Putin Outmaneuvers the Europeans

Despite the occasional bear wrestling and topless horseback riding—habits that might seem odd for a president—it is unwise for US and EU policy makers to underestimate Russian President Vladimir Putin. A former KGB operative, mayor, prime minister, and now three-term president, Putin is shrewd and strategic, the exact opposite qualities than what President Obama used in his description of the Russian president as “the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” That was not the only wrong assessment that President Obama has had of Putin—far from Syria being the “quagmire” that the White House predicted, the hard truth is that Putin has figured out how to manipulate Western, pluralistic systems to suit his own ends. That is what he did last week, when all 28 of the European heads of state held a session to discuss the European Union’s response to the bloodshed in Aleppo.

Enacting economic sanctions on Russia is always a heavy lift for the Europeans. Due to how the European Union operates, consensus among the bloc’s twenty-eight member states is required if any new sanctions measures can be levied on another country. That’s an enormously tough road to climb for the European Union, especially when the country that members are trying to punish is Russia. It typically takes an act of such overt aggression like the annexation of Crimea or shooting down of a civilian airliner in the skies of Ukraine for the EU to muster that unity.

Aleppo was gearing up to be another instance when unanimity was possible. The Assad regime’s wholesale slaughter of the population and the Russian Air Force’s enabling and participation in it were beginning elicit a strong response. French President Francois Hollande, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel either suggested that Russia was engaging in war crimes or outright said it in public. The prospects for more economic restrictions on Russian individuals and entities for its support of the Assad regime was scheduled to be on the agenda last week when the EU heads of state were scheduled to meet.

Putin knew what was coming. His economy is in shambles and it is not getting much better. Restrictions on the Russian banking system and low crude oil prices have forced Moscow to burn through its foreign exchange reserves. But Putin had an opportunity to change the dynamic, and he took it—announcing a temporary, three-day truce in Aleppo so injured civilians could (in theory) leave the city and get medical treatment and opposition fighters and their families could save themselves while they still could. The fact that the Russians extended the truce for another 24 hours without anything in return was just the kind of behavior that was helpful enough to stall an additional sanctions push by the European Union.

After the conclusion of the meeting, the EU communique was vague. Promising only that “all available options” were on the table if the violence in Aleppo continued, sanctions were not specifically named as a policy tool that the Europeans could levy. Countries that have strong economic relationships with Russia (Italy, Slovenia, and Greece to name a few) pushed back on German, British, and French arguments for a more explicit threat of sanctions measures. The Italians took the lead and argued that adding more penalties on the Russians at this time could not possibly help Aleppo’s civilians, nor would it convince Moscow to stop bombing the city. By the time the meeting concluded, nothing really happened.

If the debate in Washington is whether or not the use of US military force against Assad regime targets is the only thing that will save the moderate opposition from a complete collapse in Aleppo, the debate in Brussels is whether more economic restrictions on Moscow would send a strong enough signal that the Europeans are united in their displeasure. Politicians are by their nature risk-adverse, concerned about the consequences that a decision would have on the people they represent. Democratic systems are also risk averse, requiring consensus to take action.

The risk averse nature of the EU heads of state worked perfectly for Putin: Russia is the EU’s third-largest trading partner, where imports and exports reached approximately 210 billion euros in 2015. At a period where European leaders are still trying to dig out of the recession, any rupture in a trade relationship with a major importer and exporter of European commerce will muddy the waters when European decisionmakers discuss potential sanctions on Moscow. Coupled with the rise in right wing populist movements across Western Europe, centrist political leaders in Europe will be hesitant to embrace any policy that could potentially impact their own economies.

Putin understands the dynamics in Europe today and utilized that to his benefit. By halting bombing and offering the opposition humanitarian corridors, he played the Europeans, doing just enough in Syria to push any sanctions decision by the EU to a later date.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst for Wikistrat Inc., and a researcher for the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts at the University of Arizona.

Image: Photo: Protesters demonstrate in front of the German Chancellery prior to a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Berlin, Germany October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt