Leaders in Europe have ruled out introducing a fresh bout of sanctions against Russia for its role in the Syrian conflict, with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi leading the argument against more economic punishment for the country.
After nine hours of talks on Thursday night, Renzi successfully fought against including a reference to new immediate sanctions in the EU’s worded summit statement released Friday. He said to reporters in Brussels, “I think that to refer in the text to sanctions makes no sense.”
Renzi positioned himself on the opposite side of the debate to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, all of whom want to exert the maximum pressure – including sanctions if necessary – on Russia in a bid to encourage President Vladimir Putin’s armed forces to desist from their continued assault on Aleppo.
The besieged Syrian city has suffered from the killing of hundreds of civilians and currently counts around 275,000 people as trapped within its confines, after months of indiscriminate attacks, including on children, aid convoys and hospitals, according to Reuters.
Russia’s involvement over the past year has successfully weakened the position of rebel fighters and shored up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Despite the omission of sanctions from the EU’s latest official statement, President Hollande, emerging from talks in Berlin on Wednesday night with Russia’s Putin and Germany’s Merkel, insisted the measure was not definitively off the table yet.
“At this stage, there are no sanctions linked to the Russian intervention in Syria,” Hollande told reporters.
“If there are new massacres, bombing, we’ll need to start by sanctioning the Syrians who are responsible; if it continues bombing, Russia will also expose itself to a response from the EU, but we’re not there yet,” he added.
In further developments on Friday, the top United Nations human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, described the ongoing siege and bombing of eastern Aleppo as “crimes of historic proportions,” according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Britain’s government minister for Africa and the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, pointed the finger more directly, saying, “Russia, you are making the situation worse, not solving it,” according to the news agency. This came during a specially convened session of the United Nations Human Rights Council called by London to begin an inquiry into the attacks.
A lack of appetite for further complicating ties with Moscow extended beyond Italy, with Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte discussing with the group his continued difficulty in getting his people to support an EU free trade deal with ex-Soviet state Ukraine and Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel telling CNBC in Brussels that it was essential for the “27+1” members of the EU to reach a “common solution”.
Earlier this week, EU High Commissionner Federica Mogherini displayed her lack of enthusiasm for sanctions, telling reporters, “You know, I personally tend to focus on the fact that the European Union doesn’t only have sanctions in its toolbox, we have many other instruments we can use.”
But measures already attempted by EU leaders, including a French-led attempt to enforce a cease-fire in Syria, via the United Nations Security Council, and a formal condemnation of Russia’s airstrikes on eastern Aleppo have had little effect.
And although Russia told the United Nations it would cease bombardment of the area for 11 hours a day for four days, a fleet of Russian warships carrying fighter bombers was seen headed for Syria as the European leaders continued their discussion on Thursday, as part of a naval operation that NATO believes aims to up the attack on Aleppo, according to Reuters.
The debate and threat of measures, which could potentially also end up harming Italy’s economy which has close ties to Russia, comes at a difficult time for Renzi who is now fully focused on an impending domestic referendum over his reform agenda, on which he has staked his political career.