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 54.

    Why are we always so keen to throw out lot in with violent mobs trying to overthrow governments (even if those governments are legitimately and democratically elected)

    Because of vested interests, and our politicians are about as adult as 5 year olds in the playground... well if you're going to be friends with him then I'm not talking to you any more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    19.Mega Awesume Pooster
    "Y all the h8e about Russia? DId'nt we landgrab the Malvinas?"

    No, that was what Argentina tried to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Some of the rubbish posted on here is mind blowing! References to the Falklands are pointless. Totally different set of circumstances. Some of the apologists on here need to go and look at the historic facts surrounding this issue. Putin is the aggressor in this guys. I don't see a load of 'fascists' in the Ukranian interim government. Putin has called Ukraine and Russia '1 nation'....

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Rhonda thinks that whipping Putin with a wet noodle will only make him groan with pleasure. To get a better response, why not set up a fund to switch Europe out of Russian energy, buying US and others supplies immediately? That will crash the currency, the Russian stock market and hike their lending rates to over 8%. Forget force, the EU and US can't deliver.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I am Russian and my family lives in Russia so I said my local MP to think twice before imposing any sanctions on Russia as I am willing to withdraw my business and personal accounts from british banks, show the door to my british gardener, cleaner and nanny, refuse to let my property out to any british tenants and stop supporting british charities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    5 Minutes ago
    Sanctions need to be put in place against the UK until they give Gibraltar back to Spain,these historical anomalies need to be rectified before the UK can criticise Russia'

    Strong sanctions need to be put in place against Spain until they return Ceuta and Melilla to Morocco

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    If we vote to leave the EU will the US tell us we can't?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    We should not support the west and EU. The ukrainian gov is non-democratically appointed, tried to stop people talking Russian and are known facists. We then criticise Russia for getting a vote in Crimea, where 94% are Russian. Crimea have a right to chose. They chose and Russia are quite rightly protecting. Sanctions for the Ukraine facists not Russia...why are we supporting racists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @.26 David Smith

    Learn your history? Why, because Putin's Russia is USSR Round 2 so are going to enslave Eastern Europe like Stalin did? By that token we should invade France and Germany before the new Napoleon and Hitler take charge. Russia has too much private investment now for history to repeat on that angle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    They huffed and they puffed

    And in the end

    They just couldn’t be bothered with sanction

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Chris Neville-Smith
    37. Anyone who thinks Russia is respecting democracy after it killed tens of thousands of civilians in the region that wanted to break away is staggeringly hypocritical.
    I agree. Russia is also hypocritical in talking about supporting democracy in Ukraine against a coup whilst in Egypt they are supporting the army that overthrew a democratically elected govt in a coup.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    no proper sanctions as that would get in the way of making money but soldiers lives are cheap so a shooting war before it gets in the way of donators and cronies

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Sanctions need to be put in place against the UK until they give Gibraltar back to Spain,these historical anomalies need to be rectified before the UK can criticise Russia

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    This is what happens when you sell off state industry to the highest bidders (usually foreign) for a few short term quid. Maggie and Blair will be remembered as the people who sold us to the highest bidder in the name of Globilisation. Like immigration and Multicuturalism it will never end well. PS can we rely on Good old Toff Cameron to heat our homes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    @28 Y are they called the Malvinas then? Check your facts out yourself. They next to Argentina ! Everyone but UK thinks so but I guess the UK are always right

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Remember the EU representatives going to Kiev to meet with the rioters while an elected president was still in office? You wonder why the Russians behave as they do... especially when you consider the way the west stomps around the middle east with a dodgy mandate to interfere...
    If you poke a big dog with a stick you will get bitten.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Russia's economy may not be as large and dynamic as the EU's, but let's look at some figures according to the CIA fact book:

    Current account balance:
    RUS: 74.8b, UK: -93.6b, DE: 257.1b

    Balance of Payments:
    RUS: 174b

    External debt:
    RUS: 714.2b, UK: 9.45 trillion est 2011, DE:5.717 trillion est 2012

    Gold/foreign exchange reserves:
    RUS: 515.6b, UK: 105.1b, DE: 248.9b

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    33. The difference is that when people clearly do not want to be part of a bigger superstate e.g. Chechnnya, the EU, for all its faults, stops short of an armed invasion.

    Anyone who thinks Russia is respecting democracy after it killed tens of thousands of civilians in the region that wanted to break away is staggeringly hypocritical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Why have sanctions? Ukraine is supposed to be having elections in May. The Crimean parliament offered the people a referendum and the people spoke. Of course the EU/USA calling it illegal, well they have to, they can't have 'people' making decisions for them selves for heavens sake! What is the world coming to, next thing you know we'll have some democracy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    It's about time we grew some balls and stood up to bullies like Putin.

    Fortunately our past leaders did just that otherwise we would all be speaking German. How close do his tanks need to come before you think we should act?


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