US-EU-Russia tensions spill over to Ukraine


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By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline 

The decision by the European Union countries at their summit in Brussels on Thursday to extend the sanctions against Russia was not a surprise. But the ease with which the decision was made is notable – with no discussions or arguments. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron presented a report on the status of implementation of the Minsk agreement, highlighting the lack of progress in Ukraine and the EU took a unified stance to extend the sanctions. The sanctions will now extend automatically up to July 31 next year.

Moscow has reacted calmly, but the fact remains that relations between Russia and EU countries will remain in limbo. The sanctions comprise different packages such as financial restrictions on Russia’s leading defense and energy companies, on Russian companies’ access to large European banks to raise loans for projects, embargo on Russia’s imports of military and energy technology and high-tech equipment from Europe, blacklisting of Russian individuals and legal entities, and a set of targeted sanctions in relation to Crimea such as ban of any dealings with that region by European businesses.

Strategically, Russia’s dependence on China will only increase. The prospects of Merkel remaining in power in the near term look good with the U-turn by the Social Democratic Party on forming another grand coalition with her Christian Democratic Union. This will not be good for Russia. Equally, whatever hopes might have been there in Moscow for a new beginning with France under Macron have fizzled out. A German-French axis is being forged with renewed vigor to accelerate the EU integration processes and transform the grouping as a heavyweight in Eurasian politics. Russia would have preferred a weakened, dispirited European Union that created space for it to deal with individual European countries on bilateral basis.

On the other hand, the drift in transatlantic relations is also a compelling reality. The European stance on East Jerusalem highlights it. The five-day 3-nation European trip to Brussels, Vienna and Paris by the US state secretary Rex Tillerson could not rollback the rising tensions. The EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini noted after talks with Tillerson that the bloc believes that any action that would undermine the peace-making efforts between Palestine and Israel “must absolutely be avoided.” On the Iran nuclear deal, she underscored that the continued implementation of the Iran nuclear deal is a key strategic priority for European, regional and global security.

Then, there is also a divergence on values that cannot be papered over. Europe remains a strong supporter of multilateralism, the UN system, and a rules-based global order. Europe views with distaste and horror Trump’s embrace of ultra-nationalism and his barely concealed Islamophobia. After Tillerson left, Mogherini took her gloves off, saying, Trump’s decision on Jerusalem “has a very worrying potential impact in this very fragile context. Now what the worst possible development could be that a bad situation turns into a worse one and that tensions inflame the region even further.” Suffice to say, Trump is a lump in the European throat – it can’t swallow it or spit it out. Any uplift in transatlantic relations under these circumstances is unlikely.

Russia may take vicarious satisfaction that Brussels is no longer willing to positively commit itself to the US regional and global agendas. However, there is a flip side to it. The US would have greater need today to stoke up Russophobia to rally the European countries under its leadership. Tillerson used strong language to highlight that Russia poses a threat to the West. At the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels last week Tillerson warned all European nations of Moscow’s “intrusion”. He said, “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine remains the biggest threat to European security.” Tillerson accused “Russia and its proxies” of “harassment, intimidation, and its attacks on the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (in Ukraine.)”

Interestingly, he went out of the way to flag that Trump is really not enamored of Russia as Europeans might think. “Trump does not talk with President Putin as often as with other world leaders, and I think, again, that’s simply a reflection of the strained relationship that exists between the United States and Russia,” Tillerson noted.

“We join our European partners in maintaining sanctions until Russia withdraws its forces from the Donbass and meets its Minsk commitments,” Tillerson added. He said the West should not regularize or renormalize the relationship with Russia “until Russia begins to address those actions which we find not just unacceptable but intolerable.” But Brussels keeps an ambivalent attitude toward Russia. It feels uneasy that Trump may one day wade into a Washington-Moscow rapprochement too soon, even before the Ukraine question is solved. On the other hand, Europe also is nervous about getting caught between a nasty showdown between Washington and Moscow.

Washington may leverage the situation in Ukraine to stoke up tensions there with the aim to keep the US’ European allies in line. Most certainly, US and Canada’s decision last Wednesday to lift the ban on supply of arms to Ukraine looks ominous. Russia repeatedly warned that such moves could have dangerous consequences. On Thursday in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin warned of a massacre in eastern Ukraine “worse than in Srebrenica” (horrific massacre of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia in 1995) if the West strengthened the Ukrainian nationalist forces.

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