Putin is making a move while America is distracted
Last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that on Dec. 9 he will host a summit with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Germany to talk about the war in Ukraine for the first time in more than three years. While discussions around settling that important and bloody conflict are welcome, European leaders should bear in mind that Ukraine is not the only arena in which the Russian government continues to undermine Western democracies.
The U.S. Congress acted in 2017 to tie any future sanctions relief to the cessation of Russian election interference. By contrast, Europe has not followed suit and still says sanctions will be lifted if Russia makes peace with Ukraine. Another important difference is the default setting whereby U.S. sanctions can only be lifted by a future act of Congress, whereas European Union member states need to unanimously agree every six months to renew their sanctions.
The risk is that Macron and German Chancellor Merkel might dangle to Putin the possibility of sanctions relief, if not to be implemented immediately then after some small reversible improvements on the ground in Ukraine. That would be an enormous win for Putin, leaving America alone in the sanctions coalition and failing to impose costs on Russia for continued interference in Western elections.
As context, European participation in the U.S.-led sanctions on Russia was the most unwelcome surprise to Putin in 2014. More powerful than the ubiquity of the dollar, proprietary energy technology, or any other technical elements, transatlantic solidarity is the secret weapon that gives the Russia sanctions teeth. More than just political optics, diplomatic unity reduces and spreads the burden of maintaining the sanctions between American and European companies while increasing the cost on Moscow. That’s why professionals at the Treasury and State Departments show solidarity with Europe by issuing a new tranche of U.S. sanctions on Russia every six months and traveling to European capitals urging them to renew their part — because European participation is what makes the economic sanctions bite.
Putin knows this too. And he probably calculates that now is his opportunity to break up the international sanctions coalition by peeling off the Europeans, while the United States and Britain are riven by internal politics and led by Russia-friendly leaders who are disinclined to shore up European resolve.
President Donald Trump is looking for a foreign policy deal to sell to voters next year and says he would like to invite Putin back into the G7. Macron has also been courting Russia, which was recently readmitted to the Council of Europe. Depending on how politics play out — especially in the United States — this current window of Western distraction and softness on Russia may close within a year, making this Putin’s moment.
It would be a tremendous breakthrough if Russia fully withdraws its forces from Ukraine and returns to Kyiv sovereign control over the international border. However, Europe should follow the lead of the U.S. Congress and explicitly declare sanctions relief to also be contingent upon two other ways Russia is violating countries’ sovereignty. One is Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, an issue that Putin says is off the table in negotiations. Two is the ongoing assault on Western democracies, through cyber-attacks, information operations, malign finance, and other active measures.
This is not to say that all sanctions should remain in place until all these problems are solved. It would be better to tie certain sanctions to each of these three buckets of Russian behavior — eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and election interference — and lift some sanctions if any given area of hostility fully ends. The severity of the sanctions in each bucket should be commensurate with the importance of the issue, meaning that Europe’s main sectoral sanctions cannot continue to be associated only with Ukraine as a whole (which risks be reinterpreted as eastern Ukraine, selling Crimea down the river, and also leaves no costs for election interference).
If Russian aggression stops, the United States and Europe would have to work together to disentangle and begin easing the sanctions in unison. But given the importance of election meddling to democratic sovereignty, that elaborate diplomatic undertaking should not begin until after we see whether Russia interferes in the British and American elections over the next 12 months.
American lawmakers and presidential candidates should urge Europe to refrain from lifting their economic sanctions on Russia at this point in time and should also signal to Moscow that it can expect much stronger financial sanctions if it continues interfering in democracies. Unilateral disarmament in the months ahead because of progress in Ukraine would invite Russia to continue to feel emboldened to strike directly at Western capitals.