David Blackburn

What are the chances of Europe agreeing substantial sanctions against Russia tomorrow?

What are the chances of Europe agreeing substantial sanctions against Russia tomorrow?
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‘Somewhere between zero and minus five.’ That is the verdict of former Foreign Secretary and current Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to the question in the headline.

The general consensus is that the European Union will not – indeed, cannot – agree substantial sanctions against Russia. European countries are, variously, too dependent on Russian trade and resources, or too weak in themselves, to punish Putin. The disagreements at yesterday’s summit were plain to see.

Europe, the narrative goes, can only agree on more provisions against ‘cronies’ who use international markets to conduct their nefarious business and then spend their spoils in the great playgrounds of the West (see Taki for details).

The union is considering an extended list of Putin cronies (to be agreed 'by the end of the month'). The list will have a widened remit to include those who profit from or bankroll the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine. Yet, even that, it is said, has not dispersed the whiff of cosiness between East and West; the stated aim of ‘naming and shaming’ of Putin’s hoodlums has prompted capital flight, according to reports. 'The message is: get out while you can,' one depressed MP says.

Tomorrow Europe will show Putin what he can expect if he does not change his tune. British officials have taken heart from yesterday’s discussions, and expect tomorrow's message to be serious. ‘We’ve been pushing for an arms embargo for a while, and this is the first time [the proposal] has made it into the wording [of a draft communiqué].’

The EU is preparing a ‘balanced package’ of sanctions on arms, dual use equipment, energy technology (eg. smart technology and oil field service gadgets) and access to capital markets. These measures are designed to insulate the economic recovery in Europe and cause maximum damage to Russia. Energy technologies, for instance, are vital to Russian resource extraction operations; but there is demand for the machinery elsewhere in the world. The measures would, however, only be introduced if Russia fails to comply with the demands set out yesterday by the European Council.

The destruction of two more Ukrainian fighter jets by rebels in the east of the country proves that the region remains a warzone. One of the problems for western governments is the lack of evidence of Russia’s direct involvement in these actions, a point reiterated earlier today by the American investigation into MH17. A witness to yesterday’s meeting in Brussels says that was a source of division among the member states. The Russians are only too keen to exploit the West’s prevarication by protesting their innocence and promising to do ‘everything in our power’ to resolve the situation, while also denouncing sanctions as ‘protectionist’.

Critics of western policy point out that Russia is sitting pretty and holding the line. ‘These proposed sanctions – even those targeted at capital markets – are small beer. Putin will only be brought to heel if the Russian economy implodes, because then he won’t be able to afford his foreign policy,’ remarked one sceptical British politician. The same applies to the recent US sanctions. Critics point to the example of Iran, where, they say, vigorously policed financial sanctions have forced the regime’s hand. They say that Russia’s economy, dependent on natural resources, is capital intensive and there are doubts about whether it could withstand several months in the financial cold.

The worry is that, without stern action now, the crisis will drag on and on, and that relations between Russia and the West will deteriorate. The counter-argument is that the rag-tag rebels are in retreat, so perhaps even relatively limited sanctions will bring Putin to his senses. Perhaps.