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US sanctions on Russia don't hit hard; Nicolas Sarkozy found guilty

Ian Bremmer discusses the World In (a little over) 60 Seconds:

The Biden administration announced its first sanctions. How will it affect US-Russia relations?

Not very much. About as bad as they were under the Trump administration, even though Trump personally wanted to be aligned with Putin, the administration was not. This is the same approach on sanctions as we've seen from the European Union, they could go a lot harder. It's not sector level. It's not major state enterprises. It's a few Russian officials that were involved in the chemical program for Russia. And at the end of the day, the Russians are annoyed, but they're not going to hit back. That's that. Okay.

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Why doesn’t the EU hit Russia harder?

Earlier this week the European Union agreed to slap sanctions on a handful of senior Russian officials over the jailing of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Using a new set of sanctions designed specifically to target human rights abuses, Brussels will freeze bank accounts and deny visas to four of Russia's top justice and security officials involved in Navalny's case.

As punishments go, that's not particularly drastic: surely it stings a bit to lose access to European banks and beaches, but no one suspects that these measures are going to convince the Kremlin to free Navalny. The dissident's own people have called on Brussels to do more.

So why does the EU, the world's largest economic bloc, seem to have so little leverage over a country whose economy is barely larger than Spain's? A few things to bear in mind.

Russia keeps the heat running in Europe. The European Union depends on Moscow for some 40 percent of its gas imports and 30 percent of oil imports. For some EU countries, the numbers are even higher: Germany gets half its gas from Russian companies and is moving ahead with a new Russian gas pipeline as we speak. In Eastern Europe, the dependency ranges from roughly two-thirds in the cases of, say, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, to a straight 100 percent in the case of Finland.

The EU needs Russian cooperation outside of Europe too. Over the past decade, Moscow has shrewdly positioned itself as a kingmaker in several crises beyond Europe's borders that reverberate within the union. In Syria, Libya, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, Russian military or mercenaries exert an outsized role in conflicts that have generated large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

There isn't really an "EU". The European Union is actually 27 member states, each with their own interests and views on Russia. Germany, for example, has to balance its ambitions of staking out a firmer pro-democracy European foreign policy against the energy needs of its powerful industries. France has long sought closer cooperation with Moscow on geopolitical issues across the Middle East and Africa. Many former Eastern Bloc states, meanwhile, have begun to see Moscow as a useful counterweight to an overbearing or incompetent Brussels. And of course, the UK, which historically took a harder line against Russia, is now no longer part of the EU at all.

Doing more would require a tough stomach. To be clear, it's not that the EU doesn't have ways to seriously hurt the Kremlin. Sanctioning Russia's oil and gas exports or its foreign debt would deal a big blow to Putin's regime. But the blowback for Europe would be tremendous — European consumers and factories would likely suffer massive energy shocks, while financial markets and banks that trade Russian debt would see turmoil.

After all, there's a reason that even in 2014 — when Russia invaded an EU partner state and started a civil war there — both Europe (and the US, with far less vulnerability to Russian retaliation than its European friends) stopped short of making big moves like this.

The bottom line: Europe is keen to be a more active global player on security and human rights. But when it comes to Russia, reality bites hard.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Baltics as a whole receive 100 percent of their gas from Russia. While the dependency is very high -- ranging from 79 percent in the case of Estonia to 93 percent in Latvia -- Finland is the only member state that actually depends fully on Russia for natural gas. We regret the error and thank reader Guido W. for pointing it out.

Rebels, rivals, and proxies in the Central African Republic

A bitter war is raging again inside a country that is simultaneously one of the world's richest and poorest — and outside players are part of it.

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Quick Take: President Biden's first week

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take (part 1):

Ian Bremmer here, happy Monday. And have your Quick Take to start off the week.

Maybe start off with Biden because now President Biden has had a week, almost a week, right? How was it? How's he doing? Well, for the first week, I would say pretty good. Not exceptional, but not bad, not bad. Normal. I know everyone's excited that there's normalcy. We will not be excited there's normalcy when crises start hitting and when life gets harder and we are still in the middle of a horrible pandemic and he has to respond to it. But for the first week, it was okay.

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What We're Watching: France tackles extremism, China’s vaccine goes global, Qatar-Saudi thaw

France's anti-extremism law: On the 115th anniversary of France's famed laïcité laws that separate church and state, President Emmanuel Macron yesterday unveiled a controversial new bill meant to tackle religious extremism. While the bill doesn't single out Islam by name — that would be illegal under France's constitution — officials have made clear that its aim is to rein in Islamic extremism and organizations that support it. The proposed law comes as Macron is under tremendous pressure to respond to a recent spate of Islamic terror attacks in France, which has lost more of its people to terrorism than any other EU member state and seen thousands of its citizens join ISIS in recent years. The new law would scrutinize funding for religious institutions, restricts home-schooling, tightens rules on online hate speech, and even singles out punishment for doctors who issue "virginity certificates." It still needs to be approved in Parliament, where Macron (just barely) controls the lower house. Although close to 80 percent of French people believe that "Islam has declared war on France," debate over the law is expected to be fierce, with far-left and far-right groups saying it doesn't actually go far enough, while other critics say that the law needs to be part of broader efforts to better integrate French Muslims into society.

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The road ahead for Macron is only getting rougher

Back in June, we considered the "rough road ahead" for French President Emmanuel Macron after his political party, La République En Marche (LREM), took a thrashing in local elections. Since then, things have only gotten tougher for the man once hailed as France's centrist savior.

Here's a snapshot of what's on Macron's plate at home, and what comes next.

Terrorism: France is grappling with a resurgence of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. The gruesome beheading of a high school teacher on the outskirts of Paris last month, followed by a deadly rampage at a church in the southern city of Nice several days later, sent shockwaves through a country that has lost more of its people to terror attacks in recent years than any other Western country.

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Understanding Europe’s recent COVID-19 surge: Dr. Ashish Jha

"So this is one where I'll be honest with you, I got it wrong. I really thought that Europeans had learned their lesson from that first wave, and they would never let themselves kind of be subject to another large wave of infections." Public health expert Dr. Ashish Jha tries to put the recent COVID surge across Europe into a global context. Ian asks if the alarming spike proves that the United States has not, in fact, been the outlier of incompetence when it comes to corralling the virus.

Watch the episode: Dr. Ashish Jha on COVID-19 and the dark winter to come

Europe copes with terrorism; Poland's massive abortion rights protest

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, with the view from Europe:

What is going on with the recent terrorist attacks in Europe?

Well, there have been both the attacks in - one in Paris, the awful beheading, the subsequent attack in Nice, and the attack in Vienna. They've all been evidently acts by individuals without any planning, without any coordination, without any sort of major other thing behind it. That's the good news. The bad news is, of course, that these things happen. And it's very difficult for the security authorities to deal with. I mean, the Vienna case, it's obvious that there had been warnings about this particular individual, and I'm quite certain that will be quite a number of questions to be answered about that later on.

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