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Weighing responses

Christoph Hasselbach / ccMarch 3, 2014

European Union foreign ministers have met again in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. It threatens to escalate into war between Ukraine and Russia, but the EU is reluctant to impose sanctions.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks to reporters
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The situation is considered extremely dangerous. Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier sees the Russian military intervention on Ukrainian soil as "the most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the danger of a renewed split of Europe is real," Steinmeier said in Brussels.

But the EU is also split when it comes to the question of how it should handle the crisis. The Hungarian foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, drew parallels between the events in Ukraine and the Soviet invasion of his homeland in 1956. He is not alone in making such comparisons. In Brussels, most of the representatives of EU states who also suffered under Soviet Russian occupation called for Russia to be punished immediately. Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic would like, for example, to see travel bans issued against leading Russian politicians immediately, or for their accounts to be frozen.

EU dependency on Russian oil and gas

But there won't be any sanctions yet. The EU will only react if Moscow makes no "swift and credible contribution towards de-escalation," Steinmeier said after the meeting. This, he said, applied to the negotiations on making it easier for Russians to get visas to travel to the EU, and on a new cooperation agreement. He added that freezing accounts would then also be an option.

Jean Asselborn
Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn urges caution due to economic concernsImage: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

The EU's heads of state and government could decide on such measures at a special session on Thursday (06.03.2014). Several European governments have voiced concerns about imposing immediate sanctions. Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, for example, pointed out "that 25 percent of energy comes from Russia, and that economic relations between Russia and the EU are of tremendous importance."

Diplomacy not a weakness

Others question the imposition of sanctions because, they say, the response at this point must be to de-escalate the situation. "We must replace confrontation with dialog," said the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel Garcia. His Dutch counterpart, Frans Timmermans, agreed: "We have left the Cold War behind us," he said. "There is no reason to revive it."

Steinmeier emphasized that it was very important to make clear that the EU's restraint was not an indication of weakness. "Crisis diplomacy is not weakness," he said. "It is more necessary now than ever." He regards diplomacy as more than just sending EU diplomats to Moscow or Kyiv: Above all, they should try to get Kyiv and Moscow to talk to one another directly. An international contact group is one possible format for such negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't seem to rule out this possibility.

Steinmeier also spoke in favor of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sending an observer mission to find out what exactly is going on in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Up to now, the EU representatives have often had to rely on information from sources that are not necessarily neutral.

The Italian, Spanish and French foreign ministers have a discussion
Taken by surprise? Foreign ministers from Italy, Spain and FranceImage: Reuters

EU taken by surprise

Were there to be a new EU diplomatic mission, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Liberals in the European parliament, believes the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France should once again take up the challenge. He commented that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Radoslav Sikorski and Laurent Fabius had shown on their recent visit to Kyiv "that they are capable of achieving something, in that they make compromises possible."

The three politicians succeeded in brokering an agreement between the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the opposition, which was briefly celebrated as a breakthrough. However, events in Kyiv moved on far faster than anticipated.

Referring to this, Verhofstadt said, "The EU should not repeat the mistakes of last time and wait too long and let the situation escalate." This time round, though, one can hardly say it did much waiting: Russia has reacted so fast and so excessively to the revolution in Ukraine that it has taken the EU completely by surprise.