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Impact of Escalating Tensions with Russia on EU and US Sanctions over Ukraine

November 24, 2015

Since the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there has been some speculation and commentary that the war against ISIS will fundamentally change Western views on Russia’s involvement in Syria and potentially even prompt a relaxation of sanctions imposed over Ukraine. Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian fighter jet that strayed into its airspace on November 24 will, predictably, cause others to question whether we are instead facing a new period of confrontation with the Russians. There may yet be calls to strengthen sanctions against Russia in response to the incident and Russian support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Ultimately, each of these viewpoints fail to take into account three fundamental points:

  1. Sanctions imposed against Russia for Ukraine-related reasons can only be lifted or augmented for Ukraine-related reasons.

Much as some “Sanction Russia” proponents may wish to forget, the sanctions imposed against Russia in response to its behavior in Ukraine are narrowly focused on resolving the Ukraine situation. The decision to impose sanctions was politically and economically damaging to many European governments, and they are not likely to endorse a broader sanctions campaign against Russia unless absolutely necessary. Russian involvement in Syria does not pass this test and it is doubtful that one Russian plane being shot down will be either; after all, a response to Russian violations of Turkish airspace has already been delivered.

But, just as it is doubtful that this latest incident will prompt new sanctions against Russia, it was also improbable that cooperation over ISIS was going to lead to a reduction of those sanctions. EU and US leaders have been consistent for many months that the only path to sanctions reduction and eventual elimination lies through full implementation of the Minsk cease-fire and resolution of questions about Ukrainian sovereignty. They have shown no signs of backing down, despite concerns about the economic impact of continued Russian sanctions, and instead the EU appears set to extend the current sanctions for another six months based on press reports.

It may seem incongruous that international efforts to destroy ISIS could come alongside continued sanctions against one of the more significant players in Syria, but it should not be. Just as the members of the P5+1 – China, France, German, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — were able to come together to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran despite many serious differences over Iran itself, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism and human rights policies, so too can many of these same countries collaborate to defeat a common threat in ISIS while confronting one another in other areas.

  1. This latest incident may speak more about Russian provocative military maneuvers than it does about grander issues.

We should also keep in mind that the Russians have been operating in what a senior US military officer called a “reckless” manner over Syria. There have apparently been efforts to work out sensible arrangements to avoid such accidents over Syria, but the Russians have demonstrated for years a somewhat cavalier attitude to airspace concerns. Reports of Russian bomber activity near US aircraft carriers, near other NATO allied airspace, and indeed over Turkish airspace have been common in the last year. To a certain extent, this latest incident is only the logical outcome of a Russian approach that seems intended to bait a response.

  1. Russian bellicosity is unlikely to decrease after this incident.

Russia’s full response to Turkey has yet to be seen. President Vladimir Putin spoke of “serious consequences” for Turkey as a result of the incident and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cancelled a trip to Turkey, as well as discouraged Russian tourism to the country in response. More, including individual Russian sanctions against Turkey, may be in the offing, though it seems unlikely that the Russian government would respond offensively.

That said, as has been seen throughout Putin’s tenure, his response to confrontation is often to double-down against it. From Chechnya to the invasion of Georgia to his efforts to stop US missile defense to Ukraine, Putin has demonstrated a desire to confront challenge with more challenge. Far from making Russia more conciliatory toward Turkey and reflective in its approach to foreign affairs, we may see more Russian bellicosity in the near term than less.

How the West chooses to respond will be important. As noted, more sanctions against Russia would be difficult to secure absent a major provocation (probably going beyond this incident, but possibly including continued interference in Ukraine or something more muscular to retaliate against Turkey). A defensive military posture (and, ideally, one in which NATO endorses Turkish action and reminds Russia that there are consequences for its constant provocations) and redoubled efforts to resolve the Syrian situation diplomatically seem more likely near-term outcomes.


*Richard Nephew is Director of the Economic Statecraft, Sanctions, and Energy Markets program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, and the former Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the State Department. The views expressed are his own.


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Impact of Escalating Tensions with Russia on EU and US Sanctions over Ukraine