In 2014, the downing of MH17 rallied public opinion in the United States and Europe against Russia and strengthened support for sanctions against Russia after it annexed Crimea that year. Western outrage did not translate into a resolution of Ukraine’s separatist conflict, even if it rarely makes headlines these days. Five years on, hostilities between Kiev and eastern Ukraine continue to produce casualties regularly on both sides. Up to 13,000 people are estimated to have been killed so far. But at least in parts of Europe, outrage over the conflict and the fate of MH17 has largely faded.
That allowed for greater momentum behind a push to end European sanctions on Russia as Russia-friendly populists made inroads in European politics in recent years. In 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban decried Europe’s “anti-Russian stance and policies.” After the far right joined Austria’s government, its leader — who then became the vice chancellor of Austria — backed an end to the sanctions. Austria’s right-wing coalition fell apart in May, but Putin can still count on Italy, where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in March that the punitive measures against Russia had hurt Italian businesses. Officials in other countries, including Bulgaria, have similarly voiced skepticism about the sanctions.
These European populists appear to be opposed to the measures for a number of reasons. Some of them, including Austria’s far right, have long upheld ties to the Kremlin to raise their political weight in foreign policy debates and emphasize their similar worldviews. Italy’s current government and others appear to view business deals with Russia as a possible way to boost their stagnating economies. Meanwhile, Hungary’s support for Moscow is at least partially rooted in Orban’s awareness that close ties to the Kremlin are a thorn in the side of the European Union — an institution Orban considers to be run by a liberal establishment he loathes.
Perhaps the most unlikely resistance to sanctions against Russia has come out of Germany, where pressure to drop the measures has mounted for some time. A study released by economists with the German IfW institute in 2017 concluded that sanctions resulted in revenue losses amounting to $114 billion across North America and Europe between early 2014 and the end of 2015.
Germany has been affected far more severely than “other geopolitically significant stakeholders such as the United Kingdom, France and the United States,” the researchers wrote. Overall, “almost 40 percent of the West’s losses” had been borne by German companies. Within the country, the fallout appears to have hit one region especially hard: formerly socialist East Germany, which maintained strong trade ties with the remnants of the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
This month, those tensions finally escalated when the conservative minister-president of the eastern German federal state of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, met with Putin in St. Petersburg. After their talks, Kretschmer demanded an end to the sanctions. “We need an end to the Ukraine conflict, in which people die day after day. But we also want an end to the sanctions, as soon as possible,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel — also a member of the conservative party — quickly rejected his proposal. After meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Berlin on Tuesday, she emphasized that sanctions would remain in place unless Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty was restored and “Crimea returns to Ukraine.” Merkel has found allies against Russia not just in the E.U.’s more liberal corners, including France, Britain and the Netherlands, but also in Poland’s far-right populist government.
There’s also the option of a middle road between Merkel’s firm stance and other populists’ demands to entirely drop sanctions that would require more concessions from both Ukraine and Russia. Originally, the “Minsk Agreements” and subsequent protocols that were negotiated early in the conflict were supposed to be that path.
April’s election of the former comedian Zelensky as Ukrainian president could give both sides a chance to reboot talks. Before Zelensky’s electoral victory, a key Putin ally in Ukraine suggested that new talks may result in the handing back of Donbass to Kiev in return for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. But any agreement that would allow Russia to remain in control of Crimea while having sanctions dropped probably would meet resistance in a number of European capitals. And without European support, Ukraine would hardly be able to propose a deal acceptable to the Kremlin.
While Zelensky may have to make the first move, how far he can go will also depend on leaders in countries such as Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands — where a trial of the four MH17 suspects is to begin in March.