Ukrainian claims test European unity – POLITICO
Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.
This week, the European Union is expected to approve a seventh sanctions package against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged his diplomats « to do everything to strengthen it ». The package targets Russian gold exports and changes some sanctions to better align with similar measures imposed by the EU’s G7 partners. The package also strengthens reporting requirements and aims to improve compliance with the asset freeze of persons and entities that have already been sanctioned. And there are also additions to dual-use goods banned from sale to Russia.
But for Ukraine, these measures are simply not enough, and the rigidity of Kyiv’s demands is beginning to test European unity.
The Ukrainians continue to push for a gas embargo, of course, and they remain frustrated with the recent Canada-German agreement to lift restrictions on a key component – a turbine – needed for Nord Stream, the Russian gas pipeline to Germany.
Brussels’ decision – again due to a German boost – to lift restrictions on the transit of goods from Belarus and Russia to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave wedged between Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, is also seen as another sign of Western capitulation.
Zelenskyy sees any easing of restrictions or any dodge or refusal to go further in sanctions as a weakness. “If a terrorist state can make such an exception to sanctions, what exceptions will it want tomorrow or the day after? he fumed in one of his late-night TV addresses. “This issue is very dangerous… not only for Ukraine, but also for all countries in the democratic world.
He added: « The decision on the exception to the sanctions will be perceived in Moscow exclusively as a manifestation of weakness. »
The Ukrainian leader and his aides fear that Russia is using ‘General Winter’ to test European governments even further, choking off gas supplies to European countries or, in an effort to secure concessions and other compromises , threatening to do so, possibly triggered by arms deliveries to Ukraine.
And there is a good chance that Putin will indeed seize the opportunity to squeeze Europe, with the aim of undermining the already fragile unity of the continent. Gas exports are only 2% of Russia’s GDP and Russia has already made good profits on sales. « Europeans, with a much lower level of political stamina according to the Kremlin, will be divided, which will generate an irresistible will to lift the sanctions », this is probably how Moscow sees it, suggests the Italian think tank Istituto Afari Internazionali.
As such, many European leaders reason, it’s best to replenish stocks now while they have the chance, and give Putin no excuse to cut the gas later in the winter – that’s i.e. if he opens the taps once seasonal maintenance on Nord Stream 1 is complete.
But, arguably, it is Ukraine’s tough stance on sanctions and trade with Russia that falls into a Kremlin trap.
Although Zelenskyy may be able to accurately gauge Ukrainian public opinion, there are signs that he is increasingly misinterpreting the changing public mood in Western and Southern Europe, where leaders have their wits about them. on shifting opinion polls, and households and businesses are worried about how they will survive a worsening cost of living crisis that risks triggering a eurozone crisis.
The Ukrainian leader risks undermining the continent’s unity and resolve by relentlessly pushing for more economic warfare than European governments can actually deliver – that is, if they don’t want to come up against their own voters and shaping the circumstances for a powerful backlash that is eroding popular support for Ukraine.
Some European diplomats say privately that Zelenskyy should tone down his censure and pleas. And in recent days, several European leaders have publicly stressed that it will not benefit Ukraine if an already severe energy crisis becomes even more brutal in winter, perhaps helped by Putin’s throttling of gas supplies.
Economically struggling governments fear having to bail out utility companies, being forced to pick winners and losers among industrial sectors and businesses due to rationing, or having to appease energy-starved and fearful households .
And Ukraine’s demands are beginning to frustrate some leaders who say Kyiv doesn’t seem to appreciate a key rule on sanctions – that they must have a greater impact on Russia than on the countries imposing them.
As Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources noted in an interview explaining why Ottawa decided to ship the repaired turbine: « The purpose of sanctions is not to hurt our allies, it is not to crater the German economy.
Robert Habeck, Germany’s economic affairs minister, echoed this point, recently telling Bloomberg: « I will be the first to fight for another set of strong EU sanctions, but strong sanctions must do more than hurt Russia and Putin than our economy ».
Yet Kyiv’s only response so far has been to demand intensified sanctions – seemingly still oblivious to how difficult it is for European leaders to maintain public support for Ukraine as prices soar. Zelenskyy worries about sanctions fatigue, but he should also worry that concerned western and southern Europeans are losing patience and listening to his pleas.