Syrian crisis hijacks this week’s Brussels summit debate on keeping in place sanctions against Moscow.
EU leaders had planned to use their fall summit this week in Brussels to clarify their approach to Russia.
The fast-worsening relationship with Moscow looks to be increasingly out of Europe’s control — driven by events on the ground in Syria and by the United States, which now, as much as ever, is speaking for the West.
Any chance that Thursday’s scheduled dinner-time discussion would set a path toward easing sanctions against Russia over Ukraine has been erased by the outrage over Russia’s bombing of Aleppo. And while some EU leaders are expected to push for new sanctions over Syria, officials concede it will be virtually impossible to reach consensus on new punitive action.
Instead, the 28 leaders will be left to ponder if they want Europe to continue to play a supporting role to America. That, in turn, is leading Moscow to point the finger of blame back at Europe for the recent deterioration in relations.
“The lack of European independence is one of the most pervasive subjects of complaints in the Russian foreign policy,” said Maxim Samorukov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia constantly claims that the Europeans, under pressure of Cold War inertia, continue to excessively rely on U.S. patronage, that they do not formulate, let alone defend, their own national interests.”
This weekend offered the latest example of an EU sidelined on Russia and left to follow the U.S. lead.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Lausanne, Switzerland, with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, after announcing on October 3 that the United States had broken off bilateral talks with Russia because of the carnage in Aleppo. Officials from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey also attended.
European powers, however, were excluded. EU officials conceded that any hope for a breakthrough in Syria meant relying on Kerry. “We have to trust the judgment,” one EU diplomat said. “Because we have got nothing else.”
Kerry flew to London on Sunday to brief his counterparts from the U.K., France and Germany. There, Kerry and the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, raised the possibility of sanctions against Russia over Syria, insisting all options are on the table.
The divisions within the EU and the lack of support on either side of the Atlantic for any expanded, coordinated military intervention in Syria made the threat sound hollow.
Thursday’s dinner conversation in Brussels was scheduled after repeated demands by some EU leaders, principally Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, for a proper debate on longer-term Russia policy. These more dovish voices on Russia in the EU wanted to avoid another quick renewal of sanctions and at least set the stage to ease them, if not this week then at some point down the road.
Last month, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that there were at least five European countries eager to end the economic sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Biden didn’t name names, but Austria, Cyprus, Italy, Greece, Hungary and Slovakia are among the countries that have expressed opposition to the sanctions.
Officials planning the summit say the conversation will almost certainly turn to recent events, including the bombing of Aleppo, Russia’s provocative military maneuvers in Europe and concerns about the Kremlin’s support for far-right political parties in the EU. The sanctions discussion has been pushed further down the agenda by Syria.
Russian officials said the Syria situation was being misrepresented to destroy any chance that European leaders would end the sanctions, which Russia regards as illegal because they were not approved by the United Nations Security Council.
“I am sad and disappointed that Russia-EU relations are becoming hostage to yet another international crisis, not only the Ukrainian one but also the Syrian one,” Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s EU ambassador, told POLITICO in a telephone interview.
Chizhov said Europe was making a mistake by walking in lock-step with Washington. “Speaking on behalf of my country, we would wish the European Union to be strong, united, and more independent in its decision-making,” he added.
In Washington, Russia’s gripes about a lack of European independence are dismissed as little more than self-interested whining, part of a not so-hidden agenda to divide the EU and strain trans-Atlantic relations. Earlier this month, Kerry gave a speech in Brussels about the importance of the Euro-Atlantic alliance.
“We have spoken many times on the importance we place on transatlantic unity and the transatlantic relationship,” a State Department officials said. “Of course we believe we have many interests in common with the EU on Russia. Just as with sovereign nations, the EU is free to conduct its relations with other countries in accordance with its interests.”
‘Lost for words’
In a sign of how bad things have gotten between the two, Putin last week canceled a planned trip to France after Hollande suggested he might snub the Russian leader. There have also been calls in some Western capitals for Russia to be formally charged with war crimes.
Even without the Syria and Ukraine crises, Europe’s relations with Russia are complicated by an array of tangled strategic and economic interests, many tied to energy and Russia’s role as a major gas supplier to the Continent.
But items like these will remain on the back burner given the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria.
European diplomats will first discuss the Russia-Syria issue at a meeting in Luxembourg Monday, followed by the leaders’ dinner on Thursday.
Ukrainian officials insist that recent events in Syria are finally forcing the West to confront Russia’s true nature, leaving little to talk about.
“Unfortunately, the tragedy that is happening in Syria is just proving the arguments that Ukraine has been putting forward,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s vice prime minister for European integration.
Many European officials seem dismayed, but also flummoxed about how to deal with the Kremlin.
“We’re all pretty lost for words on a kind of personal and an emotional basis about what’s going on — it’s the worst bombardment yet on Aleppo and other cities; unprecedented suffering,” one EU diplomat said. “It’s just an appalling, appalling, appalling situation.”
“Russia has a critical role in this,” the diplomat said. “So there is a really important question of where we go now … What can we do? How can we increase the pressure in particular on Russia and obviously on the regime?”