In recent months the Kremlin has been actively working to get the West to lift the economic sanctions it had imposed on Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has tried to project an image of reason in talks on the Minsk II peace framework—even as Moscow’s “separatist” clients are responsible for most of the ceasefire violations and Russia seems uninterested in carrying out key Minsk provisions. Moscow also has sought to undermine EU unity behind the sanctions regime. Its counter-sanctions on European imports—imposed in response to the EU measures,—have hurt important European producers and increased pressure on individual EU members to relax the sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has tried to portray Russia as the peace-loving victim of U.S. and European aggression.
Russia’s campaign has borne some results. Several key European leaders have expressed misgivings about the sanctions. On 8 June, the French Senate approved a resolution designed to lift the measures gradually. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will be attending a major economic conference in St. Petersburg in mid-June, leading to speculation that sanctions will not be renewed after they expire on 31 July. As we see in one of the CEPA Information Warfare briefs this week, Moscow has used the media to mock criticism by U.S., Polish and Baltic leaders of the Juncker visit.
Despite the West’s shaky unity, the EU seems set to extend its sanctions for another six months. More dovish states such as Hungary, Italy and Greece—which favor their end -- are for the moment reluctant to press for softer measures or seek only a three-month extension. In part, this is because the fate of the Minsk process is uncertain, and also because these countries must deal first with the migration crisis.
All signs suggest, however, that a major EU diplomatic conflict looms this fall over the sanctions regime. Russia’s information weaponry will play an enhanced role as that drama unfolds.