Punish Russia – just not like this

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features

Former US Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner

Former US Ambassador Anthony Gardner has urged his ‘friends in Congress’ to be tough on Russia, but not at the expense of US-EU relations. ‘I think [punishing Russia] is absolutely the right objective, I just think that the tools used here were the wrong ones,’ he said.

On Tuesday, the United States Congress voted by 413 to three in favour of a bill which will both increase sanctions on Russia and weaken the power of the President to revoke such measures. On Thursday, the Senate followed suit. The scepticism even amongst Republicans that President Trump will show the Kremlin a firm hand has not surprised the ex-ambassador. ‘Many Republicans are OK with advancing the Trump agenda, but things could unravel pretty quickly,’ he told an audience at the Robert Schuman Centre, where he is currently a Visiting Fellow, in June. Yet the unexpected international implications of the sanctions prompted Gardner to speak out against the bill.

From Russia with no love lost

Speaking to EUI Times, Gardner empathised with Congress’ desire to carve out space between Washington and the Kremlin. ‘I arrived [in Brussels] just as the ‘little green men’ were landing in Crimea,’ he said. ‘In my experience with Russia, I have seen a massive, well-financed disinformation campaign, a total disregard for the truth which is breathtaking on every level, and a willingness to deceive,’ he emphasised. ‘So I understand the general motivation to punish Russia for unacceptable actions’.

Yet despite his open criticism of Russia, Gardner is concerned the sanctions will deal a blow to US-EU relations. First, the measures go beyond sanctions previously agreed by the G7, without further consultation. Second, although explicitly punishing Russia, the sanctions will also bear heavily on European interests by also targeting any company that plays a part in the development or maintenance of Russia’s energy export pipelines.

Pipeline politics

This latter criterion places Europe at odds with the US because, through projects such as Nord Stream II, a pipeline to bring gas from Russia to Germany, European companies are indeed involved with Russia’s energy export.

Despite previous disagreements over the Nord Stream II pipeline, Europeans leaders have come together to condemn the US action. In the past, nine European countries have spoken out against the pipeline project over issues including how Ukraine would fill a 2 billion euro deficit in transit fees for gas. After Germany disrupted the proposal for a South Stream pipeline through the Mediterranean, ‘Italy has also been unhappy with Germany’s pipeline politics,’ Gardner added.

However, the perceived attempt to meddle in European trade has collectively riled European leaders. The sanctions will ‘impact European-American relations in a new and very negative way,’ said German and Austrian foreign ministers in a joint statement. ‘Europe’s energy supply network is Europe’s affair, not that of the United States of America,’ they said. Indeed, a spokesman for the European Commission, which disagreed with Germany over Nord Stream II, objected to the sanctions on the basis that they infringed ‘EU energy independence and energy security’.

Difficult times ahead

Gardner, a self-declared ‘Euronik’ who nonetheless believes ‘there is no [global] alternative to US leadership’, is fearful about the fall-out. ‘This is not the first time that the US has imposed extra territorial jurisdiction. We’ve seen this before,’ he said, explaining that in the 1980s the US imposed similar unilateral sanctions on European companies over the Yamal pipeline project. The result? ‘We fractured the US-EU alliance,’ he said.

The Commission has already promised to retaliate in order to preserve European autonomy over trade. One likely response is that the EU could pass laws forbidding any European country from respecting the US legislation. This will leave companies in a bind. ‘If they respect EU law they could be breaking US law and if they respect US law they could be breaking European law,’ said Gardner.

With the US and Europe at odds over the issue, there remains no ambassador at the helm of US-EU relations. Since Gardner vacated his post on January 20 2017, the US government has failed to appoint a successor. Were he still in his role, Gardner ‘would have gone immediately to Congress and tried to change the scope of the bill to make it less objectionable’. Under Obama, this was not easy. ‘As an ambassador, I had a big pedagogical exercise to do almost every day, explaining to people on the Hill and in the administration what is the EU and why it is relevant,’ said Gardner. Yet under the current administration, the challenge will be even greater. ‘We have a large mission [in Brussels] of skilled and dedicated civil servants, but this will be very difficult for them,’ Gardner noted.

Essential partners?

In an attempt to show strength against Russia, the US has weakened its bond with individual member states and the collective European entity by provoking a potential trade dispute. Yet Washington’s former ambassador in Brussels is a relentless optimist on the issue of US-EU relations. ‘You just have to be,’ he emphasised.

In this particular instance, the sanctions and their impact on EU relations are, more or less, ‘a done deal’. Yet, as the latest chapter of the US-EU relationship unfolds, Gardner has two hopes in mind. ‘First that we limit the damage – because I think there will be damage to the US-EU relationship,’ he said. ‘Second, I hope that on a few areas we can make progress.’

Gardner still believes Europe and the US government can still agree on certain issues. ‘The relationship has always needed TLC – but we always bounce back,’ he said. Combatting terrorism tops Gardner’s list of shared aims, closely followed by combatting ‘unfair trade’. (After working for three years on the rejected TTIP proposals, Gardner hopes some of the ‘non-ideological issues’ could still go ahead). ‘Even Trump can acknowledge that the EU is good for US business,’ he said, adding that Europe needs US support too, particularly in standing up to Russia.

‘I studied in Russia, I worked there quite a bit, and I saw a lot during my three years as an ambassador,’ Gardner revealed. Through his dealings with Moscow, Gardner observed ‘a Russia that is willing to damage its own economist interests by playing a bully boy on the international stage. We [Americans] really should be working with the EU,’ he told EUI Times.  Yet the effect on Europe exhibits the deeply ingrained US ego, which has defined its foreign policy relations for a century. Gardner admits the tradition of imposing extraterritorial jurisdiction ‘goes back a long way,’ and will be difficult to overcome. Yet that is precisely what must happen, to serve the US and the EU’s best interests, the former ambassador maintains. ‘The bottom line is that despite all the profound disagreements, the US and Europe are natural, essential partners,’ Gardner emphasised. ‘To put it bluntly, we have real enemies out there.’

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