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!
Aleppo is rubble. Men, women and children are torn apart limb by limb as bombs are dropped by Assad’s and Putin’s planes. Is that what it took for the West to come to the brutal realisation that it can’t manage Russia in Syria? Cynically speaking, the West lost Syria a while ago. Ever since President Obama drew that meaningless red line against chemical weapons, Putin knew Syria was his for the taking. Talks of cooperating with Russia in Syria and building an anti-ISIS alliance might have been genuine but they were self-deceiving. It was an attempt to use an enemy (ISIS) that unites us. But the proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” ain’t enough. It cannot gloss over the divergence of core interests in Syria between Russia and the West.
The outrage of the international community now calls for action. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians cannot be left unanswered. But – woefully – there aren’t many potent options available in Syria it seems. Establish a no-fly zone? How would that work? Would the West really be prepared to shoot down Russian planes? Not a chance. There might have been a time when this option could have been feasible but its chances are gone. Provide Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft weaponry? These weapons might just end up in ISIS’ hands. Another set of sanctions against Russia? At first look a good idea. So far, however, there’s no united European front for this. The Russia-smitten Social-Democrats in Germany are against as are other EU Member States. The Conclusions of the EU Foreign Ministers of today (18 October 2016) don’t raise sanctions (that’s for the Heads of States and Governments to discuss this week) and they also show a reluctance to name Russia directly – instead it’s packed under the rubric of Syria and its “allies”. Sanctions imposed ideally also ought to be tied to demands. What would those be? Stop bombing Aleppo? They can easily do so when it’s fallen – would the sanctions then be lifted? Or bring those responsible to the International Criminal Court? Forget about it. Don’t get me wrong – sanctions would be symbolically important but it would be unclear how to proceed with them. Russia has the upper hand in Syria. It can escalate and de-escalate the situation as it sees fit. Just now it has said that it will have an 8-hour “humanitarian pause” on Thursday. This strategy of escalate/de-escalate allows the Kremlin to throw European decision-making off guard and tests internal Western cohesion.
So maybe the table of options needs to be widened to areas where we are strong and have influence. Merkel could – apart from floating sanctions – announce that Nord Stream 2 is a no-go. Germany could abandon its selfish rejection to join Central and Eastern European countries in an energy solidarity cluster. The EU’s anti-trust watchdog could weaken Gazprom’s pricing power in Eastern Europe. Murky Russian financial networks in the EU could be further examined and action considered, etc.
Simultaneously, the European Union also needs to dramatically step up its game when it comes to cyber-defence. Putin puts pressure externally and internally. He uses bombs in Syria, bullets in Ukraine and bytes in the West. Russia’s information warfare has entered a new level. Interfering in elections with cyber attacks against the Democratic National Committee and feeding information to Wikileaks, stoking up societal divisions in Europe via disinformation such as the German case of “Lisa”, and so on. Europe should prepare itself. Elections will take place in Germany and France in 2017 – besides promoting far-right parties via funding and other means, disinformation can play a role here too.
We have to strengthen our internal resilience and social cohesion. Vice-President Joe Biden came out saying that the US could engage in a reciprocal cyber attack by, for example, attaining and publishing information showing the hidden (corrupt) wealth of Putin. But again, this would be in an area where influence is limited. Putin squashes the domestic media – only few would dare put such stories out at the risk of their own life. We cannot play Putin’s game – we must play our own.