Katja Hoyer

    Cracks are already showing in the EU’s Russia response

    Cracks are already showing in the EU's Russia response
    Vladimir Putin and Ursula von der Leyen at a 2020 summit in Berlin (Getty images)
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    'The EU is united and acting fast,’ said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, as she condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. A new package of sanctions, swiftly agreed upon by EU member states, appeared to show von der Leyen was right. Yet in reality, the measures were disappointing: a number of Russian officials had their assets frozen, but even Putin himself avoided punishment. Given the different attitudes and interests of EU members, from here on unity will be even more difficult to obtain. While the EU has vowed to 'hurt Russia', it seems unlikely it will agree upon how.

    Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the Russian-backed Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent ‘People’s Republics’ has deeply shaken Europe. Many of the continent's political leaders, particularly French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, had firmly believed in the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution. They hoped to appease Russia enough to withdraw the 150,000 troops it had stationed near the Ukrainian border. So Putin's decision to invade Ukraine came as a bitter blow to the likes of Macron and Scholz. The shock of Russia's abandonment of diplomacy as Russian tanks moved onto Ukrainian soil also triggered a sense of urgency rarely seen in the EU. 

    A sanctions package was agreed on unanimously by a meeting of foreign ministers in Paris and the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell proudly announced that ‘it will hurt Russia and it will hurt a lot’. More than 350 members of the State Duma will be targeted for initiating a resolution that suggested the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk; 27 further individuals and institutions were included as a result of their roles in the undermining of Ukraine’s status as a sovereign nation. The package also includes EU-wide asset freezes for banks linked to the rebel regions, and access for Russian state banks to the EU’s financial market was also blocked. Borrell threatened that there was more to come: ‘We are keeping ammunition in our toolbox,’ he vowed.

    This was a remarkably speedy process. Despite a requirement to make decisions unanimously, the EU managed to get their measures out in line with the UK and the US. ‘The EU’s sanctions package was carefully assembled to avoid divisions,’ Emre Peker, the Europe director of Eurasia Group, told the New York Times. ‘Quick movement on the first set of targeted measures will help bolster unity,’ he said. But the first cracks have also already begun to appear. Across the continent, there is a huge range of dependencies, attitudes and experiences when it comes to individual member states and their relationships with Russia. It seems hard to believe the EU's united front on Russia will endure for long.

    Germany’s dependence on Russian gas is well documented and Berlin’s decision to put its controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline on hold has been widely praised for the economic sacrifice it entails. But other countries seem less willing to follow that lead. Italy and Hungary are even more dependent on Russian gas than Germany. Yet they are unwilling to pay the price for moral rectitude. Italian prime minister Mario Draghi has already made it clear that he does not wish the sanctions on Russia to be targeted at the energy sector. While he grudgingly accepted the current EU package, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban has also expressed doubts over planned economic punishments, saying ‘the sanctions policy that has been introduced against Russia has done more harm to Hungary than to Russia.’

    Smaller countries too baulk a little when their bigger neighbours propose to hit out at Russia with policies that will have an economic effect at home. Austria and others have even demanded EU compensation for economic damage incurred through its sanctions policy.

    An added problem is that economic sanctions on Moscow will only work in the medium and in the long term. The bluster that has come from senior Russian circles regarding western punishment is an indication of how far Putin is willing to go. Short-term economic pain is no obstacle to his ambitions in Eastern Europe. If EU sanctions are to bite, they will have to stay in place for months, if not years.

    But how can sanctions endure in a bloc made up of nations like Poland, which thinks even the freezing of Nord Stream 2 does not go far enough, and Italy, which wants no energy-related sanctions at all? While the EU27 may be able to agree on a light package targeting individuals and groups, big economic shots at Russia will have to come from and be sustained by individual member states, with or without the consent of their neighbours.

    The Ukraine crisis will be a hard test for the very concept of a common EU foreign policy in the face of a crisis that affects all the constituent members. It is already beginning to lay bare the complications inherent in security policy that has to be agreed upon unanimously by 27 states.

    Written byKatja Hoyer

    Katja Hoyer is an Anglo-German historian, her latest book is Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871–1918.

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