Few in 2014 would have thought the west — and especially the EU — would have maintained sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine for more than two years.
Yet, despite Europe’s resolve until now, the reality is that Moscow remains largely unfazed. Look at Russia’s escalation over Crimea in the past few months. It is firmly in Moscow’s grip; the Kremlin feels free to run parliamentary elections in a territory that is illegally under its control. Serious human rights violations against ethnic Ukrainians and indigenous Crimean Tatars occur systematically on its watch. In Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the Kremlin keeps supporting anti-Kiev forces, undermining important provisions agreed in the Minsk II peace process in 2015.
Russia is playing at will with the security of its neighbours. In some cases, it even exports the same disruptive tactics through the domestic politics of western democracies. The reason for this is simple: it knows it can. The sanctions regime agreed by EU leaders has done too little to deter Moscow. This is why, when they meet next week at the European Council to discuss relations with Russia, they should at the very least consider extending the term of existing sanctions for another 12 months instead of six.
Such an extension would not change the substance of the various sanctions packages — those aimed at individuals and entities, and at specific Russian economic sectors. This has been a complex construct for European governments to agree. Unless a dramatic event unfolds, finding the consensus for augmenting sanctions would be close to impossible. Nonetheless, it is high time to recognise that the existing review cycle does not go far enough.
The original aim of the six-month timeline was to sync it with the objectives of the first Minsk agreement — for Russia to pull out foreign fighters and military equipment, and restore control of borders to Ukraine — signed in September 2014. At the time, there was some hope that all parties, including Russia, would follow through. It has become clear Russia holds no such intent. We must therefore be ready to hold firm for the long haul.
The tools available to the EU must be adapted to this new reality — especially as the six-month timeline is slowly becoming self-defeating. Every time sanctions have come up for renewal, the unity of European leaders has appeared a little weaker. Each time, Russia has focused its efforts on dividing EU governments and increased or decreased the pressure in Donbas at its will.
Some might argue such an extension would be a disincentive for Russia to implement its part of Minsk. However, Moscow’s actions to date do not support this; it has, after all, acted unobstructed since its 2008 invasion of Georgia, when no sanctions were imposed. Moreover, should Russia return to Kiev full control of its eastern border, EU leaders can lift sanctions ahead of schedule.
A longer timeframe for the sanctions would also have domestic political benefits in several EU states. As counterintuitive as it might sound, a 12-month extension would help many leaders who are under pressure. It would remove the sanctions discussion from forthcoming difficult electoral campaigns in France and Germany.
It would help present a united transatlantic front, too. Indeed, the EU would align itself more closely with the US, which renews its Russia sanctions on an annual basis. In this time of doubt, and a temptation to retrench, transatlantic unity is ever more important.
Ultimately, a 12-month extension of the sanctions against Russia’s actions in Ukraine would send a powerful message. It would demonstrate to those like President Vladimir Putin who challenge a rules-based order, that European governments, alongside the US, can still find the resolve to respond to the big challenges of our difficult decade.
The writer is former secretary-general of Nato
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