The Cable

European Union to Keep Sanctions on Russia … For Now

Will the EU's latest round of sanctions against Russia also be its last?


European Union leaders decided in Brussels on Thursday to extend sanctions against Russia until July –sanctions that were imposed after the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014.

The big question now is whether the United States in the next administration will continue to push Europe to hold Russia accountable — something that is currently in doubt, given President-elect Donald Trump’s open admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his selection of Russia-friendly Exxon Mobil boss Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.

Despite this latest renewal, Europe is growing more doubtful and divided when it comes to maintaining economic sanctions on Moscow. That’s partly because the economic penalties pack a much bigger hit to European trade than to American trade with Russia. And while some European leaders strongly back renewing sanctions — Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called their extension “already inevitable” — others in positions of European power have grown weary of the sanctions. Countries such as Italy, Greece, and Hungary have all pushed back against continued sanctions.

And though the EU on Thursday extended penalties put in place over Crimea, there were no fresh sanctions over Russia’s role in the war in Syria. There may be more cracks in the facade: François Fillon, the center-right French presidential candidate (and temporary front runner), has expressed “admiration” for Moscow, saying he’d like to improve relations.

He wouldn’t, of course, be alone among newly-elected leaders with a penchant for Putin: Trump has repeatedly said that he respects Putin and wants to work with him. In July, on the campaign trail, Trump told a reporter that he would be “looking into” lifting the aforementioned sanctions. Incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus echoed that notion on Tuesday.

It is also a position shared by Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Tillerson. Tillerson, who knows Russian President Vladimir Putin personally (and won the Russian Order of Friendship), has spent the past twelve years at the helm of ExxonMobil. The U.S. oil giant has been one of the most eager to tap oil in the Russian Arctic, but saw its headline project in the Kara Sea scuppered by the 2014 sanctions for Russian action in Crimea. Tillerson has spoken out against the sanctions; easing them could mean billions of dollars in business opportunities for his soon-to-be-former company.

All of which suggests that, as European will continues to flag, it will be harder to find a steady backstop in the White House or at Foggy Bottom. Will this round of sanctions be the last Russia suffers?

Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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