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Opinion: EU's passivity is deceptive

Many would like to see the EU really lose its cool with Vladimir Putin, just once, especially now it is clear that Russian troops are in Ukraine. But in its own way it is, says DW's Claire Davenport.

To the average observer the message here is dull. Today European Union leaders agreed more of the same: sanctions. Some EU leaders sharpened their often too dove-ish tones with words such as "unacceptable" to describe Russia's reported incursion into Ukraine.

Some might say more sanctions is a lame move and not the short sharp pill they were dressed up to be - especially given Russia's retaliatory moves. But given time, they may offer a lasting geopolitical solution. Moreover, there is little else on the table.

Intervention is not an option. There's no appetite among the Americans or NATO to tangle militarily with the Russians. Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko said today that he does not want foreign troops in Ukraine.

One of the preferred options in Ukraine is to join NATO. Membership in the Western military alliance comes with the very desirable mutual defense pact with the United States.

While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Ukraine was within its rights to request membership, it remains an unlikely prospect in the near future. A Russian incursion in Ukraine is perhaps not a problem the alliance wants while it is in the throes of an identity crisis.

Instead, NATO has put forward some ceremonial measures that might paper over the cracks: such as trust funds to improve Ukrainian military capabilities in logistics, command and control, cyber defense and personnel.

All the EU can really do now is try to increase the costs to the Russians of doing what they are doing to the point where they might think it is not worth doing anymore. In this sense, further sanctions on finance and defense are the only way. And looking at the numbers, Russia stands to lose a lot more than the EU.

If not, Russia risks isolating itself from its most lucrative source of finance - Western markets. Many industries are heavily dependent on parts from Europe.

And in another sense, these sanctions, which will likely be felt incrementally, have a greater long-term importance. Putin's expansionist Russia must be reminded to live by agreed global post-war norms, if those are ever to become a reality.

In the 1945 UN charter, sovereignty rests on the mutual recognition of states as equals. This is reiterated in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which the Soviet Union signed. In a wider sense, Russia must be directly and indirectly told that there is no way to go back in time and reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as much as Putin's machismo may want it.

While these sanctions will hurt and may, as is the ostensible aim, deter Russia from deeper engagement in Ukraine, they also show that the EU is starting with the end in mind. And that is re-engagement with a Russia that has not become a pariah state.

And if Putin will stop at nothing, even risking hemorrhaging output, rising unemployment and political isolation, then perhaps this is what Russia's elite needs to see: that it's time to let moderates climb to power.

Claire Davenport is a DW reporter.

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