Amidst the renewed arguments about whether sanctions are enough or not against Russia (as some saw the rapid recovery of the ruble from the initial lows as a proof that those were not hurting the Russian economy enough), internal tensions within the EU have again surfaced.
As the horrific images are emerging from Ukraine about the atrocities the Russian army has committed in Bucha and elsewhere, the unified response to ban Russian coal (and a promise on working towards sanctions on oil) came only after a small tit-for-tat between German and Polish politicians.
After the news about the attacks against civilians spread, Ursula von der Leyen urged for an independent investigation and that perpetrators of war crimes to be held accountable, while Charles Michel tweeted about “further EU sanctions and support”.
The Baltic states and Poland, sometimes comparing the acts of Russia to those of Nazi Germany during World War II, immediately started to demand stronger sanctions, and were joined by France. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in his statement that the strongest possible economic and international pressure must be “maintained and reinforced on Russia”, to force the country to end the war. French President Macron also added, “We cannot let this go”, supporting the call for more sanctions, possibly also including energy.
Though German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also promised that President Putin and his supporters “will feel the consequences”, on the sanctions he only said that “we will decide on further measures in the circle of allies in the coming days.” He has warned several times that a ban on Russian oil and gas would cause a severe recession.
German hesitation led to strongly worded protests from Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski accused the country of “having a strong inclination towards Moscow”, claiming German purchase of Russian fossil fuels was “inadmissible from a political and moral point of view”. He urged Berlin to finally take a “clear stance on this”.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki echoed his views, adding that it was Germany that was “the main roadblock to imposing tougher sanctions on Russia”, and not Hungary, that was often accused as the main culprit behind the current level of sanctions and that was often criticized (even by Morawiecki himself) over its “insufficiently tough stance on Russian aggression” in Ukraine; even if it had so far joined every possible joint statement, declaration, step or sanction, let it be about condemning the military aggression, the exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT, the cessation of Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe or the membership of Ukraine in the Tallinn-based NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence as a Contributing Participant.
The coming days and weeks might show, to what extent Berlin is ready to risk economic downturn, and as the steps taken to put Gazprom’s German subsidiary under state control or to reduce the influence of Rosneft over the refinery in Schwedt, but, as it is more likely than not that the Western alliance has to brace for a prolonged, possibly often violent quagmire, especially with slow-slash-barely-non-existent process in the peace talks, it is a not an easy decision.
Were the conflict last for months or years to come, the coalition should be held together, to find the balance between isolating Russia (diplomatically, politically, economically) as much as possible, while maintaining stability (economically and politically) at home. With economies plunging into recession and with social unrest growing, they won’t be able to keep a reinforced permanent present on the eastern flank and to provide security support and financial aid to Ukraine on the long run (or would have to regroup some funds from other programs, risking rising unrest in the rest of the world). Unlike most Western politicians, President Putin has enough leverage at home to weather the storm maybe for years to come.
Not to mention to make a decision on what to do with Russia after actual hostilities ended.