The EU's foreign ministers have enacted phase two of Russian sanctions. They hope phase three is never needed. To ensure that, Germany wants observers in east Ukraine now - and not next week or the week after.
The asset freezes and travel bans levied against Russians and Ukrainians on Monday (17.03.2014) at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels were never intended as a direct response to the Crimea referendum. They rather represent a second round of penalties decided upon a week and a half ago by EU heads of government. Those were to be implemented in the event Russia failed to hold direct negotiations with Ukraine's government as part of an international contact group. That hasn't happened.
"I call upon Russia yet again to meet with the Ukrainian leaders and to start dialogue with them and to try to move to de-escalation as quickly as possible," said the EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton. "Ukraine wants to have good relations with Russia, and so do the EU and the rest of the world," she told reporters in Brussels.
The Russian government in turn has proposed a "Group of friends of Ukraine" which would organize aid for the country. The EU has not yet responded to that proposal.
Protecting Ukraine's sovereignty
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier used the occasion to repeat a proposal made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) be sent to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have signaled his agreement during a telephone conversation with Chancellor Merkel.
Steinmeier called on Russia to follow words with actions: "If Russia tells us in the course of many telephone conferences that it has no ambition to extend its activities to eastern Ukraine or southern Ukraine, then there now exists an opportunity to prove it."
Obstacles to the deployment of OSCE observers, Steinmeier added, must now be removed: "We have to act. The OSCE observer mission has to come now, and not next week or the week after, when it might be too late."
Were Russia to support or provoke separatist tendencies in eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians also live, as it had done in Crimea, the EU would implement its third level of sanctions. Those would include economic sanctions and trade restrictions on Russian businesses.
'Where will it end?'
Steinmeier accused Russia of intensifying the Ukraine crisis through the illegal referendum and planned annexation of Crimea. "We were not looking for confrontation. On the contrary, in the last few days we have made repeated suggestions on how to get away from the escalation and seriousness of the situation, which everyone can sense. The proposals have not been listened to. Therefore, it won't just be a case of the European foreign ministers expressing their opinion here, but they will of course decide on a reaction."
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, whose country borders both Ukraine and Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, added, "Russia leaves us no choice."
For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly 25 years ago, Europe's foreign ministers have collectively enacted travel restrictions on Russian citizens.
Steinmeier was evidently personally affected by the rapid and dramatic worsening of the confrontation: "Politically, I cannot understand at all that, seven decades after the end of the Second World War, we're beginning to move boundaries in Europe. Where will it end?"