If sanctions are considered not to be working, then the answer is not to lift them, but to strengthen them.
Tomorrow the leaders of the G7 industrialised nations meet at Taormina under the banner of ‘building the foundations of renewed trust.’ How to deal with Russia, though, does not seem to be on their agenda. And if we ignore the need to strengthen the coherence of Western and European policy towards an adversary that actively seeks to undermine trust in the west, then the slogan of ‘renewed trust’ will remain just that - a slogan.
The official topics of the summit are ‘citizen safety’ (a euphemism for terrorism, migration and chaos in the Middle East and North Africa), sustainability and reducing inequality, and preparing for the future economy. These are crucial issues, and it is quite right that they be addressed. However, long-term policy questions (none of which are going to be solved at a single summit) must not be allowed to crowd out immediate challenges.
After all, relations with Russia have a direct bearing on all these themes. By defending a murderous government in Syria, and by interfering in countries such as Libya, it is exacerbating the problems of refugees and radicalisation. Russia is the developed economy with perhaps the highest levels of income inequality, and Putin is backtracking on previous sustainability commitments and saying climate change doubters ‘may not be at all silly.’
From its eager adoption of cyberattacks as an instrument of geopolitics, to its failure to properly respect foreign intellectual property rights, Moscow challenges the G7 nations’ vision of a high-tech future economy. Most fundamentally, the assertive political war the Kremlin is waging against the West, with espionage, hacks, subversion and disinformation, is actively sowing distrust between and within countries.
So what is to be done? The very minimum is to ensure that the fragile unity on existing defensive measures remains intact. Any sign that the West was losing the will to resist Russian aggression would send a dangerous message. It would tell Moscow that Europe lacks unity and stamina, that it can be as aggressive as it likes and simply wait us out. Central to this messaging is the question of sanctions.
The way British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s efforts to step up sanctions were squashed at the G7 foreign ministers’ summit in April was not a good omen. But dropping them altogether would be a disaster.
Of course, some doubt the utility of sanctions. Three years on, the Russian flag still flies over Crimea, Russian troops and proxies are still in the Donbas, and Russia is still interfering in Western politics. But no one honestly expected the relatively limited political and economic sanctions to force Vladimir Putin into an embarrassing (and politically dangerous) 180-degree turn.
As much as anything else, they are a statement of will and values. They tell Russia that the unprovoked invasion of another country is unacceptable, and that the West will not ignore or condone it.
The European Union has to reaffirm its sanctions every six months. This certainly attracts the Kremlin’s attention. From personal experience in Moscow, when renewal is looming, the Russians are desperately trying to see if they have any leverage to persuade an EU country to break ranks.
If sanctions are considered not to be working, or not working fast enough, then the answer is not to lift them, but to strengthen them. There is much more we can do to show that aggression has consequences, even without risking further economic cost to ourselves.
We could, for example, expand the personal sanctions on key figures within the Russian regime behind the aggression in Ukraine and Syria, and the subversion in the West. By barring them entry, freezing their assets, and also including their families, we target those responsible for policy at the top of the system, not ordinary Russians.
The key point is that the G7 and EU must continue to reaffirm – to each other as well as to Moscow – that they are united. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano has said that Putin ‘must not be pushed into a corner.’ This is true. But a common policy defending the rules of the game is not a push. Rather, it is a refusal to be pushed around oneself.
Of course, this will not be easy. Some countries have vocal business lobbies agitating against sanctions. Others see the real challenges elsewhere, in North Korea, or the Mediterranean. And Washington’s uncertain lurches from one half-thought-through policy to another make any attempt at coordination difficult.
But it must be done. If this summit is about ‘renewed trust,’ then a principled and coherent policy on Russia would not only redeem the trust the Ukrainians and others have in the West, but also demonstrate credibility. And if Europe lacks credibility, then how can it expect to be trusted?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.