EU to extend anti-Russian sanctions but ‘menu’ of punishment may be changed later this year

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By Marina Romanova

b9800a5c11e1c80b40336f7f0460d3311Another round of discussion on Western sanction’s regime against Putin’s Russia, which was extended in December 2015 until July 31 of this year, is set in Europe.

The EU’s sanctions on Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors, which also include travel bans and asset freezes for some Russian politicians and friends of President Putin, was imposed following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula two years ago.

“It’s no secret that several countries within the European Union are skeptical”, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister said to www.politico.eu .

Steinmeier doesn’t named those increasingly skeptical EU members, yet it is obvious that those countries whose exports have been hit hard, such as Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Austria and Italy are among them. Greece and Spain are also questioning the extension the strict sanctions regime without changes, while France want “dialogue to avoid further worsening of ties with Moscow,” Europe’s main energy provider.

Hungarian foreign affairs and trade minister Peter Szijjarto said last Wednesday following the meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Budapest that his country would not accept an “automatic” decision regarding the sanctions, www.abouthungary.hu   reports. Hungarian agricultural exports to Russia have collapsed as a result of the penalties and country loss was estimated to US$100 million.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi annoyed by the fact that his country has suffered economic losses from sanctions regime, while Germany has continued working together with Russia on the controversial Nord-Stream 2 pipeline across the Baltic Sea. Russia and Ukraine were supposed to build the South Stream pipeline, which would have benefited Italy, but political turmoil has killed the deal.

Italy is Russia’s second-largest European trade partner after Germany, and has over 400 companies operating on Russian territory. According to the Italian small business association CGIA, as a result of the Russian counter-penalties on food imports Italian exporters have lost $4 billion in earnings between 2013 and 2015, a decline of 34 percent.

Former Soviet Baltic states, Lithuania and Latvia, that are now EU and NATO members, unlike ‘senior’ EU members, are very wary of Russia and remain rather critical on any sanctions lifting.

“A visit by an official of this level always carries a symbolic value. I don’t see any reasons why we would need to symbolically demonstrate to Russia that we’re seeking contact,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters in a comment to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker plan to visit Russia in June.

His Latvian counterpart, Edgars Rinkevics said, that Russia and the EU relations can not ignore events of 2014 and continue to carry out ‘business as usual’ framework.

Even Germany, the EU’s economic and political locomotive engine, been under pressure from its domestic business, is now looking for possibilities to soft at least some of anti-Russian sanctions without losing face.

“Isolation is not at all helpful”, German economy minister Sigmar Gabriel quoted as saying by Der Spigel, when opening the second “Russia Day” at the Hanse Messe convention center in the northern German city of Rostock.

Country Social Democrats leader also said that Russia “has recently shown that it can be a reliable partner” and mentions the nuclear deal with Iran as an example.

192625586Nonetheless, later last week he told foreign journalists in Berlin that “we (European countries) should be smart when it comes to dealing with these sanctions.” “To me, ‘smart’ means that if there is truly substantial progress — and currently there is no such progress, yet — we can consider easing sanctions, step-by-step.”

Some certain select Moscow officials, such as members of the Russian parliament, for example, could be allowed to travel to Europe, or the EU could simply reduce the interval for extending the sanctions from six months to three months, leaving the door open to an earlier resolution of the conflict, weekly Der Spigel speculates.

However, EU political leaders and officials have said many times that  sanctions on Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors won’t be lifted until the Minsk deal made in February 2015 is fully implemented, devised to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military units and Moscow-backed separatists. But they never said, as the Bloomberg View phrase it, that the “menu” of sanctions couldn’t be changed.

Meanwhile, following Russia’s May 9 celebration of victory over Nazi Germany, described by some of Russian analysts as ‘hysterically patriotic’ and ‘overly aggressive’, Donetsk and Luhansk separatists during their own May 9 parade this year displayed heavy military equipment that is banned under the Minsk II agreement, including tanks, howitzers, and Grad rocket systems.

“This is certainly not the time for the EU to falter on its commitments,” visiting fellow at the McCain Institute, Aaron Korewa, reason out in his anti-sanctions-lifting article published by www.atlanticcounsil.org.

The policy of sanctions should be continued in order to provide encouragement to Russia’s business circles, who, as Wojciech Jakóbik argues in his article published by www.intersectionproject.eu are equipped with the tools required to apply pressure to the Kremlin during Russia’s parliamentary elections in coming September to initiate political change.

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