Commentary: Remember sanctions on Russia? Europe hopes not

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It seems like an awful long time ago that one of the most prominent threats most Europeans feared was an increasingly aggressive Russia and an unstable Ukraine. To be fair, the concern of terrorist attacks, as well as the refugee crisis was well underway before the turmoil on its eastern borders, but those were treated as basically a second-rate problem at the time. Fast-forward a few years and the situation has more or less flip-flopped. Although that will change for a moment in July as Europe debates the extension of sanctions on Russia.

On July 31, economic sanctions are set to expire that were imposed on Russia for its foray into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. For Russia, this is great news since the list of European leaders who consider the sanctions as ineffective has seemingly been getting longer by the day. Alexander Stubb, Finland’s finance minister and former prime minister has stated that "Crimea is a lost cause, but if Russia proves it is easing off on eastern Ukraine, then that can cause some movement on removing sanctions".

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have both rejected the idea of an automatic extension of sanctions. On April 28, France’s lower house of parliament voted for lifting sanctions against Russia, and even in Germany, politicians have called for easing sanctions arguing that it’s the best path forward to get Russian cooperation in Syria.

Now, I’m not advocating for the ending of sanctions, but wouldn’t it make the most sense to look at the problem from both sides before coming to a conclusion? For those who wish to continue sanctions, there is a very valid reason to do so. It’s widely viewed that economic sanctions had a direct impact on the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement that effectively ended hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, armed conflict has increased in Ukraine since mid-February, coincidentally the same time Russia began withdrawing some forces from Syria. In addition, Russia has shown no signs of ever giving Crimea back to Ukraine.

For those in favor of ending sanctions there is more to it than just the ineffectiveness in deterring Russia. First off, Ukraine has essentially washed its hands on responsibility for Crimea. Ukraine implemented restrictions on food, electricity and other necessities that Crimea once depended on Ukraine to receive. Moreover, dysfunction in Ukrainian politics has doomed its own commitments to deliver on the Minsk peace agreement. In early February, Ukraine’s economy minister resigned in protest of corruption within the ruling government. Since then, the government has been plagued by infighting that has resulted in losing the public’s trust. On April 10, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk resigned due to criticism against him on the pace of reforms. Ukrainians and its Western backers have effectively lost patience with the constant setbacks in corruption and modernizing the economy.

There doesn’t seem to be any positive progress on the horizon either. Volodymyr Groysman has taken over as the new prime minister but he is seen as nothing more than a loyalist to President Petro Poroshenko. As Lev Golinkin writing in Foreign Policy puts it: "every few months, new corruption allegations rock the government; Western diplomats issue rebukes and plea for Ukraine to reform; Kiev promises to do better and the West relieves the pressure". Meanwhile reforms remain stationary, corruption expands, and the Ukrainian people feel more distanced from their government. For its part, the International Monetary Fund has threatened to withhold additional financial aid if reforms in Ukraine are not carried out. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission has also said Ukraine won’t join the EU for at least 20 years.

So where does that leave Europe come July when the sanctions are scheduled to expire? Well, there are clearly significant threats from both Ukraine and Russia to the continent. Since the Minsk agreement, there are still hundreds of military and civilian prisoners being held by both sides. While the sanctions imposed on Russia may not be having the desired effect, the continuous support for Ukraine is faring just as poorly. If Europe truly wants to resolve the issue in Ukraine, a rethink of not only sanctions imposed on Russia, but also policy in Ukraine is needed.