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Commentary | 31 August 2017

The target of new US sanctions is Russia, not Europe

Image of Alexander Vershbow

Alexander Vershbow |Former Deputy Secretary General of NATO and US Ambassador to Russia, Senior Adviser at Rasmussen Global, Distinguished Felllow at the Atlantic Council

Russia Russia-West Relations Security United States Euro-Atlantic Security

When, following the Maidan revolution, Putin set his ambition to illegally seize Crimea from Ukraine and occupy large portions of Ukraine’s Donbas region, it was the unified and firm transatlantic community that proved vital in containing Moscow’s advances. Coordinated economic sanctions delivered a united message to the Kremlin that breaking the post-war rules-based order would come at a cost.

However, that essential unity – both across the Atlantic and within the EU – is in danger of cracking as the USA considers ways to change Putin’s calculus whilst some European countries consider whether narrow economic interests should come first. That would be a geopolitical mistake. Normalised relations with Russia should be our common goal, but they can only be achieved when Russia changes its behaviour and meets the conditions set when sanctions were imposed.

The western response to Russia’s actions in 2014 was proportionate and necessary. Moscow had – for the first time since World War Two – sought to change European borders by force. Putin had to be shown that such aggression would come at a cost.

Western indignation and action drove Russia to negotiate the Minsk agreements, setting out a path to de-escalate the conflict and restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas, and to agree to the Normandy Format, which would bring both sides – Russia and Ukraine – to the negotiating table together with mediators Germany and France.

The Minsk agreements provide an adequate framework for ending the violence and building a sustainable political solution. However, the unwillingness of Russia and its proxies to implement the security aspects of the agreements has stalled the entire Minsk process. Despite determined efforts by Germany and France to keep Minsk alive, the war in south-eastern Ukraine is worsening with civilian casualties rising by 48 percent from February to May 2017 compared to the previous quarter (and more than 70% higher compared to the same period in 2016). Far from turning into a frozen conflict, the situation continues to heat up.

Against this backdrop, and with evidence the Russians interfered in the US Presidential election, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were understandably asking why the costs to Russia had not risen commensurate to their worsening actions. Indeed, many Senators were concerned that the President could choose the opposite course of action and unilaterally ease Russian sanctions, either in an attempt to normalise relations with Putin, or as part of a grand bargain to help defeat ISIS in Syria – for which Russia should require no inducement.

Therefore, it is understandable that the Senate decided to take the initiative to codify sanctions into law and authorize additional sanctions in order to send the signal that they believed their own White House had failed to send.

The original Senate bill could have been more delicately drafted. But Europeans have read into the bill an intent that was never in Senators’ minds, alleging that it was a Trojan horse to promote American liquefied gas exports, at the expense of the highly controversial (and, in my view, strategically misguided) NordStream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.

The Bill was drafted solely with two targets in mind: The Kremlin and the White House. Its primary purpose was to create a parliamentary backstop to prevent a unilateral lifting of sanctions without the consent of Congress. The Senate listened to European concerns and important changes were made before the final legislation was passed by the House of Representatives and (grudgingly) signed by President Trump.

The final version clarified that any new sanctions should continue to be coordinated with allies. In finally signing the Bill, the President went even further, stressing that it must not be used to hinder allies’ efforts to solve the Ukraine conflict or to generate any ‘unintended consequences’ for America’s allies and friends. At the same time, the US signaled its readiness to reinforce Allies’ diplomatic efforts by appointing its own Special Envoy for Ukraine negotiations, former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker.

However, the disagreement over the sanctions bill exposed a fault line that has begun to form under the surface this summer. Just as the US is considering how to change Moscow’s calculus and force the pace towards a solution – including the possible lifting of President Obama’s ban on providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine – parts of Europe are beginning to consider whether to normalize economic relations with Moscow without any diplomatic progress in Ukraine.

This is particularly worrying for two reasons. First, it would send a signal to Putin and other autocrats and dictators that aggression comes with only a time-limited punishment. And second, it would dissipate the synergy that comes from the combined economic and political impact of US and European sanctions.

The US and Europe share the common objective of seeking a more normal relationship with Russia. However, the road to those better relations must go through Ukraine. That means Russia implementing the Minsk agreements, rather than actively working against them. Yet, until we take action to change Moscow’s calculus, it remains in their interests to sustain a low-level conflict in Ukraine, and to continue efforts of destabilisation, starting with its immediate neighbourhood and spreading across the Atlantic alliance.

Relations with Russia are at a low point. They reached a low point because of Moscow’s actions and only a change in Moscow’s behaviour can repair them. That is why many in the US Administration and Congress are seeking to raise the costs to Russia now, because firmness is the proven way to a better relationship in the future. American security cannot be guaranteed without European security; and European security cannot be guaranteed until the war in eastern Ukraine is brought to an end. That should be the common objective of the entire transatlantic alliance.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.