Russia’s strategy of oscillating between escalation and de-escalation seems to be paying off. As soon as EU sanctions in response to the Aleppo bombings were raised, Russia announced a “humanitarian pause”. Coincidentally, that pause was on the very same day that the EU’s Heads of State and Government were going to discuss the issue. Even before that announcement support for more EU sanctions against Russia was rather weak. Moscow’s tactical play further emboldened the naysayers and undermined the pro-sanctions camp. Now the issue seems off the table again, Russia can go back to bombing.
Its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is off to the Eastern Mediterranean to join operations in Syria. Spain was even going to allow the warship to refuel in one of its ports – provide it with oil so it may participate in the destruction of Aleppo. Only after an intervention by NATO’s Secretary General and others, did the Spaniards back down and have Russia withdraw its request for refuelling.
Meanwhile, the media cycle has moved on. Aleppo is no longer the story of the day; the Western offensive in Mosul is. Putin must be laughing to himself how he played this. He put the West off guard, sowed division and in the process even undermined Western sanctions policy. When Merkel intervened and invited him to Berlin for talks, Putin brought along with him Vladislav Surkov, who is on the EU sanctions list and banned from entering the EU (he was given an “exception” by the German Foreign Ministry in order to attend). And the day before his arrival, Putin mentioned at the BRICS Summit that Western sanctions can go “screw themselves”.
How much more time and escalation in Syria will it take before consequential action, such as additional sanctions, will be back on the front burner? Now is not the time to weaken resolve. Weakness and indecision embolden Moscow. It’s time for grit and backbone. You can’t “euro-fudge” the Kremlin.
It means making sure that Russia is not re-elected on the Human Rights Council this coming Friday at the UN General Assembly. It means already drafting sanctions proposals. It means not continuing business-as-usual, for example with Spain simply providing fuel to Russian warships. It means ratcheting up the pressure on Gazprom. The gas giant has raised the spectre of abandoning its Nord Stream 2 pipeline at a board meeting on 9 November. Well, let’s help them decide!