Can Russia Avoid Being Hit with More Sanctions?

July 23, 2014 Topic: SecuritySanctions Region: RussiaUkraineEurope

Can Russia Avoid Being Hit with More Sanctions?

Four indicators to consider.

Russia did not veto a United Nations Security Council resolution brought forward by Australia that calls for a thorough and unimpeded investigation into the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. In a sop to Moscow, the draft did not specifically assign blame for the incident to Russia, even though the United States and other states have concluded that Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, perhaps even with direct Russian military assistance , brought down an airliner they mistook for a Ukrainian military transport with a sophisticated antiaircraft missile system—and, more importantly, gave the International Civil Aviation Organization a prominent role in handling the investigation, rather than leaving it solely with the competency of the sovereign government of Ukraine. The text, also calling for a cessation of military activities in the area of the crash also could be interpreted, at least by Moscow, as impacting the ability of the Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko to continue with its "antiterrorism operation" in the area or calling for the cessation of its own military overflights of the region.

With the passage of this resolution, and with separatists on the ground apparently cooperating with investigators, the question is: has Russia done enough to ward off another round of sanctions? Given the anger in the Netherlands , it will be harder for those within the European Union who have continued to argue against imposing stronger penalties on Russia to hold the line, and even before the crash, the EU was already debating how many individuals and firms might come under new visa, asset and financial bans. But as the impact of the horror in the skies over eastern Ukraine begins to recede—and is replaced in the headlines with the clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza—what next?

Several indicators to watch include:

1. The next steps taken by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who has been in constant telephone contact with Russian president Vladimir Putin. How Rutte characterizes the ongoing investigation—and decides to assess official Russian complicity—will be crucial. Will Putin take the steps necessary to assure Rutte that Moscow is doing everything in its power to first facilitate the inquiry into the downing of MH17, and then to bring the fighting in the region to a close? More importantly, will the separatists (with Moscow's strong encouragement) throw someone under the proverbial bus for the action—identifying a series of low-level culprits, to meet Rutte's demand for the perpetrators of the act to be brought to justice? This is also a point that has been raised by Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak. I believe that further EU sanctions are likely—but how harsh they are will depend, to some extent, on the demands Rutte makes of his fellow European leaders, particularly German chancellor Angela Merkel. It will also depend on whether European leaders decide that Russia's excuses—including statements about possible Ukrainian complicity in the tragedy—hold no water whatsoever.

2. The impact of Razak's agreement with Alexander Borodai, the so-called "Prime Minister" of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic." Razak decided to open direct talks with the separatists to facilitate access to the crash site, to get control of the plane's black boxes and to ensure the return of the victims' bodies and personal effects. If the separatists carry out all their obligations, it will raise questions as to why Malaysia could deal with them, but the Ukrainian government will not choose to enter into any sort of political dialogue with them to search for a peaceful settlement. If Razak's talks show that the separatists can be reasonable and will carry out the terms of their agreements, could this put pressure on Poroshenko to cease his military campaign—which Putin has said is the ultimate cause for the tragedy? Would this be a line of thinking that European leaders might also embrace?

3. How serious President Barack Obama is about further sanctions. Exxon has contracted with Seadrill, and its "West Alpha" rig is entering Russian waters to begin work in the Kara Sea. The president says that he is absolutely prepared to consider new sanctions, but it is also clear that Moscow expects and plans for a gap between harsh rhetoric and actual action. How far is the United States prepared to back up its assertion—even if Europe's next set of sanctions falls far short of where Washington would prefer to go? A related but not insignificant issue is whether the administration is confident that talks with Iran will be successful—because Iran's massive hydrocarbon deposits, not U.S. shale gas, are what could break the Russian stranglehold on the European economy. A "green light" to begin accelerating projects to link Iran to Europe via Turkey (and using Azeri and Central Asian energy to help further cushion the impact of harsher sanctions on Russia) might make European leaders more amenable to considering long-term sanctions against Moscow.

4. How confident Putin is, after his summit meeting with his fellow BRICS heads of state , that his "look east" policy can ameliorate further sanctions imposed by the West over Ukraine. Can China, in particular, move to make up for some of the lost income and technology Russia obtains from the West—and is it a good thing for Moscow to be driven even closer into Beijing's embrace? Will confidence that Xi Jinping has his back make Putin far less receptive to advice that he must be far more conciliatory to Western concerns than he has been for the past several days?

It is a fast-moving situation, but over the next two days, we'll have a better sense of how the picture will take shape.



Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College and a contributing editor at The National Interest .

Image: Kremlin photo.