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How MH17 is affecting Europe's Russia policy

Adam Berry

The weak link in Obama administration efforts to punish Russian behavior in Ukraine has always been the reluctance of America's allies in Europe to crack down hard. Europe is closer to Russia geographically, and much more interconnected with it. That means European countries have the ability to enact sanctions that bite much harder than American sanctions, but it also means that European countries pay a higher price for getting tough than does the United States.

So the impact of the downing of MH17 on European politics is probably the key way in which the tragedy will affect the geopolitical situation around Ukraine. And we're already starting to see it play out.

Old Europe versus New Europe

Key to understanding the "European" stance on Russia is that Europe's countries are themselves divided. Broadly speaking, the big western European nations — the UK, France, and especially Germany and Italy — have commercial relationships with Russia and prefer not to rock the boat. But the nations of central and eastern Europe that used to live under Soviet domination tend to favor a hard line, and especially like the idea of anything that keeps the United States militarily engaged in eastern Europe. There is also the somewhat special case of Finland, which actually borders Russia and is not a NATO member, and has a decades-long policy of simultaneously preparing to defend itself from Russia and desperately trying to avoid antagonizing Moscow.

These tensions were roiling earlier in the week over the formation of a new set of European Commissioners (sort of like an EU cabinet). The commission-formation process requires a complicated balance of national and partisan affiliations, and it appeared as though the foreign portfolio would be put in the hands of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini. Eastern European nations objected vociferously to her, citing pro-Russian conduct of Italian foreign policy under her watch.

The latest events obviously shift the calculation somewhat, and Mogherini could be an early victim of rising anti-Russian sentiment, not just in the east but among the western European countries as well.

Merkel and Steinmeier issue cautious statements

Germany, as usual, is the key European country here. And thus far Germany's key leaders, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have tread a fairly cautious path. In his statements, Steinmeier is trying to take a tough line against the murder of civilians while going out of his way to avoid prejudging Russian responsibility:

Currently Germany is governed by a so-called grand coalition between the main right-of-center and main left-of-center political parties, so Merkel and her cabinet are not under any particular partisan political pressure in one direction or another.

Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, issued a statement saying "for the chancellor, the suspected circumstances in which the plane was allegedly shot down from a great height are shocking." Germany has joined other countries in calling for a credible international investigation into the circumstances of the plane's destruction. Merkel has also suggested that France should consider halting sales of Mistral warships to Russia. That would be a major step, but it is of course easier for Germany's Chancellor to suggest anti-Russian moves that are costly to French business interests than moves that are costly to German interests.

Tough talk from Poland

On the surface, the official statement from the Polish foreign ministry is no different from the German position. Their bottom line is a call for "the international community to take all necessary steps to establish the facts of the crash, secure evidence and the crash site, treat the victims' bodies and belongings with respect, and allow safe access to the crash site for experts and the victims' families."

But the subtext is very different. The statement notes significant evidence of Russian responsibility for the downing of the plane, and offers a giant "I told you so" to western Europe:

We recall that during his visit to Kyiv last Tuesday, Minister Radosław Sikorski said that the fact that pro-Russian separatists were reported to be armed with advanced surface-to-air missiles represented the greatest concern in the current state of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. This point was addressed in an MFA press release issued after the minister's visit to Kyiv.

Poland has no real ability to force German or French policy to shift, but they can target public opinion in western Europe, and seem to be trying.

Dutch PM Rutte vows to punish the perpetrators

The largest share of the dead are citizens of the Netherlands, a small country that lost a greater share of its population yesterday than the United States did on 9/11. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued one of the harshest statements of any world leader, vowing to ensure that the perpetrators are identified and punished.

(Roughly: One thing is clear: If this was an attack, I'm committed to ensuring the perpetrators are identified and punished. We will not rest)

In a longer address, Rutte said that Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans would be immediately dispatched to Ukraine to supervise Dutch interests.

The Netherlands is not a geopolitical powerhouse, but they do have two interests that bear directly on Russia-EU relations. One is that the Netherlands is a major tax haven for Russian oligarchs, and a center for activity verging on money laundering that has the ability to hit influential Russians in the pocketbook. The other is that the Netherlands is home to a large and currently underutilized terminal for importing liquid natural gas. If EU-Russian relations deteriorated sufficiently to halt Russian exports of gas to Europe, the Dutch terminal would be the big winner.

Tougher sanctions on the way

One quirk of the situation is that the European Union voted for tougher sanctions on Russia on Wednesday, less than 36 hours before the destruction of MH17. That included suspension of billions of dollars in loans to Russian public sector projects and potential asset freezes on wealthy Russians who are financing separatist groups in Ukraine.

Had these new sanctions not been already agreed to, this menu of options likely would have been the first wave of EU response to a new Russian provocation. But since these measures were already in the works, Europe has already plucked its lowest-hanging fruit and will need to think of some new ideas if more conclusive evidence forces European leaders to deliver consequences.