At the EU summit in Brussels, Germany and France have called for Russia to be punished for its military actions in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Achieving unity, however, will be difficult.
Thursday night's dinner debate among European Union leaders will serve up a dish everyone is reluctant to bite into, even though they know it is good for them. The "strategic policy dialogue" on relations with Russia is long overdue and everyone knows it. But even after being horrified by Russian actions in Syria, are EU leaders ready to stand up to the Kremlin?
Just in case the picture was not already sufficiently muddled, Moscow scheduled a "humanitarian pause" to begin in Aleppo as leaders were arriving in Brussels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met Putin Wednesday night in Berlin to discuss the barely-there ceasefire in Ukraine and the one they would like to see in Syria. After making no progress with the Russian leader, the two reportedly firmed up plans to put Russian names on an EU blacklist for supporting the Syrian regime. But Merkel was not specific in her arrival remarks.
"I hope that we as the European Council are in a position to make clear that what is happening in Aleppo, with Russian support, is completely inhumane," she said, calling for a lasting ceasefire, not just a "pause" of a few hours, so that humanitarian aid can get through.
Some leaders, including Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, are willing to back a tough approach, saying the suffering of Syrian children and bombing hospitals and aid convoys are "absolutely unacceptable," are "probably" war crimes and must be addressed. Löfven acknowledges there's no unity on sanctions against Russia, but says given the seriousness of the situation, "we need to be prepared to take other measures and I think they should be on the table today."
But as European Council President Donald Tusk arrived, he walked that suggestion back. "Today is not about decisions" on Russia, Tusk said, even as he added that the "EU should keep all options open, including sanctions, if the crimes continue."
Lawmakers, lifesavers want quick action
EU parliamentarians from the largest political groups urged Tusk to step up the pace before the summit, with a joint letter stating the "world has not seen such a human tragedy" since the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. The European People's Party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats and the Greens reminded Tusk of the roughly 300,000 residents trapped in Aleppo as Syrian government forces backed by Russian airpower pound rebels in the city along with them. While the lawmakers did not call it "sanctions," they asked Tusk to lead the council in developing a "set of enforcement tools to be activated should Russia continue violating UN Security Council resolutions" with its bombing campaign.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has seen eight hospitals it supports bombed in Syria, is among the humanitarian organizations calling on leaders not to dither. The IRC warned Europe it is "bearing some of the burden of this unresolved conflict" and must bring more pressure to bear immediately on the Syrian and Russian governments. The IRC said the condemnation of Moscow issued by EU foreign ministers Monday - which notably includes a suggestion that military actions in Syria "may amount to war crimes" - is "inadequate."
Not just Aleppo
But former Estonian president Toomas Ilves, who just ended a decade in office, said history - as recently as 2014 - indicates the EU will not be able muster a stronger stance against the Kremlin in the near term, no matter how disturbing Aleppo is. He pointed to the example of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war between the Ukrainian government and the separatists backed, funded, equipped and trained by Moscow that began over two years ago.
"What are we are dealing with is a fundamental breakdown of the treaty-based security architecture in Europe," Ilves noted, yet "it took a year for the European Union to actually go beyond 'grave concern' and admit that the issue was not 'Russian-backed separatists' in the Donbass…that there were large contingents of the Russian army in the Donbass."
His theory is that what finally pushed EU leaders to schedule a comprehensive dinner debate on Russia is not just Aleppo, and certainly not Ukraine, but the overwhelming combination of hostile activities in which Moscow is accused of being involved. That includes cyberattacks on both the German parliament and US political entities and processes, the massive state-funded effort to spread disinformation particularly in Europe and the US, and the funding of extremist political parties in Europe ahead of critical elections next year. "We've seen this across the board," Ilves points out, "and I see that European leaders are beginning to be distressed."
Playing by the book: the "Kremlin Playbook"
Some experts say that the reaction is far too late. Heather Conley is a former US State Department official who co-authored a 16-month study on Russia's attempts to influence five EU members: Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Serbia, and Slovakia.
The "Kremlin Playbook" released earlier this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and the Sofia, Bulgaria-based Center for the Study of Democracy details Russia's covert efforts to wield economic and political might in central and eastern European countries and to undermine EU cohesion and transatlantic ties. Conley's research shows Moscow has been extremely effective in these aims, using a "strategy of influence, not of brute force.”
The study shows that in Bulgaria, for example, Russia has such a strong economic presence that one of the EU's newest members is literally at "high risk of Russian-influenced state capture."
Conley said she'll be watching the EU leaders' dinner carefully to see if recent Russian actions have given European leaders the wake-up call she says they needed.
"They have to not only reaffirm the values that the transatlantic community stands for, that Europe stands for, they're going to have to sacrifice for those," she said. "And that is not just Russia's behavior in Ukraine, Russia's behavior in Syria - there is an enormous amount at stake here; their future democratic outcomes could be at stake."