Anticipating Russia’s reaction to future EU sanctions:
division, disinformation or destabilization?
“The EU has the technical capacity, the financial power and the moral authority to play the role of objective arbiter that can prevent the movement of the local political actors in the wrong direction, which anyways favor the Russian factor …”
The movement of the power-opposition confrontation outside the Russian borders, generated by the persecution of Alexey Navalny, after the failed attempt of his poisoning, put before the EU the tough decision to multiply the sanctions against Russia. The new category of sanctions seeks to punish human rights violations and was agreed by member states at the latest EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting (February 22, 2021). The emphasis of the sanctions is on the politicizing of Navalny’s trial and brutal repression of pro-Navalny protests. The Moscow fiasco of European Foreign Minister Josep Borrell (IPN, February 2021) has coagulated a critical mass sufficient to expand the list of sanctions against Russian rulers. The speech of the European leaders at the Munich Security Conference (MSC, February 19, 2021) showed that they are morally ready to sanction the Russian authorities. At the end of her term as chancellor, but even more so in order to alleviate Germany’s blame for tolerating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Angela Merkel sharply criticized the Russian side for the stalemate in pacifying the Donbas. French leader Emmanuel Macron has taken a more balanced stance on Moscow, opting for dialogue. In any case, the tightening of the West’s position concerning the Eastern strategic challenge (i.e. Russia) is imminent after the administration of Joe Biden announced the reinvigoration of the transatlantic dialogue. The US return to the status of global promoter of democracy, largely abandoned in 2016–2020, serves as a beneficial factor for the manifestation of the geopolitical ambitions of European decision-makers. At this moment, European leaders and European institutions are willing to show boldness and firmness towards Moscow, including in the field of sanctions.
Adopted seven years ago (2014), the first sanctions against Russia stemmed from the need to discourage Russian military aggression against Ukraine. The shooting down of the MH17 civilian plane that was operating an international flight passing through Ukrainian airspace, above territories controlled indirectly by the Russian military, forced the EU to adopt economic (sectoral) sanctions against Russia. European restrictive measures conditioned the cessation of diplomatic talks on the “new strategic partnership”. Russia’s response was immediate, inspired by more than a decade of embargoes practised against former Soviet republics — Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and even Belarus. Thus, the Russian side introduced counter-sanctions of a commercial nature against European companies, hitting the import of agri-food products of European origin. In such a way, Moscow made a clear statement that it refuses to admit any responsibility for the flagrant violation of the Ukrainian territorial integrity.
The intimidation of Europeans pursued by the Russian embargo did not break the EU’s ranks concerning the help to Ukraine. On the contrary, anti-Russian sanctions have been extended every year since 2015. The EU has vowed that the sanctions will stay in place until the evacuation of Russian military forces from the Donbas and the restoration of Kyiv’s control over all Russian-Ukrainian borders are fulfilled completely. The second and third waves of European sanctions, which involved Russia, were “horizontal”. One targeted Russian citizens and entities suspected of carrying out cyberattacks against the technological infrastructure of the German parliament (2015) and that of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, located in the Netherlands (2018). The other referred to the use of the chemical “Novichok”, on British territory, on members of the Skripal family (2018) and Alexey Navalny in Russia (2020).
With the transposition of the fourth wave of sanctions, scheduled for March 2021, based on the “European Magnitsky Act”, Russia will become the only country in the world penalized by the EU on four aspects concomitantly — destabilization of Ukraine, cyber-attacks, actions to spread chemical weapons and human rights violations. The new wave of sanctions will have a considerable load of geopolitical symbolism and can be the source of unpredictable chain reactions. First, unlike other sanctions caused by Russian destabilization activities abroad, the new restrictions will embrace domestic affairs in Russia. Even if EU sanctions are individual (Reuters, February 2021), they will name those involved in the abuses against human rights and the rule of law. The sanctions will be more specific and better targeted than the rulings issued by the European Court of Human Rights ignored or ridiculed by Russia. The new sanctions may help the EU overcome the handicap of “declarative diplomacy” (IPN, November 2020). This also indicates a maturation of the relationship with Russia, previously treated with much caution and reluctance than other states in the eastern neighborhood on violation of human rights of similar proportions. The second aspect lies in setting a historical precedent, with long-term effects. The Russian opposition and civil society could use it as a reference to advocate more easily for future expanding of the sanctions on other Russian officials who have wealth on European soil, including oligarchs. Finally yet importantly, it is certain that the sanctions in the fourth wave will be categorized by Russia as interference in its internal affairs, not only as extra-territorial measures that undermine the universalism of the UN Security Council (MID.ru, 19 February 2021). That is why, being known for retaliatory reflexes, Russia will not hesitate to react strongly in areas of strategic importance to the EU — the implementation of the “Minsk agreements”, the situation in the Eastern Partnership countries or the anti-pandemic vaccination strategy.
The lesson of sanctions related to Ukraine
Even though the sanctions imposed in the Ukrainian context have had a profound negative impact on Russia, Vladimir Putin’s regime has accepted the challenges connected to them. The goal of paralyzing the development of Ukraine as a sovereign and democratic state through “Donbasization”, copying the “federalization” initiative, which failed in Moldova in 2003, takes precedence over Russia’s priorities. The list of costs incurred by the Kremlin for the continuous destabilization of the neighboring country is long. It includes the branding of Russia as “aggressor country”, the marginalization of Russian companies on the European financial market and the impoverishment of Russian citizens, forced to pay for more expensive non-European food (between 7 and 10 billion USD annually or 70 USD per person annually).
In the last seven years, to reduce the negative impact of its embargo on European goods, Russia has invested in developing import substitution capacities. At the same time, the regime convinced the population that ensuring food self-sufficiency corresponds to the imperative to reduce dependence on the increasingly hostile outside world. The losses incurred by European producers and carriers were initially estimated at EUR 5 billion per year. Nonetheless, it did not fully materialize, as many European products continue to reach the Russian market, but in the form of re-exports from eligible countries (Belarus, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, China, etc.). Neither consumer damage nor the possibility of overcoming the embargo via re-export has changed Russia’s attitude towards the counter-sanctions against European producers. On the one hand, the embargo serves as a transactional and manipulating tool in the dialogue with smaller European countries, bypassing the EU. On the other one, from a purely geopolitical perspective, the use of sanctions allows the Russian authorities to project a pretended balance of power that puts Russia at a similar to the EU level. Finally, quality standards have allowed European producers to diversify their exports, eliminating dependence on the Russian market, which does not ensure predictability due to frequent political interference. At the same time, the Kremlin has shown that it prefers forcing the population and the state to adapt to the worsening economic conditions, rather than making geopolitical concessions to comply with international law.
The fourth wave of sanctions cannot generate economic costs to Russia, but mainly political ones. Through sanctions related to Navalny, the EU will position itself, indirectly but also publicly, on the side of Russian civil society and the opposition. Putin’s regime will likely accuse Brussels of meddling in internal affairs and pedaling disinformation about “internal and external” enemies to disqualify the discussion about the imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, who has become a political prisoner. Both sides will avoid a full-scale escalation of tensions in the EU-Russia relationship, with frontal clashes, continuously. Instead, Russia will focus on bilateral dialogues with EU states (Hungary) and immediate neighbors (Serbia) to encourage national exclusivism against pan-European supranationalism. Rapid vaccination of allies — Hungary and Serbia — with the help of the Russian vaccine (Sputnik V) could allow Moscow to gain some prestige and external legitimacy. The same will drive speculations on the effectiveness of the vaccination strategy coordinated by the European Commission. Disinformation will be one of the main leverages that Russia might gladly use in its reaction to the fourth wave of European sanctions. Uncertainties about stopping the pandemic and the slow inoculation of the COVID-19 vaccine could spark outbreaks of social protest, and Russian disinformation could intensify them, fueling distrust towards the national governments within the EU.
EU-Russia competition in the Eastern Partnership
Strengthening ties with its eastern neighbors is one of the five principles guiding the EU’s relationship with Russia. Therefore, the political and security stability in these countries may be in the attention of Moscow. The latter has a set of levers that it can use to the detriment of European geopolitical interests. The situation in Belarus and Armenia contains clear political premises for the perpetuation of the regimes or the return to power of those that want the opposite to genuine reforms and enforced rule of law. Alexander Lukashenko is slipping into more nuanced discussions that aim the integration of his country into a union-state with Russia. He also ignores the opportunity to democratize Belarus’ system of government in an authentic inclusive constitutional reform. Armenia’s anti-government protests, led by the National Salvation Movement, are continually undermining Nikol Pashinyan’s legitimacy, without which radical and lasting reforms are less and less likely. The EU is trying to pump oxygen into Pashinyan’s regime by ratifying the Comprehensive and Consolidated Partnership Agreement, planned for March 2021. Evidently, European competition with the Russian factor is not on an equal footing, as Moscow has become an indispensable player in the security of Armenian communities in Karabakh in a long run. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s rapprochement with Turkey is cementing, even more, Yerevan’s dependence on Moscow in terms of security. That adds to the trade ties that Armenia has with Russia through the membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. At present, these above-mentioned countries have more compatibility with Russia than with the EU, which excludes any need for Moscow to worry and therefore destabilize them.
The other three Eastern Partnership countries — Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — are in a political or reform stalemate.
Georgia is one-step away from renewed anti-government protests after the court approved the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia. That was followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, which weakening the legitimacy of the parliamentary majority, controlled by the “Georgia Dream”. Although EU intervention in managing the Georgian political crisis has been overall ineffective, it has tried, together with the US, to build bridges between the government and the opposition. The European Council President Charles Michel, who will visit Georgia in March 2021, will probably give another try to facilitate the political dialogue. At present, Russia has no robust leverage on Georgia’s domestic political situation. Nevertheless, prolonged political crises produce monsters — populist governments, radical nationalism and weakening public trust in state institutions. All of that suffice Russia’s lack of sources of influence on the ground. At the same, the fierce struggle for power puts the country’s reforms and European integration in the background.
The state of affairs in Moldova seems to be more positive, though only partially. The 2020 presidential elections brought to power a politician (Maia Sandu) with a firm pro-reform approach but without real tools to govern and implements reforms. The exponents of the European institutions rely on the internal popularity and external credibility of Maia Sandu, who is associated with the revitalization of EU-Moldova bilateral relations. However, the acceleration of the reforms can start after the early parliamentary elections, which Maia Sandu is trying to trigger, at any cost. The Constitutional Court is to rule on the constitutionality of the recent decisions of the president. In the meantime, the EU refrains from any critical comment regarding Maia Sandu’s performance. Brussels’ hesitation is symptomatic, as Eurocrats prefer to omit the problematic issues of pro-European leaders if they demonstrate consistency in disapproving of corruption and fiercely advocate for a vibrant rule of law. The same type of behavior of Brussels is common in the case of Georgia and Ukraine. Moldovan pro-Russian forces (Socialists) have strong positions in the current parliament and can retain them to some extent after early elections, which, according to polls, will propel to the government, in quite comparable proportions, both pro-reform forces and populists who are skeptical of reforms. Thus, Russia’s geopolitical interests in Moldova seem to be ensured in the medium and short term, especially given that it can trigger scandals concerning the protection of Russian-speaking minorities or within the Transnistrian conflict file. Russia will not give up from exploiting the traditionally cautious and timid approach from Chisinau.
The stagnation of justice reforms and the blocking of anti-corruption instruments call into question the capacity and political will of President Volodymyr Zelensky. The EU seems enthusiastic about Ukraine’s sectoral progress and is initiating the modernization of the Association Agreement. However, Brussels remains evasive about the strategic importance of fighting corruption. The EU’s unwillingness to put pressure can be counterproductive for the crosscutting progress of reforms, which is unlikely without integrity in constructing functional justice. The sanctioning of Ukrainian political leaders with Russian connections (Viktor Medvedchuk) shows that Zelensky prioritizes internal security, which he uses to compensate for the shortcomings in the delivery of the essential reforms that revolve around the rule of law. Such a shortsighted approach over the crucial reforms can only please Russia. Besides, the destabilization of Donbas is always an opportune way for Russia to retaliate against the EU for its fourth wave of sanctions, but only if and when it coincides with larger strategic goals.
In lieu of conclusions …
The adoption of new sanctions against Russia is becoming a reality. Their materialization will displease Moscow more than the sanctions related to cyber-attacks or the use of chemical weapons because they harm the Kremlin’s prospects on Russian domestic policy. Following sectoral sanctions of the EU concerning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Kremlin persuaded the Russian people to develop resilience to face external hostility. Navalny’s case and the sanctions it generates have the potential to crack the window of false arguments imposed on the local public by Vladimir Putin’s regime.
In addition to combating Russian disinformation against the European vaccination strategy, the EU should prevent or at least minimize the impact of Russian negative influence on the Eastern Partnership states. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are prone to self-generating political crises and deadlocked reforms, which is in Moscow’s interest in discrediting European integration at the hands of pro-European forces. Unconditional support for structural reforms must prevail. Equally, the EU has the technical capacity, the financial strength and the moral authority to play the role of the objective arbiter that can prevent the movement of local political actors in the wrong direction, but in any case favorable to the Russian factor.
Dionis Cenușa is a political scientist, researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences at Liebig-Justus University in Giessen, Germany, MA degree in Interdisciplinary European Studies from the College of Europe in Warsaw. Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU’s foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.