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
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  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    the area now known as Crimea first became part of Russia in 1784, under Catherine the Great. Russia has as much right to Crimea as the UK has to the Falklands, but there are convincing arguments that both shouldn't be there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I see little difference between Putin creating referendum & winning the outcome Putin/Russia wants & the EU creating referendum & not winning & imposing more referendum until the EU gets the outcome it wants.

    Politically, the EU has moved to the right wing, with right wing nazi/fascist groups gaining substantially.

    In Russia, "Lest we forget" means more than just words of rememberence

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Ireland wanted to have a vote on Europe and they had to vote over and over again until they "got it right". The Greek PM was resigned when he wanted a referendum on the EU Help plan. NATO bombed Serbia to death because it didn't accept Kosovo's unilateral referendum. Why do we want to enforce Measures on Russia that will hurt London Financial Services? Because the US says so? NO from me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Russia doesn't need to invade. Half the Ukraine army is made up of Russian or half Russian soldiers. A military coup by these soldiers would soon bring order back and chase away the current Ukraine government. Don't forget, these soldiers all belonged to the same army not too long ago. Apparently, most of the Ukr soldiers in Crimea have defected to Russia. Not much loyalty to Ukraine then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This gets worse before it gets better. Hard biting sanctions are the only way to curb Putin. The alternative will just encourage him. Sure we may get a rough year or so from Russian retaliation but nothing we cant survive and sort out. We should be able to share out European Gas reserves, increase European Gas production and then get the US to help us out with LPG.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Interesting interview with the old hawk Paul Wolfowitz this morning, I am paraphrasing here, but he essentially said, "UK and EU should grow a pair, here is the gun, now shoot yourself in the foot".

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Of course they are reluctant. Putin, like many, knows the EU is ineffectual and lacks geopolitical gravitas.

    He could annex the whole of the Ukraine and Poland the week after and the EU cowards and appeasers wouldn't do a thing.

    This is what happens when useless paper-pushing faceless continentals run anything and why the EU is a worldwide laughing stock when it comes to actually doing something

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    19 & 23 You are not silly enough think Crimea is the end of it Learn your history.

    21 At some point there has to be a stand made otherwise you drift into something even more frightening!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Why are we even siding with the EU? The Ukrainian government are facists. They tried to ban the Russian language. They are not democratically appointed - Russia should protect the vast Russian population from such extreme attacks to their liberties. If this happened in the UK, everyone would support us but because it is Russia, we side with facists and an non democratically appointed government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The West is suffering a constitutional crisis and Russia is exploiting this.

    Loss of faith in governments/politicians is rooted in a failure to apply law on an equal basis. Law is applied, to the letter, to the general population. It seems it is often waived for the financial and political elite.

    We should all be equal before the law and, until we are, nothing will truly improve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Surely the best way to resolve this issue is learn from the UK's example and, just like the Scots, allow the good people of the Republic of Crimea to determine their future direction democratically through the ballot box in a referendum, in or out of the EU; in or out of Russia. Oh......!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Because we can see how well communism worked post 1917, and how well the West reacted to it.

    Communism can work on paper, but does not work realistically, because it does not take into consideration corruption. You cannot tell me that those in power at the Politburo were living on the same wage as a street sweeper!

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    15. David Smith
    Russia needs to be left in no doubt what will happen if they invade the rest of Ukraine. That will be war

    Oh aye, you gonna go fight it are you? No, thought not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I find it pleasing / ironic that because of corporate interests and globalisation, there is less likely to be a war.

    Finally globalisation has a use !

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Y all the h8e about Russia? DId'nt we landgrab the Malvinas?

    Pot calls kettle me thinks. Crimea wants 2 b Russian so we should keep our noses out of other peoples business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Would the world be a better or worse place without politics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The EU/US fomented an armed bloody coup in Ukraine, which as a result is run by an imposed illegal right-wing govt. Their first act was to remove Russian as an official language. If we didn't manufacture this crisis, it certainly looks like we did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    How can we point the finger at Russia, saying they have broke international law when they've held a referendum which ended with the joining of Crimea with Russia with no one dying? In contrast we invaded Iraq with the USA killing more civilians than actual targets and we weren't sanctioned. International law is made by the West, dodged by the West and imposed on anyone who disagrees with the West.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    No11 But some are more equal than others!!!!!! (to quote ANimal farm) Please remember the equality experiment has already been tried and failed miserably. Why do I feel that we are watching an action replay of 1914!!!!!!! Russia needs to be left in no doubt what will happen if they invade the rest of Ukraine. That will be war


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