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Russia sanctions 'unavoidable'

Bernd Riegert / slkJuly 30, 2014

For months, the EU looked on as Moscow destabilized Eastern Ukraine. But after the downing of MH17, Brussels had no choice but to impose economic sanctions against Russia, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Symbolbild Verhältnis EU Russland
Image: imago/Rainer Unkel

Finally, the European Union has acted. After hesitating and wavering for months, Brussels has imposed tough economic sanctions against Russia. It wasn't easy for the 28 member states, which by nature are focused on their own economic interests, to forge a common position. But they have now succeeded in doing just that. After all of the threats made against Moscow, the EU had to follow through on its word. If Brussels had failed to act, then it would have lost its credibility.

Despite the tragic deaths of 298 completely innocent airline passengers and crew, the Kremlin continues to play a risky game in Eastern Ukraine and refuses to call back the separatists that it unleashed. Brussels acquiesced when Russia annexed Crimea; watched while an armed uprising in Eastern Ukraine escalated into a civil war; and let itself be humiliated and harassed by Moscow. Only after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down did the bloc come to the conclusion that enough is enough.

Nobody can say for certain whether or not the economic sanctions will have their desired effect and force the Russian president to back down and change course. It will take a long time for the new measures to have an impact. The Russian economy will suffer and perhaps go into recession. But Vladimir Putin can probably hold out longer than the West would like. The Russian people seem to be standing by him. But will the oligarchs continue to back him when their fortunes begin to crumble?

Costs for both sides

The EU unfortunately neglected to tell its citizens that they will also have to pay for the sanctions. In the worst case scenario, Putin - feeling backed into a corner - could restrict energy deliveries to Europe.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert

Oddly, the EU's heads of state and government delegated the decision to their tight-lipped ambassadors in Brussels. No statements were made in front of the cameras - not a word. The EU convenes special summits for almost everything imaginable these days, but apparently not for such a dramatic political attack against Moscow. It's a public relations disaster. One could hardly do a worse job selling EU policy.

Putin has other options

The EU has moved closer to the White House's tougher position. It's the right decision - only a united front still has the chance of making an impression on Putin. But the Russian president is not as isolated as the EU would like to think.

China and the other major emerging powers - Brazil, India and South Africa - are cozying up to the autocratic ruler in the Kremlin. That could be seen recently at the BRICS summit in Brazil. Over the long term, Russia could succeed in selling its energy supplies elsewhere and importing machinery from China. Brussels must quickly co-opt third-party countries in order to prevent Russia from circumventing the sanctions by using banks in Asia or Latin America.

The EU has taken the first step into the sanctions spiral, unholstering its most powerful political weapon. It was unavoidable. Now Russia has the choice: escalate or back down.