Will NATO's tough talk on Russia lead to new round of sanctions?

Russia’s actions to destabilize eastern Ukraine 'have serious implications for the stability and security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area,' NATO foreign ministers said Tuesday.

Yves Herman/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry holds a news conference during a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Tuesday.

NATO foreign ministers, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, on Tuesday condemned Russia for continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine and strengthening its hold on Crimea with a military buildup.

Russia’s actions “have serious implications for the stability and security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area,” the ministers said in a joint statement.

But the talk in Mr. Kerry’s entourage of imposing a new round of Western sanctions on Russia over its actions appeared to gain little traction among Europeans, some of whom hold out hope for dialogue with Moscow and whose countries depend on Russia for energy supplies.

So even as Kerry acknowledged in comments to the press that the sanctions in place have yet to alter Russia’s behavior, European officials were discounting prospects for a new round of sanctions any time soon. 

“Our role is also to explore ways for dialogue (with Russia),” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the ministers of the 28-member military alliance met Tuesday.

The ministers did take steps that risk antagonizing Russia: They approved creation of a 3,000 to 4,000-troop interim rapid reaction force to be in place by early next year. And they extended through 2015 several measures taken this year to reassure NATO’s easternmost and former Soviet-republic members.

The interim quick-response force is to fill in until a permanent rapid-reaction force approved by NATO leaders in September is in operation in 2016. The measures aimed at reassuring jittery NATO members include increased air patrolling of the Baltic Sea and stepped up deployment of NATO forces in countries such as Poland and the Baltic states.

In a joint statement, the NATO ministers condemned Russia’s “continued and deliberate destabilization in Ukraine in breach of international law,” and they blasted what they called “Russia’s military build-up” in Crimea and on the Black Sea.

Once again they called on Russia to “reverse its illegal and illegitimate self-declared ‘annexation’ of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognize.”

But there did not appear to be any direct line between those tough words and additional sanctions on Russia by the US and Europe.

Earlier in the week, senior State Department officials traveling with Kerry had assured reporters that additional sanctions to counter Russia’s unabated destabilization in Ukraine would be on the agenda of Kerry’s meetings with his European counterparts.

Kerry would be having conversations on “where we go next [with sanctions] particularly in response to the continued supply of heavy weapons” from Russia to Ukrainian separatists, one senior official said.

But if comments from European officials Tuesday were any indication, Kerry appeared unlikely to find much enthusiasm for additional sanctions, especially in the absence of a marked deterioration in eastern Ukraine.

If anything, Tuesday’s announcement by Ukraine’s military and separatist forces of agreement on a new cease-fire to take effect beginning Dec. 5 would seem likely to dampen sanctions talk even more.

Some European officials also point out that it wasn’t that long ago that the European Union last approved a new round of sanctions. The EU last month imposed sanctions on a list of Ukrainian separatists, after the EU and US both imposed a range of sanctions on Russia’s energy, banking, and defense sectors in late July.

In his comments to reporters at NATO headquarters Tuesday, Kerry said the fact Russia has not yet changed its behavior – for example, he said Moscow continues to ship heavy armaments to the separatists – does not mean the sanctions have failed.

Noting that “sanctions historically take a little while,” Kerry said there are signs in Russia’s economy that the sanctions are taking a toll. The ruble is weak and falling, he said, and Russian officials have announced that the country will sink into recession next year.

“Over time, sanctions have an ability to work,” Kerry said, adding that he would “completely and totally disagree with any premature assumption” about the inability of sanctions to cause a shift in Russia’s actions.

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