Needed: A French-German Policy Toward Russia
In mid-March, the sixth anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea passed almost unnoticed. While international attention is now focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, the pressure on Europe’s policy toward Russia remains high – this time not because of Crimea, but due to Russian air strikes in Syria’s Idlib. Two million people are located in the region bordering Turkey. Should Russia and the Syrian regime chose to again intensify their air strikes, hundreds of thousands would have no choice but to flee to Turkey and Europe. Meanwhile, Europe’s policy on the matter remains fragmented. French President Emmanuel Macron in particular has charted a different path by launching a charm offensive vis-à-vis Russia over the last year. Many of his Central and Eastern European EU partners view this move with skepticism, especially as the French president seems prepared to make concessions to Putin on sensitive issues such as Ukraine or Russia’s suspended G8 membership.
The German government should not leave it to Macron alone to deal with Russia. On the contrary, it should actively persuade the French president to change course: Macron’s efforts to normalize relations with Moscow will not bring about the desired outcomes for Europe. Instead of turning a blind eye, Germany should press for new sanctions for the well-documented Russian war crimes committed in Syria.
At the 2020 Munich Security Conference, the French president declared that no one is prepared to be “brutal” with Russia. According to Marcon, the dearth of other viable options leaves only the route of a strategic dialogue with Moscow. However, in following this rationale, the French president seems to have overlooked one important issue: Ukraine. Unless the Kremlin changes course regarding its Ukraine policy, any normalization of relations with Moscow would constitute a de facto acceptance of the status quo in Donbas and the illegal annexation of the Crimea. For his part, Putin will not accept any kind of peace in Donbas, the contested region connecting eastern Ukraine and southwestern Russia, as long as Russia’s influence is not guaranteed. However, a guarantee of Russian influence on Moscow’s terms would make a sustainable peace in Ukraine impossible, and is therefore not in Europe’s interest. The European Union is caught in a Catch-22. Macron’s quest for closer relations with Putin comes at the risk of tolerating Russia’s influence in Ukraine even if it leads to concessions on the issues that are important to France.
In light of the current geopolitical realities, Macron’s assessment that Europe should start a dialogue with Russia is of course not wrong. But it would be ill-advised to do so under the illusion that Putin will suddenly stick to his agreements in return for European concessions, such as a Russian return to the G8 group. The war in Ukraine has shown time and again that a European agenda cannot be imposed on Putin. The same is true in Syria: despite all of the French president’s efforts to forge closer ties with Russia, all attempts by Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring about an end to the Russian hostilities in Syria have failed. The ceasefire in northern Syria was negotiated directly by Putin and the Turkish President Erdogan – without any European involvement. How long it will last remains in question.
When it comes to Russia, the German government should act decisively rather than dodge Macron’s proposals, as it has repeatedly done in recent years – including his ideas for EU reforms. On the one hand, this means insisting on red lines with regard to Ukraine. On the other, the German government should push France toward new EU sanctions against Moscow. This demand has already been voiced in Berlin, including by the Green Party’s spokesperseon for European Policy Franziska Brantner and Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a candidate for the Christian Democrats’ party chair. However, the new measures should be more comprehensive than the proposed individual sanctions against Russian generals who have perpetrated war crimes. In order to convince France to impose further sanctions, the German government must set an example and hit the Kremlin where it hurts: the construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline.
A comprehensive new set of sanctions, including a halt to the construction of Nord Stream II, would show France and other European partners that Germany is taking this matter seriously. Such a measure would not be “brutal” – but it would be decisive. It is also Europe’s best chance of using civil means to pressure Putin into making concessions in Syria. The coronavirus pandemic is putting a halt on policy making in many areas – but a determined stance on Russian war crimes should not be one of them.
Here too the lessons learned from the Ukrainian conflict can be instructive. Sanctions did not persuade Putin to withdraw from Donbas. However, advocates of the current sanctions stress that these measures have helped prevent further escalation in the region. And through these sanctions, the EU clearly demonstrated that it will not stand by idlily as Russia breaches international law. With regard to Syria, the EU member states seem unable to agree on a similarly coherent policy. A decision on further sanctions would end this inertia. This would not only be the right choice in view of the catastrophic situation in Syria, it would also be an important step in the direction of a more strategic European foreign policy toward Russia – one that has learned its lesson from the annexation of Crimea.
A German version of this commentary was originally published in taz on April 2, 2020.