EU gets tougher on Russia, but is Germany putting brakes on stronger sanctions?

The EU froze trade and visa talks with the Kremlin over Russia's intervention in Ukrainian Crimea. But whether further sanctions are implemented depends on Germany.

Michel Euler/AP
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speak with each other during a meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 6, 2014.

The European Union took its biggest step yet in protesting Russia's military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea, by suspending talks with Russia on visa and economic agreements Thursday.

But the bloc fell short of matching US asset freezes and bans on travel for individual Russians, most likely due to the resistance of one country: Germany.

The EU's European Council announced in a statement that it was freezing talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the EU, reports the Associated Press.

The council also threatened harsher actions, including "travel bans, asset freezes, and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit" if Russia fails to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. The statement added that any move by Russia to aggravate tensions would have “severe and far reaching consequences.”

Europe stepping up

Overall, the EU has taken a new, harsher tone in a crisis described as the most serious in Europe in a century. The Economist notes that the specificity of sanctions had until now just been vague threats.

Until the evening of March 5th, when foreign ministers were meeting in Paris to try to set up (a) contact group, it seemed unlikely the Europeans would move so far.… But Russia’s action is forcing EU leaders to set aside their qualms. As one diplomat put it, more than one leader came to the summit thinking their task was to defend their economic interests from the threat of sanctions, and left thinking the security of Europe was at stake.

But Europe’s inability to go as far as the US, which imposed visa restrictions on individual Russians, highlights the divergent views within the 28-nation bloc over how to deal with Russia.

Some countries in the EU see Russia and its vast energy industry as opportunity: Russia is the third-largest trading partner of the EU and the EU is the largest trading partner of Russia, according to the European Council. But to others along the bloc's eastern border and who view it through a post-Soviet lens, Russia is still a threat.

Still, even among those who are wary of the Kremlin's motives and want harsh sanctions, the EU response is stronger than originally anticipated. 

“Not everyone will be satisfied with the decision, but I should say that we did much more together than one could have expected several hours ago," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, according to the AP, after the emergency meeting yesterday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed, hinting that countries are overcoming their hesitation to take Russia on.

"Of course there are consequences for Britain if you look at financial services. Of course there are consequences for France if you look at defense. Of course there are consequences for some European countries if you look at energy," he said. But he said the EU had to take tough action to counter what he called "the most serious crisis in Europe this century."

Germany's brake

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that if Russia continues to spark tensions, “then we will see a far-reaching change in our relationship with Russia, which can also include a broad array of economic measures,” she said. "We don't wish for that to happen."

Still, some say that her wish – that nothing should happen – could be playing too large a role in Germany's diplomacy. Poised to be the biggest power broker for Europe in the debate, Germany is the reason, some experts say, that the EU hasn’t reacted more sternly. Instead, it has pushed for a dialogue over confrontation – part of its tradition of “ostpolitik” with the East since the cold war.

"Germany is the main brake on a tougher stance toward Russia," Stefan Meister of the European Council on Foreign Relations told the Agence France-Presse. "What we see at the moment is the limits of German influence on Russia, the limits of the collaborative approach that Germany has maintained for many years."

A new poll showed that Germans largely support Berlin's stance on Ukraine. Only 38 percent of those polled want to impose sanctions on Russia, according to the survey carried out by Infratest Dimap for German public broadcaster ARD.

Nearly three-quarters of Germans want to provide financial support to Ukraine, while 62 percent want to up the political pressure on Russia. 

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