THE BLOG

Five Key Takeaways on Russia's Relations With the West

01/08/2014 11:17 BST | Updated 30/09/2014 10:59 BST

After months of fraught relations between Russia and the West which have seen a flurry of tit-for-tat sanctions triggered by the growing unrest in Ukraine, the final straw seemed to come with the suspected downing on 17 July of flight MH17 over Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists.

Under growing international pressure to act, on 29 July the EU finally confirmed it was imposing 'stage three' sanctions against Russia. Here are the five key takeaways on Russian relations with the West in recent weeks:

1. Press reaction to MH17 disaster - differing views

Many of the European, American and Asian newspapers led with the story:

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Although as UK broadsheet The Guardian was quick to point out, many Russian newspapers relegated news of the accident to the bottom of the page:

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Although pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid Tvoi Den did lead with a more dramatic image, the caption told a startlingly different story: Donetsk People's Republic Authorities Claim Plane Destroyed by a Ukrainian Buk Missile:

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Reflecting the shockwaves felt across the Netherlands, which suffered the most losses, Dutch daily nrc•next was noticeably more reserved: Last night in eastern Ukraine, a plane crashed. On board were 300 people, 154 of them were Dutch:

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2. Trade ties - key differences between the EU and the US

Now for some facts and figures: the EU is Russia's number one trading partner, while Russia is the EU's third biggest trading partner. By contrast, the US was Russia's seventh biggest trading partner in 2012, according to the latest figures available from Eurostat, while Russia doesn't even make the US top ten - in fact it's only the country's 20th largest trading partner.

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And a closer look at Russia's export and import partners shows just how strong the trade links are between Russia and the EU:

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These differences go far in explaining why the EU has taken so long to decide what action to take following the MH17 disaster.

3. Litvinenko inquiry - a "new era" for diplomatic relations?

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The UK announced last week that it will launch a public inquiry into the death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, allegedly from a fatal dose of polonium disguised in a cup of tea.

Although the Home Office initially refused calls for a public inquiry a year ago, in February the UK High Court urged home secretary Theresa May to reconsider holding a public investigation into Moscow's alleged role in Litvinenko's death. Litvinenko's widow, Maria Litvinenko, said if the case was solved it could usher in a "new era between Russia and the West."

4. Yukos rulings - two landmark cases in 72 hours

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At the beginning of this week a Hague tribunal ordered Russia to pay US$50 billion to former majority shareholders of bankrupt oil firm Yukos, claiming the downfall of the company and its owner Mikhail Khordokovsky had been politically motivated.

Just 72 hours later the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia should pay €1.9 billion in compensation to former shareholders of Yukos. The court found that Russia had failed to "strike a fair balance" in how it approached collecting taxes from the company.

It's worth remembering that Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint in Siberia in 2003 and spent ten years behind bars in Russia before a surprise release on 18 December after the Russian parliament passed a wide-ranging amnesty bill. Although Khodorkovsky is not set to benefit from either of the court orders, the timing of the rulings - and the message they send to Moscow - couldn't be more significant.

5. Upping the ante - yet more sanctions

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After long, drawn-out discussions, earlier this week the EU finally agreed to impose 'stage three' sanctions on Russia, restricting the country's state-owned banks and companies from accessing EU capital markets, banning trade in arms, sensitive technologies and dual-use goods.

The 28 members of the EU also agreed to impose a ban on new investments related to infrastructure in the transport, telecoms and energy sectors and on exploiting natural resources in Crimea and Sevastopol. The decision has already prompted the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to halt new investments in Russia.

The EU also said it was imposing travel bans and freezing the assets of eight new individuals, including Russian billionaire and Putin's long-time friend and judo partner Arkady Rotenberg. It also added three new companies to the sanctions list, including state-owned anti-aircraft manufacturer Almaz-Antei. The latest additions bring the EU sanctions tally on Russia to 95 individuals and 23 entities.

The US has also stepped up the pressure and imposed fresh sanctions on three major Russian banks - VTB Bank, Bank of Moscow and the Russian Agricultural Bank - effectively cutting them off from the US economy altogether.