East Europeans aren’t so excited about Russia sanctions

The leaders of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic feel Western sanctions against Russia have gone a little too far. These people know the Soviet system better than anybody in the world outside Russia itself, and they recognize that sanctions are not going to work.

Friday, Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban likened the sanctions to “shooting oneself in the foot.” The sanctions policy, he said, “causes more harm to us than to Russia.”

Orban’s Slovak counterpart Robert Fico voiced similar sentiments. “Why should we jeopardize the EU economy?” he asked. “Who profits from the EU economy declining, Russia’s economy having troubles and Ukraine economically on its knees?”

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, too, recently expressed his dismay. “Neither for the European Union nor for Russia is it favorable to get into a drawn-out trade war and for some new economic and political Iron Curtain to appear on Ukraine’s eastern border,” he said.

It may seem a paradox that the leaders of eastern European countries feel so uncomfortable with Western sanctions against Russia. After all, they should be the most concerned about deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from meddling in his country’s former satellites, even at the price of some economic distress to their countries. Are they cowed by Putin’s food sanctions against Western nations? Does Orban, the EU’s most authoritarian leader, feel some affinity with the Russian dictator who is helping him fund and build a nuclear power station? Are the Czech Republic and Slovakia scared that Russia would cut off their natural-gas supplies, leaving them to freeze this coming winter?

From the U.S. – or core EU – point of view, they should act more like Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who had a courageous reaction to Russia’s ban on imported goods – including apples, of which Poland is the world’s biggest exporter: “If you want to show what you think of Putin, eat a Polish apple and then give one to a friend.”

That Orban, Fico and Sobotka are not as defiant as Sikorski may, however, have nothing to do with courage. Unlike Sikorski, who sought asylum in Britain at the age of 18, they know and remember the Soviet system well, including the oft-repeated quote attributed to Soviet Politburo member Mikhail Suslov: “We do not economize in matters of ideology.” As a result, they might recognize that Putin, with his nostalgia for the Soviet past, isn’t going to be deterred by mere economic difficulties, just as Soviet leaders and their vassals were not.

The scars of that kind of thinking are still visible throughout eastern Europe – in the joyless concrete buildings, the abandoned factories, the rural desolation. Eastern Europe has worked hard to escape that legacy, and its leaders know that if Russia goes into Iron-Curtain mode, it will have no pity for itself or its neighbors.

In other words, the leaders who grew up and matured under communism know that sanctions against Russia are not going to stop Putin or help Ukraine. They are just going to make things worse for everyone. Washington and Old Europe would be smart to listen to them and look at other ways to defuse the Ukraine crisis, ranging from a cynical deal with Moscow to limited military aid for Kiev. Anything would work better than the sanctions, which, in the five months since they were first introduced, have failed to achieve any visible results.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a a Moscow-based writer.