“President Joe Biden has warned Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that his country will face severe sanctions if it once again attacks Ukraine. A key question looms, however: Will European countries really go along with serious penalties on Moscow?
On the surface, Europe appears willing. European Union officials and national leaders from across the continent have promised huge economic penalties against Moscow for any new military incursion into Ukraine, in lockstep with their American partners.”
“While much of Eastern Europe — especially Poland and the Baltic states — is on high alert, the issue is nowhere near the top of the political agenda across most of the rest of the continent, where battling the pandemic and its economic fallout remains the priority. In Brussels, EU officials are more focused on why they don’t have a seat at the table for the Jan. 10 talks between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva than what’s happening along the Russia-Ukraine border. Some countries are reluctant to undermine their business links with Russia; that includes Germany, which relies on Russian natural gas and has backed the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.”
“Putin has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine. If he orders his military forces to stage another land invasion, it will make it hard for most European countries to go easy on him. But if he takes steps that undermine Ukraine short of an invasion — cyber attacks, for instance, or incursions by mercenaries — that could complicate talks between Europe and the United States about how to react.”
“Another complicating factor for the Europeans is uncertainty about how long the tough U.S. stance on Russia will last, especially if Donald Trump returns to the White House after 2024. Although Trump’s administration imposed plenty of sanctions on Russia, Trump himself regularly sought better relations with Putin. Many European officials even question whether Trump would come to Europe’s aid if Russia were to attack a NATO ally, such as one of the Baltic states.
“If Trump wins the next election, we’re on our own,” one European official said. “And then what?”
Such concerns aside, some European leaders have at times given Putin the benefit of the doubt. In the wake of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine in 2014, European powers, led by Germany, refused for months to bow to U.S. pressure to endorse sanctions against Moscow. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was particularly worried about the effect such a move would have on Germany’s substantial trade relationship with Russia.
Merkel insisted for months on fruitless dialogue with Putin in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea even as Moscow-supported separatists escalated the war in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama tried to win Merkel over when she visited the White House in May of 2014 — to no avail. It took the downing, several weeks later, of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board for Berlin to agree with U.S. demands to impose sanctions.”
“The U.S. could impose new or additional sanctions on Russian banks and energy firms. There also are potential targets in Russia’s mining, metals and shipping sectors, according to former officials who deal with sanctions. Another option is cutting Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a critical global network for exchanging financial information. That would be a particularly tough move against Russia’s finance sector, though Russian analysts and others have downplayed the seriousness and note the country is developing an alternative.
The trick is to calibrate the sanctions in a way that doesn’t rebound in too harsh a way on the European economy or, in the longer run, the U.S. economy.
European leaders for now appear intent on deescalating the crisis with Russia, even if it means mollifying Putin with concessions. Just before Christmas, for instance, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said it would be “false to link Russia’s behavior in the conflict with Ukraine with the operation” of the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline. That was taken as a signal that Austria would not support any punitive action toward Russia beyond the cosmetic.”
“Biden and his aides have stressed that they are keeping European allies and Ukraine in the loop as the U.S. talks to Russia. Biden’s top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, have been in touch with a range of foreign officials to discuss the Ukraine crisis, and U.S. officials will be in Brussels during the next week for a series of meetings at NATO HQ, including a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12.
At this stage, however, the administration, like its European allies, is avoiding mentioning details about sanctions possibilities or new weapons shipments it says amount to negotiating in the open.
“We won’t telegraph the specifics publicly, but there is broad consensus between Washington and key allies and partners in Europe on the need for a high impact, quick action response” to Russian aggression, the U.S. official said.”