Continental Europe’s three largest economies are reluctant to sever their ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea.
While American officials have issued strong condemnations, with President Barack Obama saying Russia is on “the wrong side of history” and the United States will isolate it diplomatically and economically if it persists in its aggression, France, Germany and Italy have been more cautious.
Asked on Monday whether the incursion of the Crimea was forcing France to rethinking its trade relations with Russia, Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister said, “We’re not there. For the moment, we are trying to stop Russia’s mobilization in Ukraine and establish a dialogue.”
Unlike many of its neighbors, France is not heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas imports. 75 percent of its electricity comes from nuclear power produced at home. But it is due to deliver the first of two Mistral class amphibious assault ships to Russia later this year, a deal valued at €1.4 billion.
Germany’s economy is more intertwined with Russia’s. Thousands of German companies do business there. As Germany plans to wean itself off nuclear power within a decade, it dependence on Russian natural gas imports could rise further.
Russia exported €25 billion worth of good and services to Germany in 2012 when its imports from Germany were valued at €28 billion. Germany is its largest market for natural gas. Nearly a quarter of the gas its exports goes to the country.
German chancellor Angela Merkel called President Vladimir Putin on Sunday night to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Rather than threatening isolation or sanctions, as the Americans have done, however, she urged the Russian leader to resume dialogue with Ukraine under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Germany also hesitated to put out a statement on behalf of the G7 of industrialized nations, excluding Russia, and resisted a suggestion from American secretary of state John Kerry to expel Russia from the club. “I’m with those who say the G8 format is the only format in which we in the West still talk directly to Russia,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Economy minister Sigmar Gabriel is due to visit Moscow on Thursday and Friday where officials say he will try to meet with Putin.
Italy’s new foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, said on Monday that no boycott of the G8 summit that is planned to take place in Sochi in June had been discussed yet. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi made a “strong appeal” to Russia “to avoid actions that would lead to a worsening of the crisis and to pursue the path of dialogue with all means.”
Italy, a G7 member, gets 11 percent of Russia’s gas and is Russia’s second biggest trading partner in the European Union, after Germany. Italy’s Alenia and Russia’s Sukhoi are jointly developing a new aircraft while Eni, Russia’s biggest gas customer, renegotiated its contract with Gazprom for long-term energy supplies as recently as 2012.
Former Russian satellite states in Eastern Europe, despite also depending on Russian oil and gas, have been more forceful in their response to what could be the worst crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland called for emergency NATO consultations after Russia invaded the Crimea. But a meeting on Tuesday produced little more than a promise from Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to intensify a “rigorous assessment” of the crisis.