Just days after attending the G7 summit, which highlighted the possibility of stepping up sanctions against Russia should it not meet the commitments it made in the Minsk agreements, Renzi hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Milan, where he spoke of the “traditional Italian-Russian friendship.”
Alluding to the eventual end of EU sanctions on Russia, Putin offered “to reciprocate and go further in expanding our co-operation.”
We won’t have to wait long to find out whether his rhetoric worked. The current sanctions regime imposed on Russia by the European Union is due to expire at the end of July. To extend it, or to increase the pressure, a unanimous decision from all 28 member states is required.
Even without Italy, there are a number of other countries in favor of ending the sanctions. One of them is Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras consulted Putin extensively on the phone before making his address to Parliament on June 5, in which he scolded the diktat of the Troika. Russia’s Gazprom recently reached an agreement with Turkey to build a new pipeline to Europe, Turkish Stream, and Moscow has been trying to woo Greek leaders into signing up for the scheme. In Putin’s words, the deal will offer Greece “hundreds of millions of euros every year.” An agreement would likely involve a large advance payment that would somewhat improve the sorry state of Greece’s public finances.
Further north, Putin may hope for the backing of two Central European countries also tempted by Russian money: Hungary and Slovakia.
Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán compared sanctions against Russia to “shooting oneself in the foot.” In the midst of the crisis in Ukraine, Orbán was willing to sign, without going through a competitive public tender first, a secret €12-billion nuclear deal with Rosatom, which was later cancelled by the EU’s nuclear energy authority.
Robert Fico — the prime minister of Slovakia who previously called the sanctions “meaningless” — recently made two trips to Moscow in less than a month. Comparing the sanctions against Russia to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, he noted that the volume of Slovak-Russian trade fell by 40 percent in the first quarter of 2015, adding that he saw “absolutely no reason” for that figure to deteriorate further.
Neither of the two small post-communist countries is likely to act alone in order to block the extension of sanctions. So far, both Slovakia and Hungary — like Renzi — have been trying to have it both ways, giving a lukewarm approval to the EU’s consensus position on sanctions, and then complaining about it bitterly at home, and in Moscow.
The situation is fragile but can only change for the better. A shared understanding that a critical mass of EU members, including relatively large and influential countries, oppose the sanctions can tip the balance in favor of Europe’s “Putinistas.” That, of course, would be a disaster for the U.S. after all they have done to topple the democratically elected Ukrainian leader in the hope to establish a US-controlled regime at the border of Russia, strengthening NATO presence in the Baltic States and Poland and sending heavy weapons to the Baltic and Eastern Europe. But ending the sanctions would greatly benefit Europe’s economy.
The decision on whether or not to extend the sanctions in their present form will be a crucial test of Europe’s resolve to become more independent from the US and re-establish a normal relationship with Russia, a European partner for hundreds of years. Of course, this is everything the American neo-cons wouldn’t want to happen.