Opinion

Putin Is Trying to Bully Europe Into Dropping Sanctions

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Vladimir Putin walks past an honor guard at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday. The authors write that Putin, seeing Europeans as weak, unprincipled and gullible, has angered and dismayed them by his invasion of Ukraine and an associated propaganda blitz. Maxim Shipenkov/reuters

A top goal of Russian foreign policy is to erode Western opposition to its aggression in Ukraine. But many of Moscow’s tactics are clumsy and self-defeating. Not surprisingly, the European Union is likely once again to renew sanctions.

Some in Europe are uneasy with the robust sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine, especially those in the financial and energy sectors that harm economic interests in the sanctioning countries.

Last month in Japan, however, G-7 leaders—including U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi—backed them. The sanctions were “linked to Russia’s complete implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

To seek relief from Western sanctions, the Kremlin is waging a campaign of public distortion and intimidation aimed at splitting Europe from America, and Europeans from each other.

And there are, to be sure, troubling indications of support for sanctions relief, such as from leading German Social Democrats and the French Senate, which on Wednesday voted a nonbinding resolution calling for a "gradual and partial" lifting of sanctions, plus dark rumors that Hungary’s right-wing government may seek to block consensus on sanctions renewal at this month’s European Union summit. But Russia’s overall effort is weakened by internal contradictions.

How has Moscow erred? Seeing Europeans as weak, unprincipled and gullible, the Kremlin angers and dismays them by its war on Ukraine and associated propaganda. A similar error in the early 1980s caused Moscow to fail to achieve its top foreign policy goal—dissuading NATO from deploying Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) missiles in Europe as a counter to comparable Soviet SS-20 missiles.

As Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” How so with Moscow’s policies on missiles in the 1980s and Ukraine today?

  • In the 1980s, Soviet propagandists hoped to weaken the commitment of the UK and West Germany to deploying NATO INF missiles by lambasting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Today, Russian propagandists back British exit from the European Union, opposed by Cameron; they attack Angela Merkel; and in France they support populist leader Marie Le Pen, who opposes Hollande.
     
  • In the 1980s, the Soviet war of Afghanistan and support for martial law in Poland undermined Moscow’s effort to charm the West into scuttling its missile plan. Now, Moscow’s attempt to weaken Western sanctions is being undermined by its backing of repeated violations of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, called for in the Minsk agreements, and by military intimidation tactics in the Nordic-Baltic region.
     
  • The downing of passenger airliners played a role then and now. In 1983, two months before INF missiles were to be deployed, the Soviets downed Korean Airlines 007, causing 269 deaths. In 2014 over Ukraine, Russian forces or their proxies shot down Malaysian Airlines 17, causing 298 fatalities. In both cases Moscow showed no contrition, thereby hardening attitudes in the West.
     
  • ​In November 1981 President Ronald Reagan proposed the elimination of INF missiles in Europe as part of a “dual-track” policy of preparing to deploy the missiles along with negotiations to eliminate the need for them. NATO did deploy in late 1983, but four years later a treaty embodying the zero option was concluded. Today, NATO’s dual tracks seek full implementation of the Minsk agreements while at the same time beefing up security and economic aid to Ukraine and strengthening the alliance’s military capabilities in Central Europe and the Nordic-Baltic – where the foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden were recently included in NATO deliberations for the first time.
     
  • Then, credible INF negotiations were important for preserving NATO unity on missile deployments. Today, Western insistence on implementation of the Minsk agreements – whatever their deficiencies – is vital for retaining European backing of sanctions.

In the early 1980s, Western unity was strained by differences over the transfer of technology to the USSR for construction of a large gas pipeline from Siberia to Europe, and by President Ronald Reagan’s plan for a futuristic initiative to develop defenses against long-range ballistic missiles, which would have violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Today, the West has no internal disagreements of comparable importance, making it harder for the Kremlin to fracture consensus.

These factors, taken together, undermine Moscow’s aim of weakening Western opposition to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Propaganda and deception by Russia Today and Sputnik appear to be less than effective. Even so, heightened leftist and nationalist pressures in Europe could wear down support for sanctions. The West must bend every effort to maintain a unified position on them.

Broader public opinion may be amenable to holding the line. In mid-May, the favored Russian performer in the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest lost to the Ukrainian entry. The Russians cried foul, claiming that in their voting, other European countries had politicized the contest. This may not have been a case of Russian paranoia. Nobody likes a bully.  

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Michael Haltzel is a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins.