Many European countries depend on economic trade and close energy links with Russia. This makes agreeing European sanctions against Moscow difficult and makes it even harder to keep these sanctions in place for any extended period of time.
Broadly speaking, there are two sets of economic sanctions against Russia over its aggression against Ukraine. First, there are sanctions linked to Russia’s 2014 illegal invasion and occupation of the Crimean peninsula.
Secondly, there are sanctions linked to the Russian-backed war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
It is the latter that support across Europe is starting to erode.
Lowest common denominator
The current debate around maintaining these economic sanctions against Russia is indicative of the shortcomings of EU foreign policy making.
Due to the consensus-based and lowest common denominator approach required by the EU, all it takes is for one member in the organisation to slow, water down or veto sanctions altogether.
Russia knows this and uses a divide-and-conquer technique to take advantage of this flaw in EU foreign policy making. This explains why Moscow maintains close links to EU countries such as Cyprus and Greece, for example. The Kremlin is hoping to have a sympathetic voice inside the EU arguing against sanctions.
The lowest common denominator approach taken by Brussels is another reason why Britain will probably be more assertive on the world stage once it finally leaves the EU.
Many countries in central and eastern Europe with the most to lose are some of the strongest supporters of continued economic sanctions. This is because they know what it is like to live under Soviet domination...
The UK, the world’s fifth largest economy and permanent member of the UN Security Council, will no longer be constrained by the national interests of the other 27 EU members and will be free to act independently.
Disunited for Ukraine
In June, the EU voted to extend economic sanctions against Russia for another six months. While this is good news, there is cause for concern for the long-term future of these sanctions. It is becoming clear that the facade of European support for sanctions is starting to crack.
In April, the French National Assembly passed a resolution calling for economic sanctions against Russia to be lifted.
For those advocating for the lifting of sanctions in France, the main concern was the impact the sanctions were having on the French economy, in particular the agriculture sector. Although this resolution was non-binding, it is illustrative of a prevailing mood sweeping across some corners of Europe.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently suggested that the threshold for lifting sanctions should only be “progress” towards implementing the Minsk II ceasefire agreement and not a full implementation of the agreement as originally stated. Some business advocacy groups representing as many as 800 German companies have also called for an end to sanctions.
Non-binding resolutions have been passed in legislative assemblies in the Veneto, Liguria and Lombardy regions of Italy calling for the sanctions to end.
The Hungarian and Greek governments have also urged caution against automatically renewing economic sanctions against Russia. It is well known that Greece’s Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has cozied up to Moscow ever since taking office on the back of the anti-EU sentiment that has rocked Athens.
It is not just the economic sphere where Europe is disunited for Ukraine. The Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg has suggested that NATO-Russia talks may soon resume after having been frozen since 2014. This is a complete reversal of NATO’s previous policy.
Greece, Spain and Malta have allowed Russian warships to call into their ports to get refuelled and resupplied, even with economic sanctions against Moscow in place. NATO and EU member Spain is the worst culprit, giving succour to the Russian Navy 22 times since Crimea was illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014.
What do all of these countries have in common? They all have close links to the Russian economy and depend on Moscow for much of their energy needs.
Many countries in central and eastern Europe with the most to lose are some of the strongest supporters of continued economic sanctions. This is because they know what it is like to live under Soviet domination and they are not keen to relive the experience.
Estonia is a great example.
In 2014 the Estonian economy, especially the farming sector, was hit by the sanctions. Thankfully its government made an effort to diversify its exports away from Russia and to other parts of the world.
For example, the EU became the destination for approximately 95 percent of the total export of Estonian dairy products last year, compared with just 74 percent in 2013.
Europe needs to remain firm on its economic sanctions until the terms of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement are met and Crimea is restored to Ukraine.
It is extraordinary how quickly many European countries have forgotten what Russia has done to Ukraine and how they could be next. As Winston Churchill once said: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.