Ukraine conflict Steinmeier and Merkel Split on Russia Sanctions

Germany’s foreign minister is calling for an easing of sanctions in Russia. That is putting him at odds with Angela Merkel and the European Union, who are digging in their heels.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, don't see eye to eye on Russia.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has warned that relations with Russia will only improve if the international community considers reducing at least some of its sanctions against the country.

Speaking at the German-Russian forum in Berlin Tuesday, Mr, Steinmeier said: “If substantial progress is made, the gradual reduction of sanctions must also be an option."

Mr. Steinmeier, a member of the center-left Social Democrats, has the backing of German businesses in his stance, but it puts him at odds with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and indeed the European Union.

At the G7 Summit last week, Ms. Merkel made it clear she was not ready to discuss lifting sanctions, saying: “For me it’s too early to give the all clear,” adding “There is no change of position to be expected.”

The sanctions the European Union imposed on Russia, for annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea two years ago, are due to expire in July and member states are currently discussing what to do next.

At the moment, the European Union and the United States insist sanctions can only be lifted once the Minsk Protocol, agreed in February 2015, is implemented. The protocol calls for Russia, the separatists it supports, and Ukraine to upon a package of measures to put an end to the conflict.

Ms. Merkel and the other G7 heads of state, representing the seven most important industrial nations, had even threatened to set up new sanctions if Moscow doesn’t do more toward resolving the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The German chancellor has the backing of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, in this tough stance.

People close to Mr. Tusk point out that Italy’ s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has also supported the G7’s tough stance on Russia. This, they say, was a clear signal that the European Union is willing to consider more sanctions, as Italy has relatively strong trade relations with Russia, and has tended to be one of the countries that call for a softer stance on Russia, alongside France, Spain, and Hungary.

So the only question left unanswered at the moment seems to be whether the sanctions will be extended once again by a half year or whether this time the timeframe will be shortened, to three months, for example.

It has to be seen to be worthwhile to implement Minsk Michael Harms, German Industries Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations

But in Germany the Social Democrats, believe their government partners, the Christian Democrats and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, may be willing to to reconsider sanctions, according to Niels Annen, foreign policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group.

For some time now, German Industries’ Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which represents many companies that trade with Russia, has called for a relaxing of the punitive measures that range from travel restrictions to export bans.

“It has to be seen to be worthwhile to implement Minsk,” says its executive director, Michael Harms. He argues that all parties involved in the conflict in Ukraine will be encouraged to go down the road towards peace if the first substantial steps toward implementation of Minsk are accompanied by the withdrawal of the first sanctions or additional aid for Ukraine.

Mr. Steinmeier for his part admitted that so far Russia has done too little to fulfill the peace agreement. “Overall, the status of the implementation of Minsk is unsatisfactory,” he said. But, he added, nobody could have an interest in economically ruining Russia.

E.U. foreign ministers will meet on 20 June, and Mr. Steinmeier said his priority in the talks running up the summit is to make sure all E.U. member states have their voices heard.

Several eastern European countries, including Poland, favor maintaining a hard line on Russia, and Mr. Steinmeier said it was important that the E.U. does not allow itself to become divided over this issue.



Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt's Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy.Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt's foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt's international correspondent. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]