So far, the EU and U.S. are resisting a zero-sum choice.
In the days since the Paris terrorist attacks, senior officials in Washington and European capitals have signalled their reluctance to turn the page on the Ukraine crisis, normalize relations with Moscow and join forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Yet Moscow is pressing on the military and diplomatic fronts, and looking to open up new lines of communication with Western leaders.
Russia has scrambled to use the international outrage over the terrorist attacks in Paris to try to rebuild strained ties.
President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces in Syria to treat the French as “allies,” and Moscow was unusually cooperative last week in backing France’s U.N. Security Council resolution, which urges countries to take “all necessary measures” against the Islamic radicals.
A Russian defense ministry video last week showed Russian air crews painting “For Paris” on bombs they were preparing to drop in Syria.
Until recently the Russia concentrated its firepower on rebels backed by the U.S. who are fighting their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and less on ISIL.
After the terrorist group claimed responsibility last month for planting the bomb that brought down a Russian civilian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Russia has become more aggressive against ISIL.
Ukraine isn’t going away
Yet Ukraine remains an imposing hurdle to any rapprochement.
In a speech in Berlin last week, Victoria Nuland, the most senior American diplomat for Europe, said the focus on ISIL doesn’t change the importance of implementing the fragile Minsk peace accords, which sketch out a way to end the conflict in Ukraine.
The U.S. wants to keep the sanctions imposed on Russia first for illegally annexing Crimea last year and then for its support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, she said.
“Sanctions are an essential tool for holding Russia accountable: They must be rolled over until Minsk is fully implemented. And we must keep our Crimea-related sanctions in place until Russia returns the peninsula to Ukraine,” said Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.
A similar message is coming out of Brussels.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, sent Putin a letter last week — seen by POLITICO — about building better economic relations between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led trade bloc.
But he tied any progress on expanding commercial links to implementation of the Minsk accords.
“This has to be seen in a Ukrainian context,” said a Commission official.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, called Juncker’s offer “hardly relevant or possible.”
Sanctions to remain in place
The EU is set to extend sanctions against Russia at the end of this year, at least until June of next year, despite opposition from several countries unhappy about the economic costs of the sanctions.
In an interview with POLITICO published on Monday, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that while he disagrees with the sanctions on Russia, he wouldn’t stand in the way of their extension, and that he expects them to be extended.
Other Central European nations warn the EU against cozying up to Moscow in the hope of ending the civil war in Syria.
Edgars Rinkēvičs, Latvia’s foreign minister, gave a speech last week in which he again recalled the annexation of Crimea.
“The fight against terrorists and resolving the Syrian conflict should not take place at the expense of Ukraine,” read the Latvian foreign ministry summary of the speech.
Konrad Szymański, Poland’s new Europe minister, warned of a tendency in European politics to look for a pretext to not hold Russia to account over Ukraine.
“We’re open to acknowledging Russia’s useful role in any part of the world if [it’s useful] from the European point of view, but we aren’t going to link that to other situations in which we see that Russia’s role is less constructive,” he told the Polish press.
EU sanctions against Russia were pushed through last year and have since been kept in place thanks to German diplomatic muscle and the intervention of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Germany hasn’t signaled any softening of its position on Russian sanctions.
Diplomats say Berlin believes the EU should keep the pressure on Russia until Moscow fully complies with the Minsk accords and supports a 6-month extension of the sanctions in December.
While all the diplomatic signals point to continued sanctions, markets are more optimistic.
The cost of credit default swaps, a measure of risk, on five-year Russian debt has fallen to 2.5 percent from 3.9 percent since September — one of the biggest drops for any emerging market, said Timothy Ash, an emerging markets analyst at Nomura, the investment bank.
“Markets have rallied into that, assuming that sanctions will be moderated,” he said.
“But my sense is that the market may be over-optimsitic. The Americans are going to be very reluctant to remove sanctions.”
An unwanted ally Moscow got involved in Syria at the end of September for a host of reasons.
The main one was to lend support to Assad, whose forces were showing signs of buckling under pressure of opposition attacks.
The Syrian dictator is one of Russia’s few regional allies and the relationship makes Moscow a player in Middle Eastern politics.
Russia also wanted to fight the more than estimated 2,400 Russian citizens who have joined ISIL, mainly from disaffected Muslim regions like Chechnya.
Finally, tackling a common foe in Syria was supposed to help smooth disagreements with the West over Ukraine.
Putin even called for the formation of a “grand coalition,” recalling the wartime alliance of the USSR and the West to combat Nazi Germany.
There isn’t much Western interest in any sort of formal arrangement with Russia — largely because of Ukraine.
The Pentagon noted that Russia is now hitting ISIL, and not more moderate groups fighting Assad.
But the Americans aren’t reassessing their relationship with Moscow.
Although the Russian military did inform the U.S. of their latest attacks, “we are not cooperating with Russia,” said Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook.
“When it comes to Russia, we will maintain a strong and balanced approach,” he said.
“There are going to be areas where we disagree with the Russians, significant disagreements. In Ukraine, for example.”