March 28, 2018
The real reason for the sanctions against Russia
None of the multiple problems the world is facing have gone away before the Easter break - unlike the journalists and commentators who write about them and who seem to have disappeared for the holiday season.
If there is one common thread in our stories today, it is wishful thinking. Wishful thinking still characterises the debate about Italian politics, about the future of the euro, and about the chances of a Brexit revocation. But when it comes to Russia, a long period of wishful thinking is drawing to a close. Many politicians in western Europe have invested a great deal of their political capital in good relations with Vladimir Putin. There are still pockets of this, but Putin has pulled off the unlikely feat of unifying a large part of the EU against himself. Last week's coordinated western sanctions were truly impressive in their scope. They won't solve the problem. They might be the start of a new cold war. An end to wishful thinking is usually not comfortable.
Markus Wehner has an excellent commentary in FAZ on the politics behind the orchestrated western sanctions, and its implications. We already reported on the deep splits in the German political system - with the SPD old guard, the AfD, the Left Party, and parts of the FDP opposed. Wehner makes the point that the strong reaction from the west has not so much to do with the actual Skripal affair, or even with the use of chemical agents on European soil. It is an escalation in a new cold war that started some time ago with the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian soldiers; the downing of MH17 over Ukraine; the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Russia's ruthlessness in Syria; and doping cases in international sport. He cites the German foreign ministry as saying that the cyber attacks against IT system of the federal government constituted another reason. Wehner notes that the German government is now ready to hold Russia directly responsible for those attacks, while that had not been the case in 2015 when the Bundestag's IT system were subject to an attack that led to the theft of classified security data.
Wehner concludes with the observation that the most effective sanctions the west could impose on Russia, however, would be to stop the Russian money laundering through the City of London. That has yet to happen.
Another article in FAZ takes a look at the EU countries that are not expelling Russian diplomats. In the case of Malta the official reason is that the Maltese embassy in Moscow is so small that sanctions would lead to the inevitable end of diplomatic relations. But the real reason, the article says, is the lucrative passport trade through which wealthy Russians obtain EU citizenship. Russian influence is also strong in Cyprus. And Austria ("felix Austria") sees a good business opportunity in the sanctions. The country's cocky young chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, portrays himself as the EU's principal interlocutor with Vladimir Putin. The article records that, even at the height of the Ukraine crisis, Putin was met with a ceremonious reception in Vienna. We note that this is the price the EU is paying for accepting member states that have no interest in a common security policy.