Top European far-right political figures have gathered in Sankt-Petersburg on Sunday to show their support for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The nationalist-themed meeting was taking place while rumors of a broken ceasefire were arriving from Ukraine.
Normally, a ceasefire violation by the Russian-backed separatists would automatically lead to further economic sanctions against Moscow, but analysts believe European countries have stretched out to their maximum when it comes to sanctions.
Europe’s biggest economies lately appeared increasingly reluctant to go further than they already have with the economic sanctions. Economic analysts are convinced that the penalties targeted at Russia for its alleged aggression have already started to hurt both sides. If the European countries will continue to pursue the sanction policy, as the US expects from them, the collateral damage could bring the already challenged euro-zone economy into ruin.
Diplomats in Washington are confident the State Department can still come with a few more punitive options against Vladimir Putin, unless Russia decides to cease its support for the separatists in Ukraine. This has been confirmed by both Amos Hochstein, US top diplomat on energy issues, and by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who reassured people that the Obama administration is in the position to “increase the costs” for Kremlin in case of a ceasefire violation.
Sadly for Washington, the same thing does not apply to its European allies. So far, the sanctions that have already been applied have mostly affected Russia’s oil sector. Russia is currently one of the world’s top oil producers, alongside Saudi Arabia and the United States, and its economy is largely dependent on fuel exports.
“If you start playing around with oil prices, Russia is going to play around with gas”
Since the global oil supply has been steadily increasing since last year, the prices are almost at half of the value they were at about twelve months ago. To some, this may seem like argument to persist with the sanctions against Russian oil exports, as there is no global urge to buy oil, while the costs for Moscow’s economy would be significant.
However, the largest euro-zone economies say enough has been done, and they fear that further steps could damage their own stability. Perhaps what they mostly fear is that Russian gas, more important for Europe than oil, would stop coming if Putin gets angry. Former US energy diplomat Carlos Pascual explained the situation pretty clear: “If you start playing around with oil prices, Russia is going to play around with gas, and there’s no way Europe is going to go along with it.”
So, diplomats in Washington are facing a difficult choice. All the “easy” sanctions, like those aimed at Moscow’s high-tech oil exploitation projects, have already been applied. One of the remaining options the US officials boasted about having is directly tackling Russian oil exports. But if US companies stop buying Putin’s oil, Europe must go along with it, or it will all be for nothing.
Last year, the Unites States forced oil company Exxon Mobil to end its $3.2 billion collaboration with Russian companies. This time, however, if European companies won’t follow the same pattern, committing to further sanctions could bring huge losses for US assets in Russia, at the expense of an increased market share for Europe. And what is more significant, Moscow will barely notice the difference.
A Friday announcement from Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, made it clear that no one can force the 28 EU members to adopt a common policy on sanctions. Anonymous official sources even suggested that most of the European countries are tired of the sanctions and would embrace a change in the bloc’s position.
The economic sanctions currently imposed on Russia seem to have had a noticeable effect on the country’s economy. The ruble – the Russian currency – fell 40 percent against the dollar over the past nine months, its downfall triggered by the blocking of Western investment in Russia and by the freezing of foreign assets belonging to Putin’s political partners.
Any of the options available for Europe at this point will be to slow to prevent the imminent collapse of Ukraine under Russian pressure, according to Russia expert Andrew Weiss. “These tools may hurt and bite over time, but the inherent fragility of the Ukraine is so high it is working against the ability of the West to achieve its goals,” Weiss argued, while also pointing out that the West doesn’t have too many things that Russians actually need.
And indeed, Putin doesn’t seem too deterred by the US and Europe’s attempts to hinder his plans for Ukraine. Russia hasn’t shown any sign of backing off from Crimea, the Ukrainian province it annexed last year. And although Moscow helped broker a ceasefire between the separatists and the government in Kiev, recent reports indicate the situation in Eastern Ukraine is still volatile.
While US officials were still debating in Washington over whether to send weapons to the Ukrainian army or not, reports from the Donbas region suggested both of the participants in the conflict have violated the ceasefire. The Ukrainian military reported two casualties allegedly caused by a separatist attack, while militants accused the government forces of continuously bombarding the region in the past 24 hours.
General Philip Breedlove, NATO Air Force commander, believes sending weapons to Kiev for defensive purposes shouldn’t be more destabilizing than staying out of the ongoing conflict. “Inaction could be destabilizing. We continue to see disturbing elements of air defense, command and control, resupply, equipment coming across a completely porous border,” the General said.
Meanwhile, President Putin seems to be gathering allies from all across Europe. Representatives of the biggest European far-right parties joined for a meeting in Sankt Petersburg to prove that Russia is still enjoying large international support. The nationalist leaders also expressed their hope that European Union’s sanctions over the Kremlin will soon come to an end.
About 200 politicians took part in the meeting, among which several are members of the European Parliament, like Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party leader Udo Voigt. The gathering also attracted almost 40 protesters, quickly apprehended by the Russian police forces. The far-right union’s plans came to a halt though, after a bomb threat forced the organizers to postpone the meeting for another time.
Image Source: Radio Free Europe
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