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RSC Editorial
December 17, 2015

Stick to Sanctions on Russia

by
Dr. Andrew Foxall

Originally published in The New York Times

Ukraine and Russia are still at war. Since the Minsk II peace agreement came into effect on Feb. 15, nearly 400 Ukrainian soldiers and more than 200 civilians have been killed. Many more may die yet. As European Union leaders gather for a summit meeting this week, with the issue of whether to renew sanctions against Russia far from resolved, they cannot afford to ignore the continued violations of the cease-fire.

The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, got the better end of the deal in Minsk II. He forced Ukraine to accept as legitimate the authorities he installed in the territories invaded by Russia. He weighted the deal so as to ensure that the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, would come under pressure from both his political allies and enemies when Kiev honored its commitments. And he made Ukraine’s progress toward potential European Union membership a great deal more complicated.

For all of this, it is Mr. Putin who has done the least to ensure Minsk II remains in place.

He has demonstrated that he has the ability to stop and start the war in Ukraine when it suits him. In the first six months following the deal, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded daily violations — including not only small-arms fire, but the use of mortars, tanks and heavy artillery. Then, on Sept. 1, the war stopped — just as Russian forces began arriving in Syria.

For two months, there was, as the O.S.C.E. reported, “relative calm.” Then, in early November, hostilities resumed and there have been dozens of incidents daily. The Russia-backed separatist forces have escalated the conflict again.

It is not only through breaking the cease-fire that Mr. Putin has violated Minsk II. All foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries should have been withdrawn from Ukraine. Yet Russia continues to deploy an estimated 9,000 regular troops, and controls over 30,000 irregular troops, in the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The O.S.C.E. should be free to oversee the implementation of the agreement, but Russia’s proxy forces have restricted the organization’s ability to monitor the cease-fire, denied it access to the Ukraine-Russia border, and refused to provide it with details of their heavy weapons. The O.S.C.E. surveillance drones, which are used to observe the separatist-controlled territories, have been subjected to “military-grade GPS jamming” by the separatists, rendering them useless.

The republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are supposed to allow humanitarian aid to be distributed in eastern Ukraine; instead, they have blocked it. In September, the Luhansk authorities stopped 10 international humanitarian organizations, including Unicef, from entering the separatist-held territory; in October, the Donetsk authorities stopped Doctors Without Borders from operating there. According to the United Nations, the two republics are depriving 150,000 people of monthly food handouts.

Yet, Russia has escaped censure from the European governments that brokered the Minsk II agreement. The same governments are preoccupied with other issues: the Syrian war, the self-declared Islamic State and the refugee crisis.

 

The reasons for Russia’s violations are unclear. Mr. Putin may be seeking to derail Ukraine’s progress toward membership in the European Union, including the free-trade agreement scheduled to come into effect on Jan. 1, and thereby undermine Kiev’s pro-Western government. He may also be trying to use the global attention on Syria to increase the military pressure on Kiev, in the hope that Mr. Poroshenko will capitulate to Moscow’s demands over a political settlement in eastern Ukraine.

Whatever Mr. Putin’s motivations, it is clear that he sees the world’s distraction from Ukraine as a sign of the West’s weakness. And that only tempts Russia’s president more.

Speaking in March, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said that European Union sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine last year would not be lifted until there was “complete implementation” of Minsk II. But that was before the terrorist attacks in Paris led France to reach out to Russia. Mr. Putin is wagering that the West will trade an alliance in Syria for concessions on Ukraine.

The European Union cannot allow sanctions to lapse. If that were to happen, the union would concede, in effect, that Russia might invade and destabilize any territory it pleased. Russia would have triumphed over the world order imposed by the West after the Cold War. And Moscow’s authoritarianism will have defeated Brussels’ liberal democracy.

But simply renewing existing sanctions will not be enough. Nor will setting new cease-fire deadlines if Russia breaks the existing ones.

The European Union must tighten its enforcement of its sanctions. Its diplomatic service should examine how sanctioned individuals and entities have been able to circumvent restrictions in particular member states.

For Ukraine and the West, the primary objective should be to ensure adherence to Minsk II — starting with Ukraine’s regaining control over all its borders, which is supposed to happen by the end of the year. To achieve this, the West must demonstrate both a willingness to talk to Mr. Putin and a readiness to ratchet up sanctions until Russia meets its commitments. Many senior Russians, including Mr. Putin himself, with financial interests in the West have yet to be sanctioned.

Punishing Russia for bad behavior is not enough; the West must do more to help Ukraine. Were Mr. Putin to escalate the war, Kiev’s army would not be able to defeat the elite troops and conscripted forces of the oil-fueled giant — even if Russia is also fighting in Syria. The West must continue sending military advisers to Kiev, training Ukrainian forces and shipping military equipment, if only to increase the costs to Mr. Putin of any new intervention.

Without such measures, European governments that are considering allying with Russia in Syria risk encouraging Mr. Putin’s renewed war in Ukraine.

Dr. Andrew Foxall

About Dr. Andrew Foxall

Dr. Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society. He is responsible for overseeing research and advocacy relating to the study of contemporary politics and the promotion of human rights and political liberty in the Russian Federation.

Full profile  |  See all of Dr. Andrew Foxall's work