine, where more than 9, 300 people have been killed.
But if no EU states are currently demanding the lifting of sanctions, Russia can hope that increased grumbling will make it difficult for EU leaders to avoid opening the subject to debate as the sanctions come up regularly for review. And that raises the possibility that even if sanctions remain in place, they may gradually be softened.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hinted at such a path in Tallinn on May 27, when he suggested the EU might gradually reduce sanctions if Moscow takes steps to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk accords. It was unclear whether he was expressing the views of the German government or his own impressions as a leader of the junior coalition Social Democrats.
Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky wrote that Germanys Social Democrats have long favored a softening of Russia sanctions and that "both the Kremlin and influential European figures are looking for ways to start defusing the standoff without losing face." He predicted a weakening of the sanctions restrictions in the coming months.
But other analysts say that while debate of the sanctions may increase, EU policy will not change unless Moscow takes steps to begin implementing the Minsk II agreement. The accords call for pulling out all foreign armed groups, withdrawing heavy weaponry from the conflict zone, returning control of Ukraines border to Kyiv, and ensuring local elections in separatist-held parts of Ukraines Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
"If a country in the EU would come out with the statement that they will block the consensus for prolonging the sanctions, they would have to have very strong arguments, " says Kalev Stoicescu of the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn. "The immediate question would be: What has Russia done in this respect, have there been any initiatives to show Russia really wants to change its course?"
He says the dilemma for the EU is that it cannot afford to lift or ease the sanctions regime if that appears to reward Russia for aggression. Doing so would reawaken memories of 2008, when the EU considered -- but stopped short of -- imposing sanctions on Moscow over its war with Georgia.
At the time, Lavrov heaped scorn on then-French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for saying he would consider sanctions. "My friend Kouchner has also said we will soon attack Moldova and Ukraine and the Crimea...but that is a sick imagination and probably that applies to sanctions as well, " Lavrov said in Dushanbe in August 2008.
Six years later, the West looked on with dread as Russia annexed Crimea and Russia-backed separatists launched a war against Kyiv in eastern Ukraine, moves that some observers regard as a frontal assault on the post-Cold War order.
RFE/RLs Brussels correspondent Rikard Jozwiak contributed to this report