Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON – Germany’s foreign minister believes the Ukrainian crisis with Russia could prompt a war between Europe and Russia, warning of “unforeseeable consequences for all of Europe.”

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, said tougher new sanctions against Moscow are needed even though he said “European peace is at stake.”

Steinmeier said German industry now supports increased sanctions even though it could be the source of further tensions between the European Union and Russia.

In underscoring the need for good relations with Moscow, Steinmeier said Germany has always maintained contacts with Moscow and “continue(s) to do so because we need them.”

“I will never tire of repeating that European peace is at stake. This conflict could have unforeseeable consequences for all of Europe,” he said.

European business activity with Russia, especially with German companies, has made any sanctions effort harmful to European companies. Any prolonged period of sanctions, the Europeans fear, could weaken their already vulnerable economy.

Course for ‘termination’ of relationship

Europe and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Western leaders accused Russian-backed separatists in the region of shooting it down with a missile. Moscow counters by claiming that it was shot down by the Ukrainian government.

In an attempt to punish Russia for its alleged role in the MH17 shootdown, the EU has imposed increased sanctions on Russian intelligence officials and their assets, prompting a Russian threat to end security arrangements with the United States and the EU.

Claiming that such a development “would be greeted enthusiastically by international terrorists,” the Russian foreign ministry said the EU countries “have set a course for complete termination of interaction with Russia in international and regional issues.”

Despite such a warning, the EU now is expected to make a final decision to include an embargo on arms sales and impose limits on dual-use and energy technologies – export controls reminiscent of Cold War days.

The West accuses Russia of helping to arm and provide troops to back pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, which is comprised mostly of Russian-speakers.

Russia, on the other hand, charges the West aided the overthrow of a democratically elected government that resulted in the need for Moscow to send in troops to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow also is providing assistance to ethnic Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine who do not want to be under what they consider an illegal government in Kiev.

The Western-backed Kiev government, which has signed an agreement with the EU, stands in the way of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to create a buffer between the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Russian Federation.

Ukraine also is a country through which much of Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe flow, effectively giving Moscow political leverage over Ukraine and limiting European reaction to his actions in that country.

In spite of the prospect that European sanctions will be a source of further friction with Russia, Steinmeier said his EU counterparts intend to increase sanctions even further, with possible economic measures being considered.

Steinmeier claimed that all 28 members of the EU support the increased sanctions.

“We can only send Moscow the clear message that is needed when all 28 member states work as one,” Steinmeier said. “And when it comes to arms deals, it should be noted that Germany stepped into the lead months ago.”

With that said, however, France remains a holdout in halting an impending delivery of two Mistral warships Russia ordered in 2011 in a $1.7 billion deal.

Reliance on Russia

As analysts point out, however, such escalation of sanctions against Russia can only go on for so long, since Europe needs to import sufficient natural gas from Russia for the coming winter.

For that and other reasons, Putin will wait out Europe and its threat of increased sanctions, knowing Russia controls the flow of natural gas that otherwise could make for a cold winter in Europe.

The U.S. also has been pushing Europe to impose harsher sanctions on Russia to ensure U.S. sanctions will be more effective. Without European action, the Obama administration has said sanctions would be ineffective.

Left unsaid, however, is that the U.S. economy relies less on trade with Russia than the European markets.

Steinmeier said the Obama administration is in a better position than European countries to impose sanctions due to a “different legal culture.”

“For us, it’s not enough to have an agreement between 28 states,” Steinmeier said. “Our decisions have to be able to bear up to legal reviews that can go all the way up to the European Court of Justice. Added to this is the fact that the political, economic and societal links between Europe and our Russian neighbor are far tighter.”

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