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Dilemma for EU

Bernd Riegert / ewMarch 3, 2014

When it comes to coercing Russia into keeping its armed forces out of Ukraine, Europe's options are fairly limited. Various sanctions have been proposed, but imposing them would be difficult.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton has defined the agenda for the crisis meeting of the EU's 28 foreign ministers on Monday (03.02.2014). She has condemned Russia's involvement on the Crimean Peninsula, calling it an "unwarranted escalation of tensions," and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin not to make use of the parliamentary decision that allows him to deploy troops in Ukraine.

Ashton reminded Putin that such a deployment breaches international law, including regulations laid down by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Just like the foreign ministers of the individual EU countries, Ashton has emphasized that Ukraine's sovereignty should be respected. But there has yet been any word on what would happen if Russia did go ahead with its occupation of Crimea or if armed conflict were to erupt between Russia and Ukraine. Monday's crisis talks will include a discussion on the "costs," as US President Barack Obama put it, that Russia will have to pay for an invasion of Crimea.

But the EU foreign ministers are facing a dilemma: any warnings issued to Russia need to be backed up by an effective punitive strategy. They need to decide what this could be.

Possible sanctions and restrictions

Catherine Ashton at a meeting with Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov (Photo: EPA/ANASTASIA SIROTKINA / POOL)
The EU aims to support Ukraine's new government with various meansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

One possible measure would be to exclude Russia from international conferences such as the upcoming G8 in Sochi, Russia. The EU also meets with Russia on a regular basis to discuss the development of bilateral relations - such meetings could be canceled. The EU could also scrap the joint energy supply strategy that was drafted last year with an intended validity until 2050.

Another measure would be sanctions against individuals. Putin and other leading Russian politicians could be denied entry into the EU, or their foreign bank accounts could be frozen. Many wealthy Russians have invested heavily in European countries, especially Cyprus. Any measures targeting individuals would need to be very targeted in order to have an impact. The EU could not afford a half-hearted approach such as the one it took against political leaders aligned with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych - outlined sanctions against them have yet to take effect.

The obstacle of energy dependence

According to the European Commission, Russia is the EU's third largest trading partner, generating around 300 billion euros ($413 billion) annual turnover. At the same time, the EU is Russia's largest trading and investment partner. And while trade sanctions would be sure to make an impact, they would affect both sides: members of the European Commission are certain that Russia would retaliate with sanctions of its own. Aside from that, any restrictions on trade would be difficult to implement, since Russia, as a member of the World Trade Organization, is protected by various regulations.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and German politician and member of the European Parliament for the Greens Rebecca Harms have pointed out on numerous occasions that the EU is dependent on energy imports from Russia, but for the same reason Russia is dependent on keeping the EU as a customer. According to statistics published by the International Energy Agency, two-thirds of Russian export revenue is derived from energy exports to the EU.

Catherine Ashton, Vladimir Putin, Jose Barroso and Sergei Lavrov (Photo: Yves Logghe/AP/dapd)
The relationship between the EU and Russia has seen better daysImage: dapd

It would take a long time to change this relationship of mutual dependence. Since the gas supply crisis of 2009, the EU has been looking to expand its range of natural gas sources and turn away from Russian-controlled trade routes. Initial successes have already been achieved: the percentage of gas coming to the EU from Russia is declining, currently down to a quarter.

However, the opposite trend is being observed in petroleum imports: the Russian-derived component is on the rise. Some EU countries, such as those in the Baltic region, are heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies, and this dependence could be exploited by Russia in a diplomatic crisis.

Diplomatic measures likely

Direct military involvement in the conflict by the EU or NATO is out of the question. Ukraine does not fulfill the criteria because it is not a NATO member. During the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008, NATO and the EU reacted only with diplomatic measures, including overseeing an armistice agreement between Russia and Georgia.

At the crisis meeting on Monday, EU foreign ministers will discuss economic aid for Ukraine's interim government, with amounts of between 2 and 4 billion euros being considered. If Ukraine is to have a chance against Russia, it cannot be in economic shambles.

Didier Burkhalter, Swiss foreign minister and current chairperson of the OSCE, has suggested making use of the organization as a platform for constructive dialogue, calling on all member states to refrain from one-sided actions. The EU, Russia and Ukraine, as well as the US, are all members of the organization.

Following the crisis summit on Monday, Ashton will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and travel to Kyiv on Wednesday.