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 Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 614.

    #612 POB

    I have been contributing for weeks --long before the Spiegel article.

    Since the fall of the Berlin wall -- I have noted the historical FACTS carefully.

    --The West is at fault.

  • rate this

    Comment number 613.

    598 QOT

    "2007 Putin speech at Munich --is deliberately being suppressed by the Western media"

    Thanks for the link to Purtin's Munich speech. There is little neutrality of the western media although the Spiegel article is fair and takes no sides

    We have few powerful independent media voices and blindly follow American leadership even to the point of joining in their illegal wars

  • rate this

    Comment number 612.

    Quietoaktree. Please express your own opinions Der Spiegel has already published.
    When in recent history have the Russians ever given a thought to European security? The Europeans/Americans were only ever an aid to protecting Russian interests.(against Hitler) The Crimean Summit in 1945 set the agenda and there has been little change since that I can see.

  • rate this

    Comment number 611.

    You have to wonder where some of the BBC employees were educated and who they get their instructions from.

  • rate this

    Comment number 610.

    With Obama attempting to ignore and alter history --he is insulting the world --and not only Russia.

    Preaching to the converted on America┬┤s warped view of history --as can be witnessed on this blog --helps no one.

    The only hope remaining is that Merkel can defuse this un-necessary crisis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 609.


    "former President Dmitry Medvedev, even presented a draft for a European security treaty in 2009, ...."We are now paying the price for not having sat down at the table then,"

  • rate this

    Comment number 608.

    Interesting thought that national leaders always reflect their populace's opinion.The exercise of power in the former USSR seemed like a dictatorship of the few over the many, like the Tsars?
    Has Putin forgotten the lessons of history here.The Prussians never reacted well to threats. Merkel will not let her nation be blackmailed by the Ruthians. Europe(GDR) will move to protect it's interests

  • rate this

    Comment number 607.


    "Ever since Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, everyone should have known that Russia would no longer accept Western games within its sphere of influence," ... "But the West never took Putin seriously and never developed a strategy to deal with Russia's legitimate interests."


  • rate this

    Comment number 606.

    Such utter nonsense about Russian aggression in Crimea.

    It was the Crimea parliament who decided to give Crimeans a referendum - not Russia. But the US/EU DEMANDED Russia called it off.

    How ? Russia didn't have authority to call it off - same as US didn't have authority to.

    One thing is certain. But for Russia's steady hand - Crimea would be in the same mess the US & EU created in the Ukraine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 605.

    "Russia acting out of weakness"--Obama

    I guess President Obama is unfamiliar with the old saying about how its better to one's mouth shut and be thought a fool rather than open it and remove all doubt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 604.

    Russia is an enigma. Fear is a strong motivator. Weakness at home, show strength abroad. Sounds just a touch familiar.Putin should be wary. Just because we do not fight does not mean we approve.In Facebook terms you have just been 'unfriended'. I would not lend you a sou so why would anyone else give you a rouble line of credit? Forget sanctions the people of the world will look to buy elsewhere

  • rate this

    Comment number 603.

    Two thirds of Ukranian servicemen have decided to stay in Crimea.Why? Mr Obama

  • rate this

    Comment number 602.

    Wait until the new austerity kicks in. Pro EU Ukrainians will have a lot more to protest about than before.

    I wonder how the newly forming 'National Guard' will treat the protestors next time ? Remember its quoted remit - "to enforce internal security" & "eliminate terrorism".

    That is what western leaders and media editors have already irreversibly pinned their integrity & reputations upon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 601.

    You don't have to be pro Russian to realise that the Russians were never going to let a pro EU Ukraine keep the Crimea. Well done the Ukraine for taking back your country from the Russian puppet government, but come on, the Crimea is a small price to pay. Ukrainians were the minority population there. The BBC really do need to wake up

  • rate this

    Comment number 600.

    Former Soviet states, now EU members appear to be the biggest supporters of US foreign policy in this crisis. Especially Poland and the Baltic of western Ukraine was part of Poland in the past,the city Lvov is a breeding ground for far right nationalists
    Baltic states stamp Alien on ethnic Russians passports,rendering them stateless,no wonder they are worried.

  • rate this

    Comment number 599.

    The whole incident is driven by the fact that the west will not bail out Ukraine without severe austerity, sweet talking the Ukraine then backing off left an open door to Putin with Crimea.
    America wants doors opened for American business to prosper in the Ukraine, thus more countries becoming indebted to the American system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 598.

    #590 MH

    I remember well --asking if the price quoted meant I purchased the hotel.

    -- Must have some Scottish blood in me --that allows Crimea to sound interesting.

    ┬┤Ukraine: Obama says Russia 'acting out of weakness'

    The 2007 Putin speech at Munich --is deliberately being suppressed by the Western media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 597.

    Radioshack @591
    "a bunch of
    Russian followers"

    So we come to it, not about democracy or even the got-up divide between head and heart, mock-capitalism (serving clever rich) and mock-communism (serving not-so clever rich), just the 'same-old', millennia on continental stages, in recent centuries global, nations and their leaders jostling for 'superiority', mistrustful of peace abroad as at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    In order to retain credibility as the number one power the US is obliged to stop Russia from absorbing Crimea. To do otherwise would let all know it doesn't hold the world in its grasp. It can't bully Russia like it does most nations. The sanctions are for show. The US will be looking for a way of saving face while abandoning Crimea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    So heartening and re-assuring to come on here and see so many people thinking as I do. Top rated coments overwhelmingly on the side of reality and common sense. We see through the propoganda the hypocracy and sham moral indignation.
    Come on BBC, your presentation and reporting on this is becoming embarrassing. You do still have some respect with British people but it's fading fast!


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