European Ministers Agree to Extend Russia Sanctions

Greece had raised doubts about the sanctions but agreed to keep them in place for another six months.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Grzegorz Schetyna, the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland, speak in Brussels, January 29
Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Grzegorz Schetyna, the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland, speak in Brussels, January 29 (The Council of the European Union)

European Union foreign ministers agreed to extend economic sanctions against Russia on Thursday by six months. The measures are expected to help push Russia’s economy into recession this year.

Greece, which elected a new government over the weekend, had raised doubts about the sanctions regime ahead of the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, complaining that it was not consulted about an official statement that criticized continued Russian meddling in the conflict in Ukraine. The country could have blocked the sanctions which require unanimous consent.

Government leaders are expected to confirm their foreign ministers’ decision in two weeks’ time.

The sanctions were first imposed after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year. Originally enacted for a year, the punitive measures were due to expire in March.

The embargo was strengthened after Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine were suspected of having shot down a commercial airliner, killing nearly three hundred passengers and crew. The missiles that were used to shoot down the airplane likely came from Russia.

Russia still denies it actively backs the insurrection in southeastern Ukraine but has admitted to deploying troops in the Crimea, something it earlier denied as well.

The Western sanctions triggered a trade war. Russia responded by banning certain agricultural imports from Eastern European countries and reducing natural gas flows to Poland and Slovakia. It was notably light on embargoing products from Greece, however.

Russia is a major trading partner for Greece. It accounted for 14 percent of its imports in 2013.

The country is also heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and stuck with a €100 million energy bill for unused gas supplies.

The parties that support new Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ government are sympathetic to Russia. His own Syriza party, an amalgamation of former communists and socialists, sees an ally in Russia against “neoliberalism” and a supposedly German-dominated Europe. It is also ambiguous about Greece’s NATO membership.

The socially conservative Independent Greeks, the junior partners in Tsipras’ coalition, also reject austerity and appreciate Russian president Vladimir Putin’s defense of traditional values against encroaching liberal influences from the West.

However, Greece remains dependent on other European countries for financial support, even if Tsipras has defied the conditions of its bailout by rolling back the privatization of Greece’s largest seaport and its public power utility. He also wants to cancel spending cuts and public-sector reforms Greece earlier agreed to.