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Ukrainian demands are testing European unity

Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe.

This week, the European Union is slated to endorse a seventh package of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been urging his diplomats “to do everything to strengthen” it. The package targets Russian gold exports and tweaks some sanctions to better align with similar measures imposed by the EU’s G7 partners. The package also strengthens reporting requirements and seeks to improve compliance with the freezing of assets of individuals and entities that have already been sanctioned. And there are additions to the dual-use goods prohibited from being sold to Russia too.

But for Ukraine, these measures are simply not enough, and the rigidity of Kyiv’s demands is starting to test European unity.

Ukrainians continue to push for a gas embargo, of course, and they remain frustrated with the recent Canadian-German agreement to waive restrictions on a key component — a turbine — needed for Nord Stream, Russia’s natural gas pipeline running to Germany.

Brussels’ decision — again due to a German nudge — to lift restrictions on the transit of goods from Belarus and Russia to Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave squeezed between Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, is also seen as another sign of Western capitulation.

Zelenskyy dubs any easing of restrictions or any ducking or refusal to go further on sanctions as weakness. “If a terrorist state can squeeze out such an exception to sanctions, what exceptions will it want tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?” he fumed in one of his nightly television addresses. “This question is very dangerous … not only for Ukraine, but also for all countries of the democratic world.”

He added: “The decision on the exception to sanctions will be perceived in Moscow exclusively as a manifestation of weakness.”

The Ukrainian leader and his aides fear Russia will use “General Winter” to test European governments even further, choking off gas supplies to European countries or, in a bid to secure concessions and other compromises, threatening to do so, possibly triggered by weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

And chances are, Putin will indeed grab the opportunity to squeeze Europe, aiming to chip away at the continent’s already fragile unity. Gas exports account for just 2 percent of Russia’s GDP and Russia has made good profits from sales already. “Europeans, with a far lower level of political pain endurance in the Kremlin’s view, will become divided, with this generating an irresistible drive to lift sanctions,” is how Moscow likely sees it, suggests Italian think tank Istituto Affari Internazionali.

As such, many European leaders reason, it is best to replenish stocks now while they have a chance, and not give Putin any excuse to cut off the gas later in the winter — that is if he opens the spigots once seasonal maintenance on Nord Stream 1 is completed.

But, arguably, it’s the stringent Ukrainian position regarding sanctions and trade with Russia that’s falling into a Kremlin trap.

Ukrainians remain frustrated with the recent Canadian-German agreement to waive restrictions on a turbine needed for the Nord Stream gas pipeline | Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Though Zelenskyy may be able to gauge Ukrainian public opinion accurately, there are signs that he’s increasingly misreading the changeable public mood in western and southern Europe, where leaders have their minds on shifting opinion polls, and householders and businesses are worried how they are going to survive a worsening cost-of-living squeeze that risks triggering a eurozone crisis.

The Ukrainian leader risks undermining the Continent’s unity and resolve by unrelentingly pushing for more economic warfare than European governments can actually deliver — that is if they don’t want to fall afoul of their own voters and shape the circumstances for a mighty backlash that erodes popular support for Ukraine.

Some European diplomats privately say Zelenskyy should tone down his censoriousness and entreaties. And in the past few days, several European leaders have publicly emphasized that it won’t benefit Ukraine if an already severe energy crisis turns even more brutal in the winter, possibly assisted by Putin strangling gas supplies.

Economically hard-pressed governments fear having to bail out utility companies, being forced to choose winners and losers among industrial sectors and firms because of rationing, or having to placate energy-starved and fearful householders.

And Ukraine’s demands are starting to frustrate some leaders who say Kyiv is seemingly failing to appreciate a key rule when it comes to sanctions — that they must have a greater impact on Russia than on the countries imposing them.

As Canada’s natural resources minister noted in an interview explaining why Ottawa decided to ship the repaired turbine: “The point of sanctions is not to hurt our allies, it is not to crater the German economy.”

Robert Habeck, Germany’s minister of economic affairs, has echoed the point, recently telling Bloomberg: “I will be the first to fight for another strong EU sanctions package, but strong sanctions must hurt Russia and Putin more than our economy.”

Yet, so far Kyiv’s only response has been to demand sanctions be intensified — seemingly still oblivious to how challenging it’s going to be for European leaders to sustain public support for Ukraine as prices soar. Zelenskyy worries about sanctions fatigue, but he should also worry about preoccupied western and southern Europeans losing patience and tuning out his entreaties.

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