Berlin (CNSNews.com) – E.U. foreign ministers are considering whether to impose further sanctions on Russia after its seizure of Ukrainian naval ships in the Black Sea, but most member-states remain cautious despite pleas from smaller nations bordering Russia.
Austria, which currently helms the E.U. presidency, said that further sanctions will be discussed in an meeting scheduled for December 10, but only after further information about the incident is obtained.
“We’ll see about the issue of further sanctions,” Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl told a foreign policy forum in Berlin. “Everything depends on this examination of the facts.”
Russian warships fired on and seized three Ukrainian navy ships trying to transit the Kerch Strait linking the Black and Azov seas on Sunday, prompting calls spearheaded by Poland, Estonia and Lithuania for more sanctions against Moscow.
The E.U. first imposed sanctions after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in March 2014, following a referendum of its inhabitants favoring joining the Russian Federation.
The measures were stepped up after Moscow refused to stop supporting separatist rebels fighting against the Ukrainian military in the east of the country.
Britain, France, Poland and Denmark have all condemned Russia’s actions – as have the United States and Canada – but consensus on more sanctions is lacking in the E.U.
Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign policy committee, said while he would not rule out sanctions, the E.U. should focus on steering the conflict towards a political solution, and “return to the rule of international law."
Chancellor Angela Merkel has not made a statement on the issue, but did speak to President Vladimir Putin on Monday, urging “de-escalation.”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany and France have offered to mediate between Ukraine and Russia.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia sees no need for a mediator, instead calling on Ukraine’s European partners to “send a very clear signal to Kyiv” to avoid “provocations.”
“Additional sanctions would be nothing more than political window-dressing,” Albert Goldson, executive director of the Cerulean Global Capital Council, an international geopolitical risk assessment firm, said via email. “Russia’s oil sector, the driver of its economy, has thrived despite prolonged Western sanctions.”
“I believe Russia’s objective is to further weaken Ukraine economically through this soft maritime blockade and at the same time sow social unrest in those already restive southern provinces,” Goldson said, referring to Russia’s blocking of Ukrainian and other European cargo ships in the Sea of Azov – which borders south-eastern Ukraine.
“The problem with sanctions up to now has been that they have not been successful in altering the decision pathways of the Kremlin,” Dr. Matthew Crosston, senior doctoral faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University told CNSNews.com.
“Sanctions hurting regular Russians only make authorities in the Kremlin feel ever more justified in their perspective about the West ‘trying to keep Russia in its place,’” he said, adding that Russia could also apply counter-pressure, given Europe’s significant reliance on Russia gas.
Crosston said Russia remains irritated that Kyiv still seems intent on forging closer relations with NATO, instead of being a “Slavic partner” of Russia.
Still, NATO’s lack of response to date – beyond expressing concern – means Russia is unlikely to be intimidated to change its agenda.
“It already called one NATO/E.U. bluff in Crimea and won,” he said.
Long an aspiring member of NATO, the Ukrainian government considers accession to the Western alliance a priority following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“Ukraine’s NATO aspirations are definitely a factor here,” agreed Joshua Stowell, editor of Global Security Review. “Just two days before the Sea of Azov incident, the Ukrainian Parliament voted in favor of amending the constitution to list NATO and E.U. membership as strategic goals for the country.”
“Russia sees NATO expansion as an existential threat,” Stowell said. “Therefore, it's in Russia’s interest to ensure that the conflict in Ukraine remains frozen. Russia’s actions could be construed as a warning to Ukraine in light of the parliamentary vote.”
NATO in a statement Tuesday condemned Russia’s use of military force, but said it could not provide military support under the current cooperation framework.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former prime minister of Ukraine, expressed disappointment with NATO’s stance, saying in an interview that Sunday’s incident has highlighted a lack of cooperation between Ukraine and NATO.
“We have good relations, but really strong military communication between Ukraine and NATO is not as strong as we expected,” he said.