Keeping the cats herded

Russian-backed referendum in Ukraine’s east would trigger fresh sanctions, U.S. says

Karen DeYoung

6 May 2014

[at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing]

Nuland said that the administration was watching the situation in the east “intensely” but that U.S. actions would be more effective if they were coordinated with the still-skittish European Union, whose 28 members are not agreed on the sanctions.
“Keeping the cats herded is a challenge for the Europeans”, Nuland said.

The EU remains a long way off agreeing tougher sanctions on Russia

By Mats Persson [Director of Open Europe, a think-tank with offices in London and Brussels, and an advisory board member of Open Europe Berlin.]

The EU consists of 28 countries, with 28 distinct foreign policies. As matters of foreign policy – including sanctions – are decided by unanimity in the EU (rightly, as anything else would be politically and democratically unsustainable), naturally, it’s incredibly difficult for the EU to reach a common position.

On Russia, EU member states remain all over the place. In fact, EU foreign ministers can’t even agree on whether Russia is to blame for the rogue actions in east Ukraine, with William Hague saying any suggestions to the contrary lacks “a shred of credibility” while Jean Asselborn, the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, said he’s “convinced after hearing President Putin…that the Russians do not want to destabilise east Ukraine”. They agree even less on the need for further sanctions.

Below is an EU Dove/Hawk scale – compiled by Open Europe – showing where EU countries stand on toughening sanctions on Moscow, ranking each state from -5 to +5. It also positions each country relative to how dependent it is on trade with Russia. The correlation between trade volumes and hawkishness is far less significant than one might assume. Lithuania has the largest trade turnover with Russia at almost 32% of GDP, but is also amongst the most hawkish. The two other Baltic states – Latvia and Estonia – are in similar positions. These countries have lived in the shadow of Moscow for centuries – they’re tougher than most (think Estonia’s internal devaluation) and have lived with the gas cut off before.

Countries like Greece, Spain and Italy seem very doveish – but also have relatively limited trade with Russia – possibly reflecting a more general concern about further destabilising the eurozone’s fragile economic and financial situation. And how to explain Luxembourg’s behaviour? Russian money flowing through the country’s financial services system is the intuitive cause, but the numbers don’t quite back it. There clearly are a number of geopolitical, cultural and political factors that go far beyond money in all of this.

In our graph, the average ranking for EU members on further sanctions is 0.4, suggesting that the bloc as a whole remains a long way from agreeing strong sanctions on Russia.