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Opinion: EU takes baby steps against Russia

EU leaders agreed to slightly tighten sanctions against Russia. DW’s Ingo Mannteufel comments on why it's difficult for the EU to take a tough line with Russia, and why the bloc is still moving in the right direction.

After the United States, EU leaders have also slightly tightened their sanctions against Russia in light of the continuing violence in eastern Ukraine. The European Union's sanctions will target certain Russian companies or entities that are contributing to destabilization in Ukraine. In addition, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be told to suspend funding of new projects in Russia.

The sanctions are a matter of dispute in terms of their meaning and effectiveness. They will probably not be enough to force Moscow's leadership to fundamentally change their political strategy. A proper analysis of the sanctions' effects will only be possible once it's clear precisely which companies and organizations will be targeted. This should be clear by the end of July.

EU shying away from tough sanctions

What the decisions do show, however, is that the heads of state and government of the European Union have difficulties slapping tougher sanctions on Russia. There are many reasons. EU leaders have turned to sanctions as a means of provoking a change in policies in the Kremlin, but they don't want to risk an escalation spiral with Russia.

Ingo Mannteufel Photo:

Ingo Mannteufel heads DW's Europe department

EU heads simply don't want full confrontation with Russia. And that's not because - as some in Ukraine have suggested - the European heads of state and government are naive. They are increasingly recognizing the dangerous potential of the current Russian threat.

It's because democratically elected politicians are aware of the risk of being punished by their voters - should for example Russian counter sanctions tip European economies into a recession or lead to higher energy prices. It's the nature of democracies to be focused on balance and political compromise. That's why it's easier for the United States than it is for the European Union to up the ante. Russia is neither a major trading partner for the US nor is it a crucial energy supplier.

That means tough, full-fledged economic sanctions by the EU against Russia - the often-cited stage 3 - are not going to be on the table anytime soon. There simply is not the one magic measure against Russia that would put enough pressure on the Kremlin to radically change its policy.

EU approach is effective

Yet, the EU's political strategy against Russia shouldn't be underestimated in terms of its effectiveness over the long term. There are signs that cooperation between the EU with Russia has been reduced and made increasingly difficult. Of course, more could be done. But at least the EU is taking baby steps in the right direction. Under these circumstances, it's far from clear how the Russian economy can get an impetus for growth if the West stops being a partner of modernization and trade. It's a common delusion that other BRICS members or emerging nations could provide a viable alternative. That simply won't work.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies have led his country into a dead-end. It's only because of extensive propaganda in Russian state media that people in Russia have not realized it yet. The consequences can already be seen: the Russian economy is in stagnation, and the ruble is losing value. What else would full-fledged economic sanctions have triggered?

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