Ukraine crisis: The weakness of Europe

Francois Hollande, David Cameron and Angela Merkel 6 March EU leaders have met several times to co-ordinate their response to the Ukraine crisis

In both Washington and Moscow I suspect officials are asking the same question of Europe: "How strong is its resolve when it comes to Ukraine?"

This week brought a reminder that Europe's economies are still struggling to emerge from recession, that unemployment remains stubbornly high and that there is growing discontent with the political establishment in many countries.

So on Sunday in France the far-right National Front made strong gains in the first round of local elections, even topping the polls in several towns and cities.

Last week in local elections in the Netherlands the anti-immigration party of Geert Wilders won in the city of Almere and came a close second in The Hague, with his supporters chanting they wanted "fewer" Moroccans in their city.

On Saturday there was violence in Madrid, as tens of thousands protested against unemployment, poverty and corruption.

Grit and spine

These are just the news fragments from an average week, but they serve as a reminder that politically many European countries are still worn down by years of economic crisis, with a mood angry and mistrustful of political elites.

It is against this background that Europe's leaders are being asked to show grit and spine in a crisis which just weeks ago they could scarcely have imagined.

Many of them will gather again on Monday in The Hague with their resolve once again under scrutiny.

The meeting was intended to focus on nuclear security, but it will be overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

The leaders of the world's seven largest economies - minus President Vladimir Putin - will have to fashion a response to Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

They are meeting with a sombre warning from the Nato Supreme Commander, US General Philip Breedlove, ringing in their ears that the Russian force on the Ukrainian border was "very, very sizeable and very ready". All of this will raise pressure on the meeting to speak convincingly.

London 23 March Pro-Ukrainian protesters in London have called for tougher sanctions against Russia

Privately the Americans say EU sanctions "are very limited and symbolic". But at their summit in Brussels last week the Europeans pledged to move to some form of economic sanctions if there was an escalation of Russian military action.

They have powerful tools to hurt Russia, but using them almost certainly will hurt Europe's economies as well.

US 'more resolute'

Europe's leaders believe their asset freezes and travel bans against 33 Russian and Crimean officials have sent a powerful message.

European officials last week insisted that the measures announced so far are having an impact. But President Putin scoffed at the moves. Ukraine's Ambassador to the UK, Volodymyr Khandogiy, said that Europe had not done enough to help Ukraine. "The US," he went on to say, "is more resolute in their actions and words".

What the Americans have done is to impose sanctions on some of the Russian president's inner circle and they have moved against Bank Rossiya - one of the Kremlin's favourite banks.

But powerful Russians spend much more time in Europe than in America. It is where they invest their funds, where they buy their football clubs, where they party and where often they choose to educate their children. Europe's leaders, if they chose, could still hurt those closest to President Putin, but so far they have been very cautious.

Other moves are no more than gestures: ending bilateral Russia-EU summits; declaring the G8 has been replaced by a G7 without Russia.

What is unclear is what precisely would trigger the Europeans moving to economic sanctions and whether it would be possible to maintain European unity. And without unanimity there can be no economic sanctions.

Vladimir Putin, 21 March Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill incorporating Crimea into Russia on Friday

Would Italy, which gets nearly 30% of its energy from Russia, agree?

Would France actually be willing to cancel two state-of-the-art warships destined for Russia? The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that "if Putin continues doing what he's doing, we could envisage cancelling the sales but we will ask others, and I'm thinking namely the British, to do the same with the assets of the Russian oligarchs in London. Sanctions have to be shouldered by everyone." And that begs the question of whether the British would back financial sanctions at risk to their own interests? Other countries, dependent on Russia for their energy, have already signalled their opposition to economic sanctions.

'Pandora's box'

Talking to officials last week there is no doubt they understand the seriousness of the crisis and the threat to European security. It was perhaps best summed up by the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said "I'm very worried the unlawful attempt to alter recognised borders in our European neighbourhood, 25 years after the end of the Cold War will open Pandora's box." Putin's moves are resurrecting deep fears and anxieties.

So at the meeting in The Hague the first task for President Obama will be to preserve allied unity. He will urge a stiffer response particularly against President Putin's inner circle.

Ultimately Russia's weakness is its economy. European officials point out that since the crisis began the Russian stock market has fallen sharply and the value of the rouble has declined. Europe has the means to turn the screw, to isolate Russian financial institutions from the markets and to freeze assets.

There would be retaliation, although Chancellor Angela Merkel believes it would be the Russian economy which would be damaged the more. But Europe has some convincing to do - that if the crisis deepens its words will deliver action.

Chart: Russia's top trading partners
Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Centralised government & a fair distribution of wealth for everyone is the moralistic way forward


    What is moralistic about unbridled communism?

    And centralised? What more centralised than we have at the moment?

    Stupid idea.

    Look, if you take away ambition, hope and advancement, you take away one of the reasons to live. As a species, we'd be extinct in ten generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Let us not take on the giants of Russia and China. Isn't it better for Willie Hague to strut his stuff against Syria, Libya, and those other mickey mouse powers where we can play the hard man without consequence?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    President Putin has had a good few weeks: as he hosted a well-executed Winter Olympics, he also took the Crimea back in a pretty much bloodless invasion, right under our noses. This must have been a plan waiting for the right time.
    In return we have no plan. The best we could do is place our armies on our borders with Russia and try to stare them down!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Centralised government & a fair distribution of wealth for everyone is the moralistic way forward. All nations should come together to form a single body that can be democratically run through votes on Facebook. Keeping nations separate is what causes imbalance and ultimately war. All humans are equal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    If you have seen it, there is a brilliant scene in Fawlty Towers that perfectly portrays this whole saga.

    Basil (UK/EU/US) has locked Lord Melbury’s Suitcase (Crimea) away in the hotel safe. After finding out Melbury is a fraud, Cybil opens the safe much to Basil’s protests.

    Go and look it up on YouTube.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @8.billy goat gruff
    "Why are we even talking about this? No significant sanctions will be applied, we have too much to lose."

    Beacuse we live in a society where we have freedom of speech and are able to do so. Those in Crimea under the new Russian masters will not be so fortunate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Why are we even talking about this? No significant sanctions will be applied, we have too much to lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Russian procedure: announce referendum - one week later the Crimea votes to become Russian - within a few days Putin signs off Crimea as part of Russia.

    No messing, no parliamentary debate, no nothing.

    I don't know whether to be impressed at a government acting so rapidly or alarmed that Russia has the power to annex part of another sovereign country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    So when politicians all over Europe know we are all sick to death of immigration, why don't they do anything about it?

    Frankly its a two way street. They aren't listening to us, they can't expect any support when they want to act the statesman blowing large amounts of our money for political one-upmanship against Putin.

    Putin is actually liked by his people likely because he ignores PC pressure

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Sanctions are stupid, they may have effect on tiny places but Russia is hardly going to have any problem. Plenty of ways to get stuff from elsewhere, or via proxies.

    If we meant it we would stop buying their gas and oil.

    The EU is warmongering, expansionist empire, just uses non military means. Suborning political classes, bribery of the poor. Fortunately it may go broke, less die at least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    EU interference caused the whole Ukrainian crisis by antagonising Putin. Putin is belligerent & old soviet and his reaction would have been predicted by wiser heads.

    The EU was set up as a trading bloc. Why does it need a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy?

    Ashton and her team are rank amateurs. I can't see anything positive coming from EU interference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "Europe reluctant to get into trade war with Russia"

    Well, unfortunately Gavin if we want to keep our noses firmly buried up the US's rectum, we have no choice.

    If the EU does not continue to tighten sanctions, we'll fall out of favour with warmongers over the pond. Hague, Merkel, and their ilk wont have that, so they'll continue to cut our nose off to spite our face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "Ukraine's Ambassador to the UK, Volodymyr Khandogiy, said that Europe had not done enough to help Ukraine. "The US," he went on to say, "is more resolute in their actions and words". "

    Perhaps because the US is less reliant on Russian gas imports?
    Putin's got a strong hand and he's playing it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The EU relies on Russian fuels. It will huff and puff and stamp its feet and do exactly what it should do..nothing


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