That Small Plaster on the Russian Bear
The Malaysia Airline flight MH17 was following its trajectory from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on 17th July 2014, when it was shot down in the Donetsk Oblast, near Torez, just above a hotspot at the border between Russia and Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members were killed. Two years on, it is worth taking a sober look at the geopolitical rammifications of this tragic event – and the EU’s heavy-handed response.
In the immediate aftermath of the MH17 crash, politicians, analysts and media commentators were quick to denounce and blame a multitude of possible responsible suspects. The Kremlin, observing that the crash happened within the Ukrainian airspace, condemned Kiev. Conversely, the Ukrainian government attributed responsibility for the launching of the missile to Russian professionals receiving support from Russia. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was the first national leader to condemn Russia, followed soon after by the heads of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
Yet a number of European Union (EU) members were hesitant to take a firm stand against Russia owing to economic ties: Germany imports one third of its natural gas from Russia, and Italy, the UK and France all had close commercial ties with Russian gas giant Gazprom. Piling it on, a Franco-Russian deal involving the sale of two military warships worth €1.2 billion was in process. Despite pressure from the US and EU to send a stronger signal to Moscow, France proceeded with the sale, with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy observing that in case of non-delivery, 1000 jobs in France would be lost and the Élysée would be hit with financial penalties. The signature of the contract is particularly meaningful as it stipulates Moscow’s biggest foreign arms purchase since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Each Member State forwarded and adjusted its backlash depending on its individual economic, commercial or political relations with Russia. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity and partiality of European reactions, the EU collectively responded. Among the measures were the imposition of a food embargo, travel and financing restrictions, the freezing of assets, and an expression of solidarity. But perhaps the most visible response was the widening sanctions.
But are these measures effective? Evidence suggests that they have done little to weaken Russian leadership. In October 2014 (after the MH17 crash and the EU-US wave of sanctions), domestic support for Russian President Putin rocketed to 86%. According to the Russian polling research organization Levada, the Russian public view the events in Ukraine as a civil war, and not an inter-state confrontation between two countries. This suggests the Kremlin has been able to twist public opinion, using the effect of the sanctions to facilitate governance.
Yet, if we look at the recent history of Russian nationalism, it is unsurprising that EU sanctions are perceived as an unfair punishment and Russia as the victim of a EU-US-NATO coalition. Russian mass media and political declarations are fuelled by nationalistic considerations as they emphasize the past glories of the motherland and recall the pan-Russian concept of Russkyi Mir (literally ‘Russian world’). Reviving the glorious Soviet victory of 7th May 1945 against Nazism, Donbass’ incorporation into Novorossiya and Ukraine’s return to the Motherland, Russkiy Mir’s doctrinal foundation projects the integration of a pan-Soviet consciousness born out of the ruins of the USSR. In placing itself in opposition to the laziness and feebleness of the West, Russkiy Mir synthetizes a distinct and incompatible type of civilization, based on the cultural, linguistic, religious and historical common memories of Eastern Slavic and Orthodox nations. Subject to such nationalist forces, the Russian public opinion is induced to identify the Russian political leadership with the Russian nation as a whole. The single Russian citizen is thus brought to associate sanctions intended to target the politico-economic leadership with a burden falling on the population at large.
Considering the steady and progressive decline of the Russian economy in place since 2012, it is reasonable to predict that in the long-term the sanctions will continue to undermine Russia’s economy. Nonetheless, the opportunity cost of waiting until then to observe the effects of the sanctions may be too high. Furthermore, parallel to economic considerations, the Ukrainian crisis features a non-negligible rhetorical dimension. The priority emerges for the EU to adopt ‘soft power’ strategies and mechanisms, which the mainstream Russian narratives could not conceal or manipulate into anti-Russian rhetoric.
A non-inimical view of the EU should be promoted among the Russian population by bringing benefits such as easing the access to undergraduate grants and education for Russians in the EU, or liberalizing the visa regime for the Russian population. Simultaneously, travel bans and restrictions should remain imposed on the Russian political élite, and the ‘black lists’ should keep targeting political leaders. Once in place, such measures will bring benefits to the Russian population: by receiving a first-hand impression of life in the EU deprived of the distortion and filters put in place by Russian media, this could help to remove the feeling of exclusion from the West and obsessive aversion to the West which is common among the Russian public. By demonstrating that EU sanctions target the Russian political leadership and not Russian citizens, such policies could help to eradicate the idea that the EU holds the whole of Russia collectively responsible for the events in Ukraine.
 “Ukraine Slams Russia as ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism,’” Euronews, October 14, 2015, http://www.euronews.com/2015/10/14/ukraine-slams-russia-as-state-sponsor-of-terrorism.
 “How far do EU-US sanctions on Russia go?”, BBC News, September 15, 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28400218.
 Stacy Meichtry, “France Moves to Defy Allies on Sale of Warship to Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2014, www.wsj.com/articles/france-moves-to-defy-allies-on-sale-of-warship-to-russia-1401877000.
 “France Won’t Cancel Warship Deal with Russia: Sources,” Reuters, May 12, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-russia-mistral-idUSBREA4B05920140512.
 Soeren Kern, “EU Leaders Deeply Divided Over Russia,” Gatestone Institute, July 14, 2014, http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4464/eu-russia.
 Chris Wright, “Russia Under Sanctions After MH17, Argentina In Default: Should Investors Shun Emerging Markets?”, Forbes, July 30, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/chriswright/2014/07/30/russia-under-sanctions-after-mh17-argentina-in-default-should-investors-shun-emerging-markets/; “Statement by the High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini on the report of the Dutch Safety Board concerning the downing of flight MH17 on 17 July 2014,” European Union External Action, October 13, 2015, collections.internetmemory.org/haeu/content/20160313172652/http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2015/151013_03_en.htm.
 Dennis Kredler, “The EU should use more soft power towards Russia,” Euractiv, September 9, 2014, www.euractiv.com/section/europe-s-east/opinion/the-eu-should-use-more-soft-power-towards-russia/.
 Carol Matlack, “Russia’s Great Shift Downward,” Bloomberg, January 28, 2016, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-28/russia-s-economy-faces-long-term-decline.
 Dennis Kredler, “The EU should use more soft power towards Russia.”
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