EU Keeps Stronger Russia Sanctions in Reserve at Syria Talks
The leaders of Germany and France pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on his country’s behavior in Syria on Wednesday, with the German chancellor saying that the option of sanctions against Moscow must remain on the table.
The leaders’ late-night meeting in Berlin came a day ahead of a European Union summit in Brussels where the bloc is expected to call on Russia to immediately end the bombing of Aleppo but will steer clear of any move to bolster sanctions against Moscow for now, according to diplomats.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande said at a joint news conference after their meeting with Mr. Putin that the talks were difficult. Ms. Merkel said that while sanctions against Russia must remain an option, providing humanitarian relief to people in Aleppo should be the top priority.
“This was a very clear and also a very tough session,” Ms. Merkel said.
The two leaders also harshly criticized Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo, in support Syrian government troops’ siege of the city.
“What is happening now in Aleppo is a war crime,” Mr. Hollande said.
Ms. Merkel said Russia had a broader responsibility, given its alliance with the Syrian regime, to bring the fighting there to an end. “Fighting terrorism does not justify not caring at all about the fates of 300,000 people,” she said.
According to Russian state news agency TASS, Mr. Putin said after the meeting with Mr. Hollande and Ms. Merkel that Russia was prepared to extend Russia’s pause of aerial bombardment of Aleppo “for as long as possible.”
For some European capitals, the option of fresh targeted sanctions against Russian officials over Syria remains on the table and could be revisited in coming weeks, depending on what happens in the country. The option of sanctions could be floated during Thursday’s discussions, but diplomats said there was a broad agreement that this wasn’t the moment for fresh steps.
EU leaders will discuss the bloc’s future ties with Russia and the crisis in Syria on the first day of this week’s summit. European Council President Donald Tusk, who hosts such summits, announced on Tuesday that the leaders will issue a statement on Syria setting out their concerns.
A draft version of the text, circulated on early Wednesday, showed leaders condemning “the attacks by the Syrian regime and its allies, notably Russia, on civilians in Aleppo.” Leaders call on them “to bring the atrocities to an end and to take urgent steps to ensure unhindered humanitarian access to Aleppo and other parts of the country.”
European leaders are also expected to call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a return to a “credible political process,” according to the draft text, which could still change. “Those responsible for breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights law must be held accountable,” it said.
Diplomats said, however, that with talks now resuming with Moscow on Syria and the temporary halt in attacks on Aleppo that Russia announced on Tuesday, the push to raise pressure on Moscow has faded.
“I certainly don’t expect a decision” on sanctions, said one senior EU diplomat but it is “part of the discussion that should be had.”
The EU has already imposed broad economic sanctions against Russia over the country’s actions in Ukraine. On Monday, the bloc’s foreign ministers decided to broaden targeted sanctions against Syrian officials over Aleppo.
Some EU capitals had floated the idea of adding Russian names to the Syrian black list. On Wednesday, the leaders of the largest bloc in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party, signed a letter with the heads of the Liberals and Green blocs, urging leaders to start work on sanctions against Russia.
Thursday’s discussions on Russia, pushed for by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in June, were originally envisaged as an opportunity to discuss Europe’s long-term ties with its eastern neighbor and explore avenues for greater cooperation. Italy was one of a number of EU countries that had grown critical of the bloc’s sanctions against Moscow and was eager to begin a debate on easing them.
However, with peace talks between Ukraine and Russia over the conflict in eastern Ukraine making little progress and EU governments increasingly alarmed by Russia’s actions in Syria, the idea of broadening ties or easing pressure on Moscow has evaporated—at least for now.
“In some parts of Europe, the [Ukraine] shock had been evaporating a bit. Now with the Syrian escalation, those nations that are traditionally understanding of the Russian position are under a new wave of shock,“ said an EU diplomat. ”To what extent it is a permanent change of position, I have my doubts.”