PRAGUE (Reuters) - European Union sanctions are hurting Russia’s economy but are unlikely to change President Vladimir Putin’s behavior as leader, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told Reuters.
The EU has imposed several rounds of sanctions over Russia’s role in Ukraine’s crisis, including its annexation of the Crimea region in March and its support for pro-Russian separatist rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Several senior Czech politicians including President Milos Zeman have voiced scepticism about the measures, but Sobotka has backed the bloc’s stance.
“Sanctions have an impact on the Russian economy, they affect it negatively. However, I do not believe that they can in some way change the political behavior of the Russian leadership,” Sobotka said in an interview on Wednesday.
“The mentality of Russian society after the sanctions were enacted rather goes in the way of solidifying support for the Russian leadership than ... lowering support for Putin and the policy he represents.”
Sobotka said EU states were likely to discuss the future of sanctions next Spring, depending on how relations between Russia and Ukraine develop in the coming months. He said the bloc’s 28 member states would take into account factors such as May’s presidential election in Ukraine and a recent deal for Russia to keep gas flowing through its ex-Soviet neighbor in the winter.
“The fact that there was an election, that there has been an agreement on gas supplies, are in my opinion positive signals which will also affect the discussion that Europe will lead in the spring next year on how to go forward,” he said.
But there have also been negative developments including last weekend’s ‘elections’, unrecognized by the West, in the separatist-held Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Sobotka said.
“The fact that those elections took place and that parts of the Minsk agreement, aiming for a deeper integration of the Luhansk and Donetsk territories, are not being met, is creating the risk of a frozen conflict ... from Transdniestria.”
There have been signs of fresh tensions since the separatist vote. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday Russia has moved troops closer to the border with Ukraine and continues to support the rebels.
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko said the vote flouted terms of the Minsk plan to end a war that has killed more than 4,000 people, and that army units would be sent to defend a string of eastern cities against a possible new rebel offensive.
Separatist leaders accused Poroshenko on Wednesday of violating the peace deal by suspending a law giving the regions “special status” and signaled they would no longer abide by it.
New EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on Tuesday foreign ministers would address sanctions on Nov. 17.
Sobotka said in the longer run, Ukraine would be hurt by the construction of the South Stream pipeline planned to carry Russian gas to Europe around its territory. Gas transit fees make up a sizeable portion of Ukraine’s budget revenues.
“If Europe is trying to help stabilize the Ukrainian economy ... we cannot on the one hand support loans to Ukraine and on the other support projects that will weaken the Ukrainian economy in the long run,” he added.
In addition, Sobotka said, the plan does not address the problem of diversifying gas sources for Europe.
The EU had effectively put the pipeline project on ice after Crimea was annexed, and was already in dispute with Gazprom over its refusal to allow other producers to use the pipeline, which would breach the EU’s competition laws.
Sobotka said the Commission should uphold the rules.
South Stream is favored by some Balkan countries plus Austria and Hungary, which is trying to speed up its construction.
Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Catherine Evans