October 20, 2016
Vladimir Putin came to Berlin yesterday for the first time since 2012, to discuss eastern Ukraine. Frankfurter Allgemeine is leading this morning's edition with the German government's statement describing Russia as a "strategic partner and important neighbour". While the latter is factually true, the former is not something you would say if you plan to renew sanctions. The decision on sanctions renewal is due in December. Our reading is that the political headwinds are going to make it harder for Angela Merkel to maintain the sanctions regime. She and François Hollande will report on their talks with Putin about Eastern Ukraine at this week's European Council, but there will be no decision on sanctions then.
There is currently no unified position on this subject by EU leaders. We would add that the SPD decision to take a pro-Russian position ahead of the next elections is not going to make life easier for Merkel. FAZ quotes Sergej Rjabkow, the Russian deputy foreign minister, as saying that a renewal of the sanctions as proposed by the US would prompt Russia to deploy measures in its [military] arsenal that would prove very painful very quickly. He was speaking in the Duma during the debate on the suspension of the plutonium treaty with the US.
FAZ writes in a comment that the decision of a ceasefire in Syria was timed to coincide with yesterday's meeting. This was not a gesture of goodwill or humanity, but pure cynicism. And yet it will probably be sufficient to get rid of sanctions. Since the Syrian rebels are not going to disappear, it is very likely that the Russian attacks in Aleppo will soon be resumed with full force. Putin has become Europe's puppet master.
The otherwise equanimous Judy Dempsey has a devastating comment about the state of EU policy in Syria, which she calls pitiful. Not only is Europe unable to use hard power, its soft power capabilities are also weak. She notes that the consensus of the EU as a soft power has broken down. It is no longer accepted by Hungary and Poland, and was not enough to keep Britain in the EU. This is her pessimistic conclusion:
"This changing view of soft power and the reluctance of the EU as a bloc to use hard power are not sustainable in the long term. An end to war and instability in the Middle East is not in sight. Russia’s growing military influence in the region is set to continue, particularly because neither the EU nor the United States has the political will to counter Russia’s long-term strategy there. It will require a major reassessment by EU leaders of the use and merits of soft power if the EU wants to make a difference inside and outside the bloc. For now, the conclusions that EU foreign ministers signed up to on October 17 are toothless."
We also have stories on divergences revealed in the ECB's bank lending survey; on the European Parliament delaying deficit sanctions; on the Popolari merger in Italy; on Swiss loan mortgages in Rumania; on the surprising defeat of Cécile Duflot in the primaries of the French Greens; on the dramatic military overspend in France; on the TV auction crisis in Greece getting worse; on what makes the AfD different; on why game theory is of no help in understanding the upcoming Brexit negotiations; and on the domestic politics behind the Walloon Ceta vote.