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Europe may get a lot tougher on Russia sanctions

- July 17, 2014

A part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)
Information is still coming in on the crash of a Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine. We hope to have posts at the Monkey Cage from several social scientists with relevant insights about the political implications as we get better data. However, initial indications appear to strongly suggest that the flight was downed by Ukrainian rebels sponsored by Russia.
If these indications are correct (sometimes, early impressions are flawed or completely wrong), the downing will almost certainly have enormous repercussions for Russia’s relationship with its neighbors and with the world. One important bellwether is Russia’s relationship with the European Union.
The E.U. has been much less willing to impose sanctions on Russia than the United States, in large part because it has much closer economic ties. Initially, resistance to tough sanctions was led by Germany, which has developed an extensive economic relationship with Russia, including substantial reliance on Russian gas. More recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gotten much tougher, pressing for relatively strong sanctions against Russia at a E.U. meeting a couple of days ago. However, Italy, which also has strong economic ties with Russia and is currently chairing the union, pushed successfully to water down E.U. sanctions. The E.U. operates on consensus – especially on foreign policy and security issues. Strong opposition from a major member state makes it hard to move policy forward.
If it turns out that Russian sponsored rebels have used Russian advanced weaponry to down an aircraft bound from the Dutch capital to Kuala Lumpur, it may transform Europe’s debate, and make it far harder for countries like Italy to remain holdouts. EU member states — like all states — tend to be pretty hard nosed about pursuing their self-interest, and it could be that several countries would prefer to limit their actions to rhetorical condemnations.
Moreover, there are influential politicians and former politicians, such as former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who have deep ties to Russia, and have argued its case in the past.
However, as Frank Schimmelfennig shows in his account of bargaining over E.U. enlargement, states can also find themselves “entrapped” by rhetoric into taking positions that run counter to their true preferences.
It’s going to be hard for such states to on the one hand verbally condemn Russia’s role, and on the other block actions against Russia, when television screens are showing the faces of dead European citizens, with no more involvement in the conflict than a coincidence of flight plan.