17 Mar 2014

Where will the EU draw the line in Ukraine?

Measures announced after the EU foreign ministers meeting represent the EU delivering on what it said would be phase two of its reaction: targeted measures to punish Russia for a failure to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.


Holding a break-neck speed referendum aimed at annexing part of another sovereign country certainly counts as “failure to de-escalate” in most people’s dictionaries.

But the EU actions punish 21 individuals from Russia and Crimea with travel bans and asset freezes.

Unlike the US measures announced almost simultaneously, they don’t go for the top Russia President Vladimir Putin aides but target lower down the ladder (we don’t know the names just yet on the EU list but we know the foreign ministers couldn’t agree on the biggest names).

As one Foreign Office source acknowledged, you’d have to be a pretty dopey Russian multi-millionaire not to have seen the asset freeze coming towards you like a slow train and not make some adjustments in your portfolio.

Presumably most people liable to be on the list will have poked their stockbroker into action some time ago. The travel restrictions might look to some like a city break and shopping ban.

Phase three, the next level of punishment, the “far-reaching consequences” threatened at last week’s emergency summit of EU leaders, remain somewhat vague.

Read more: how far apart are the US and EU over Ukraine?

EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, ducked the question on what would trigger phase three.

It appears pretty unarguable that action would have to move up several gears if there were to be Russian troops on the ground, effectively an invasion or military incursion, in Eastern Ukraine beyond the borders of Crimea.

But some EU leaders think that the annexation of the Crimea, which Russia is hurtling towards, should be the trigger for phase three.

Don’t hold your breath for those hawks to win the day when the EU leaders reconvene on Thursday in Brussels to look at all this again.

It could still be that we see a full annexation of Crimea and all the EU does in response is a stepping up of the travel bans and asset freezes put in place on Monday.

All that said, the EU is doing something that will get up Putin’s nose. The cosying up to Ukraine – waiving import duties, political and association agreements – all move Ukraine down the road President Putin doesn’t want it to take, out of his sphere of influence and into Europe’s. As one EU diplomat put it, “the biggest stick is the carrot for Ukraine.”

EU foreign ministers also talked about making sure the EU was insulated against any retaliatory measures if Russia tried to turn off the energy taps to the EU.

An EU “stocktake” has revealed the EU thinks it has enough stored energy to keep it safe from the effects of a Russian shutdown all the way through to October 2014 (thanks to the time of year and improved storage facilities).

Read more: Ukraine crisis – Russian provocation stiffens EU resolve

Foreign Secretary William Hague suggested after the foreign ministers meeting that the EU re-think on energy supplies would give Russia something to “worry about.”

One footnote on this current round of Ukraine-focussed EU summits. Much is said about the divisions between countries but these meetings also shed light on divisions within individual countries’ coalitions.

The foreign ministers meetings can see countries speaking with a different tone from the heads of government meetings a few days later… none more so than the German government.

Thanks to the “departmentalisation” of German government – the Ressortprinzip, allowing individual departmental bosses serious authority over their departments – EU sources talk of the German SPD Foreign Minister Steinmeier lagging behind his CDU boss, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

We’ll see at the next EU summit on Thursday/Friday this week how far she and her fellow heads of government are ready to go.

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