The European Union today extended its sanctions on Russia by six months. This temporary extension, as a result of Russia’s failure to meet the terms of the Minsk agreement, was largely expected, but it comes as major European powers find themselves torn between competing priorities regarding Russia.
Germany, the European Union’s most influential power, has mixed priorities when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. Russia is a major provider of raw materials for German industry and German businesses have suffered due to the sanctions regime. At the same time, Germany as a major exporter is heavily dependent on markets within the European Union, which is facing significant political and financial challenges. Germany, therefore, needs as much stability as possible on the continent, allowing the country to import materials and export goods unhindered, and it is not in the country’s interest to have an armed conflict in the east.
Like France and the United States, policy-makers in Berlin benefit from Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Germany’s primary goal when it comes to Syria is reducing the flow of refugees. While, in the short term, Russia’s actions in Syria are not contributing to a reduction in refugee levels, Berlin hopes that an anti-Islamic State coalition that includes Russia could be effective at countering IS. Furthermore, Germany and its Western partners fear the potential consequences of the collapse of Russia’s ally, the Syrian regime. In fact, Germany’s foreign intelligence service, BND, has reportedly resumed talks with the Syrian regime in an effort to cooperate in the fight against extremists.
Nevertheless, Berlin fears an emboldened Kremlin, which could threaten the Baltics or compete with Germany for influence in Central Europe and the Balkans. Berlin sees Russia’s support for groups such as Jobbik in Hungary and the National Front in France and fears further Moscow meddling in European politics. Ukraine is not a top strategic priority for Germany, even though the German government would certainly prefer a pro-Western government in Kiev.
Germany’s goal is thus to avoid an escalation and resumption of hostilities while also drawing a red line for the Russians and working to prevent the Kremlin from getting more involved in Germany’s own neighborhood. As a result, Berlin has taken a leading role in both negotiating the Minsk agreement between Russia and Ukraine and pushing for its full implementation. Sanctions are one way that Germany is attempting to enforce the terms of the agreement and discourage Moscow from ramping up its activities in the region. Russia’s reaction to the extension of sanctions has been relatively subdued, indicating that the Kremlin itself is seeking to work with the Europeans on key issues.
Germany’s geographic position on the North European Plain, which extends into western Russia, has made Berlin and Moscow both natural trading partners and strategic threats for one another. Germany is seeking to boost cooperation with Moscow on issues ranging from energy projects to Syria. Like the United States, Germany is moving toward closer coordination with Moscow. However, Germany is still worried about potential Russian influence in its neighborhood and is aiming to ensure stability in Ukraine. Therefore, the extension of the sanctions indicates that Germany in particular is pursuing several priorities simultaneously in its relationship with Russia.