Europe has met its pain threshold on Russia sanctions. It wasn’t that high.
Nicholas Vinocur is editor, POLITICO Pro.
Europe’s support for Ukraine has come up against the one limit that won’t budge — a limited tolerance for pain and sacrifice.
In the days after Russia launched its invasion, the European Union stunned the world with a rare display of unity on everything from sanctions to delivering weapons to Ukrainian fighters.
But as the war grinds on and Russian bombs batter Kyiv’s neighborhoods, the EU has met its pain threshold and is balking at further measures to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin. Amid the gravest threat to European security and democracy since World War II, EU leaders have declined to stop buying the Russian gas and oil that’s funding the war, and even stopped short of setting a date for when they might do so.
On Saturday, the leaders rolled out a new package of sanctions that will hit luxury goods exports to Russia and make life somewhat more uncomfortable for Putin’s oligarch pals. But the measures are designed to avoid making any major demands of European populations, whose troubles with higher energy prices pale in comparison to the suffering of Ukrainians huddling in underground bomb shelters.
The refusal to consider more hard-hitting sanctions against Russia underscores a return to incrementalism among EU leaders.
Rather than ride the momentum of the first days of war, they are scrambling to protect their populations from the effects of higher energy costs via price caps and subsidy schemes.
Instead of delivering a potential knockout blow to Putin’s war economy today, they are promising to stop buying his gas and oil at some date in the future that remains to be determined. (EU countries have even pushed back against a proposed 2027 date for ending the bloc’s dependence on Russian gas, saying they prefer to have this conversation in May.)
The dithering isn’t new. It’s part of a pattern that goes back to 2006, when EU leaders first discussed diversifying away from Russian gas. That discussion continued in 2009, after Putin attacked Georgia, and came up again in 2014 after his invasion of Crimea, after which purchases of Russian energy actually increased.
The difference this time is that the danger to European democracies is real. It’s on the bloc’s doorstep, drawing closer every day the conflict continues.
Facing an all-out assault by Russian forces, Ukraine’s government is imploring the EU to step up its sanctions, including by banning Russian energy imports. “This is blood oil diesel. It will be sold for money and that money was used by Putin to buy weapons and ammunition that are killing Ukrainians,” Oleg Ustenko, economic adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told the BBC on Saturday.
Yet EU leaders appear more concerned about safeguarding their economies than confronting Putin. When someone does suggest that Europeans may have to pay a price for stopping the invasion, it’s delivered in the politest possible terms — as when French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire suggested that people might have to lower the heat in their homes by a degree or two to offset higher energy costs.
“We will all have to make an effort,” he said, quickly adding: “The economy minister is not here to tell you to do this or that. I’m only saying that collectively we will have to be much more careful about our energy use.”
Yellow Jacket redux?
It’s not hard to see why people like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron are worried about the blowback from cutting off the Russian energy supply. European economies are heavily dependent on it; a sudden stop would inflict economic pain that Le Maire has compared to the 1973 oil shock.
In France, the memory of the Yellow Jacket protest movement — which started due to outrage over a proposed fuel tax — is fresh. The protesters who in 2019 used a forklift to break through the door of a French ministry are the same people who could lash out against higher fuel prices if pro-Ukraine sentiment slips, said Harris Interactive pollster Jean-Daniel Lévy. “Buying power is the number one concern of French voters,” he said.
But EU governments have strategic reserves of gas to keep them going for the next few months. A country like France, relying principally on nuclear power, may be able to weather the storm without too much damage. Heavily-dependent nations such as Germany would have to make stark choices on a short timescale, including whether to end the use of nuclear energy.
Such choices are momentous and carry the potential for severe economic and political pain. But it may be that leaders are more worried than they need to be about public opinion — because Europeans themselves are not saying they have had enough.
On the contrary: According to a poll published last Friday by France’s Institut Jean-Jaurès, 79 percent of Europeans voiced support for the bloc’s sanctions against Russia. A strong majority, 62 percent, backed Kyiv’s accession to the European Union, and 68 percent supported the creation of a European army.
What the poll didn’t ask is whether the respondents backed tougher sanctions against Russia, or whether they would be ready to undergo a full-blown energy crisis due to the war.
But the responses did suggest that Europeans are willing to do something. Even if that means putting on a sweater to support Ukraine.