Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

US urges reluctant EU to 'increase cost' on Russia

  • Donald Trump (r) with Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who recently visited Moscow (Photo: governo.it)

David Tessler, the US diplomat tasked with ensuring the EU maintains sanctions on Russia, is going to Rome.

But a lack of appetite in Europe for US calls to "increase the cost" on Russia for what he called its "malign behaviour" is a wider issue than just Italy's pro-Russian government, EU diplomats say.

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  • Iran nuclear deal - US decision to walk away from the 2015 nuclear arms deal has antagonised EU (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

"We assess the threat [coming from Russia], unfortunately, as getting worse not better," Tessler told press in Brussels on Tuesday (6 November).

"It's not a theoretical debate ... it's a clear and present danger," he added.

The EU and US first imposed economic sanctions and blacklists on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

But the threat was broader than Moscow's military aggression, Tessler said - listing also its chemical weapons violations, election-meddling, cyber-attacks, and anti-Western propaganda campaign.

The US announced on Tuesday it would impose extra sanctions on Russia over its use of a nerve toxin to try to kill a spy in the UK in March.

"It's frustrating that Russian behaviour is getting worse despite the sanctions, but our response is that we need to increase the cost [on the Kremlin]," Tessler said.

EU summit

He spoke amid EU preparations to extend the Russia economic sanctions for another six months at the European summit in December.

The expectation, EU sources said, was that the French and German leaders would meet Russia's Vladimir Putin beforehand, then brief fellow leaders in Brussels, who would wave the measures through.

"As usual, some countries will want to have a political discussion, but in the past this just meant making a few comments, and then everyone moved on," an EU diplomat said.

Italy's prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said in Moscow last month that he might veto the extension.

Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, also has a far-right party with pro-Russian views in its coalition government.

But there is little chance that either of them would actually wield their veto, another EU diplomat said.

"There's a chance the Italians will ask for something - but they're more likely to seek a concession on their budget," he said, referring to Rome's clash with EU institutions on fiscal rules.

"Austria is in a difficult position [in terms of vetoes] because they are the EU presidency and have to act as a neutral broker," he added.

Substance

For his part, Tessler, who already visited Vienna on his EU tour, said he would also go to Rome before returning to Washington.

When asked what he would say to his Italian counterparts, he replied: "We have to focus on maintaining that cost, managing that pressure, and we have to do it together."

"The substance of our shared interests and threats is what's going to drive us forward in a coordinated way," he said.

Tessler praised the EU for having recently agreed new targeted sanctions for chemical weapons violators and for cyber-attackers.

He also said it would be "a powerful step for Europe to take" if it created targeted sanctions for human rights abusers, the way the US did with its 'Global Magnitsky Act'.

The American diplomat already visited the EU six times this year to beat the Russia drum.

His latest visit came as the US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran despite EU appeals not do so for the sake of maintaining a nuclear arms control treaty.

It also came amid US threats to fine EU firms taking part in Nord Stream 2 (NS2) - a Germany-Russia gas pipeline.

Tessler said that the Iran clash "did not come up" in his Russia talks.

He repeated US opposition to the pipeline, however.

"We think it's a geo-strategic project. The Russians have showed time and again they were willing to use energy as a political tool. They're not afraid to make Europeans suffer [via energy cut-offs] for political gain," he said.

New environment

But the dispute on Iran and NS2, as well as other US-EU confrontations - on trade, on the environment, and on Nato spending - have made Europeans less willing than in the past to heed Washington's call.

"Let's be honest - the relationship between the US and the EU is not in as great a shape as in the past. The sanctions are not being 100 percent-coordinated as in the past. We're in a different environment," one of the EU diplomats said.

"I really don't see the appetite on the European side," to follow the US in adding extra sanctions on Russia over the UK chemical attack, he added.

Meanwhile, the first serious EU deliberations on a European version of the US 'Global Magnitsky Act' are set to take place at a conference in The Hague on 20 November.

Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian anti-corruption activist who was killed in prison and who gave his name to a US bill imposing visa bans and asset freezes on human rights violators.

But the Dutch redacted his name from their proposal, which they have called an "EU global human rights sanctions regime" instead, because they also feared there was little appetite in the EU to add another point of friction with Moscow.

They did it after conducting bilateral talks with several EU capitals prior to the 20 November talks.

They also opted not to invite Bill Browder, Magnitsky's former employer, who has campaigned for an EU Magnitsky Act for the past nine years, in order to avoid giving the impression that their proposal was aimed at Russia.

Appeasement?

"For me, it would be strange. This man [Magnitsky], who lost his life in such a tragic way, deserves to keep his place in history, but the Dutch know what they are doing," an EU diplomat said.

"This is craven appeasement [of Russia] and utter cowardice," Browder, who also visited Brussels on Tuesday, told EUobserver.

"The Magnitsky Act was inspired by Sergei Magnitsky's ultimate sacrifice, which has created a global justice movement. His name is a powerful symbol for all victims of human rights abuse around the world," he added.

"To delete his name is equivalent to erasing Nelson Mandela or Andrew Sakharov's name from history," Browder said.

France calls for EU 'army' to contain Russia

The EU needs a "real European army" to stand up to Russia, the French president has said. It must also fight populism at home by being less "ultra-liberal".

Opinion

EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name

Sergei Magnitsky gave his life to fighting corruption. The least we can do is to honour his sacrifice in the name of the legislation that his heroism inspired.

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