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U.S. Official Confident EU Will Continue To Back Russia Sanctions

U.S. Sanctions Coordinator Impressed By European Resolve Against Russia
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WATCH: U.S. Sanctions Coordinator Impressed By European Resolve Against Russia

PRAGUE -- The U.S. State Department's chief sanctions-policy coordinator is confident the European Union will maintain its travel and economic restrictions against Russia until Moscow fulfills the terms of a peace agreement to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking to RFE/RL in the Czech capital after a weeklong tour of four Central European states to shore up support for the sanctions regime, Daniel Fried on June 16 called costs to the West of sanctions "the price" of combating "Russian aggression."

The United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and its backing of armed separatism in eastern Ukraine, leaving President Vladimir Putin internationally isolated.

Western officials vow the measures will be lifted only after the fulfillment of the 2015 Minsk accords, which set out steps to bring a lasting peace to eastern Ukraine, where more than 9,300 people have died in fighting since April 2014.

"Sanctions can be costly, but happily European countries have suffered much less than Russian propaganda makes it out to be," Fried said. "Some have been hit harder than others, the Baltic states in particular, [and] Finland. So we need to stick together. American companies have also been hit. But this is the price we all need to pay if we're to successfully resist Russian aggression."

The sanctions have hit Russia's economy most dramatically by closing long-term EU lending to Russian companies and discouraging foreign investment.

Some of Putin's inner circle have also been targeted with asset freezes and travel bans.

However, European countries have been hit by countermeasures ordered by the Kremlin, including a Russian import ban on meat, vegetable, and dairy products from the EU.

That has led to growing calls in some quarters of Europe to lift the sanctions.

'Worse Without Sanctions'

At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for the European restrictions to be lifted, saying, "We have enough problems without it, and we cannot afford to suffer."

In his RFE/RL interview, Fried countered by saying that, at the same forum, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker spoke firmly in favor of sanctions remaining until the terms of the Minsk accords are met.

"This was a good statement," Fried said.

Fried rejected any suggestion that a recent uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine casts doubt on whether the sanctions are working.

"If it weren't for sanctions, things would be much worse. And anybody who thinks that it couldn't be worse in Ukraine simply lacks imagination," Fried warned. "Sanctions did two things: They prevented the Russians from going much further, and I think, without the sanctions, the Russians would have gone much further."

Fried said in a reference to a key coastal stretch of Ukraine that Russia-backed separatists "might have attacked Mariupol, they might have driven a so-called land bridge to Crimea."

"The second thing sanctions achieved was to provide the conditions for getting a framework, the Minsk accords, to end the conflict. No sanctions, no Minsk accords," Fried added.

Working Diplomatic Channels

Asked whether sanctions may have played into the hands of Putin, allowing him to blame the West for his country's economic woes, Fried said there was virtually no other course of action available.

"How would the Russians have responded if the West had been weak? What conclusions would the Russians have drawn had we failed to resist their aggression?" Fried said. "Would their behavior have been better? Really? I think that a strong response has prevented things from being worse and given us the road to get out of the situation."

As for whether Putin's popularity has been boosted by the crisis with the West, Fried was skeptical.

"As for popularity, well, I've always had a healthy skepticism of public opinion polls conducted in countries where it is not perhaps safe to say you don't support the leader," he said.

Polls of Russians, who are used to seeing media toe the Kremlin line since authorities began silencing independent news outlets soon after Putin was appointed to succeed Boris Yeltsin at the end of 1999, consistently show strong support for the former KGB officer.

Fried also rejected suggestions that average Russians were suffering more as a result of the sanctions than some of Putin's cronies blacklisted by the EU and Washington.

"As for hurting the Russian people, the West, the EU and the U.S., never considered sanctioning food exports to Russia. We would never do that," Fried said. "It is the Russian government itself that has deprived the Russian people of access to good quality food. You'll have to ask them why they did this."

The EU trade and financing sanctions must be renewed every six months, with the next vote coming at an EU heads-of-state summit in Brussels on June 28 and 29.

Greece, along with Hungary, Italy, Cyprus, and Slovakia, have been among the most vocal critics within the EU of the sanctions.Russia is the EU's third-largest trading partner.

Diplomats in Brussels have expressed confidence that the sanctions will be extended next month. But analysts have wondered aloud whether they will be prolonged again six months later.

Moscow is now working its diplomatic channels to erode EU unity to ultimately end or dilute the sanctions regime.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.