Vladimir Putin is trying to exploit the growing cultural and economic division between northern and southern Europe by persuading some of the EU’s more disaffected members to independently drop the sanctions that the union has placed on Russia. The LA Times reports:
Since mid-February, though, Putin has met with leaders of four leftist-governed European Union countries and urged them to act independently in their relations with Russia so that their mutually beneficial food trade can resume. [..]
Putin’s first port of call was to his closest friend in a European statehouse, Viktor Orban, who doesn’t even try to hide his affection for Putin’s style of governance. Then he got to work on newly divided Greece:
Over the last week, Kremlin officials disclosed that they were looking for ways to exempt Greece, where a leftist party took power after January elections, from the food import ban announced in August.Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said Athens had relayed a request for resumption of fruit exports to Russia during to a visit by a senior Agriculture Ministry official last month.Greece in recent years exported to Russia 20,000 tons of strawberries and up to 60,000 tons of peaches, Russia’s FruitNews trade publication reports. Since the ban on food imports, Greek exports to Russia have declined by 40%, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.Greek Deputy Agriculture Minister Panagiotis Sguridis said he had been told Russian officials were exploring ways to exempt his nation from their ban.
And he didn’t stop there:
Putin also hosted Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in late February and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Thursday, rare official visits to Moscow since the sanctions were imposed.Putin warned the Cypriot leader that the EU risked its “competitive advantages” by engaging in mutually destructive sanctions with Russia, intimating that the punishment is at least partly motivated by U.S. exporters trying to horn in on Europe’s markets.Renzi’s visit to the Kremlin was said to be aimed at discussing the Ukraine crisis, as well as Italian-Russian trade ties. Through last year, Italy was Russia’s No. 4 source of imports, and Putin praised Rome as a “privileged partner” when greeting Renzi at the Kremlin. […]There was no word of any change in the food export standoff, but Renzi’s visit was nevertheless portrayed by Russian state-run television as a sign of Italy’s straying from European Union solidarity on sanctions.
A lack of European solidarity has always been the biggest obstacle to effective and longstanding sanctions against Russia. Countries like Hungary, which is sliding into authoritarianism, and Greece, which recently elected the radical far-left Syriza Party, are low hanging fruit. But even France and even Germany have occasionally threatened to scupper the Western efforts to ensure Russia suffers consequences for the biggest land-grab in Europe since World War II. And what will happen next in Italian politics is anyone’s guess, but it’s not unthinkable that a more pro-Kremlin government could take the reins. Given the size of Italy’s economy (bigger than Russia’s, and roughly the 8th largest in the world) that would be Putin’s biggest coup yet.By trying to cleave Europe in two along an already divided line, Putin is maximizing his chances of breaking up the already rickety Western coalition against Russian aggression.