Opinion: A sign of helplessness | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 17.03.2014
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Opinion: A sign of helplessness

The EU was decisive in implementing sanctions against Russia. Yet Brussels still misunderstands the basis of its relationship with Russia, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

The worst thing is the absolute helplessness of the West. The governments of Europe are still in a state of numbed shock. They simply cannot understand how, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, Moscow's old behavioral patterns have returned - when Russia itself had supposedly profited from a lovely new and peaceful world. The sense of amazement in the West perhaps illustrates the biggest problem: the EU has thoroughly misinterpreted Russia.

The EU thinks and speaks in such completely different categories from those of Putin's Russia. Brussels cannot compete with its callousness. Putin knows that no one in the West would risk war for Ukraine, neither for Crimea nor for eastern Ukraine. And sanctions have long been priced in by Putin. He need hardly fear the penalties which can truly hurt Russia: German exporters and British banks will certainly know how to stop them. Dependence on Russian gas is also alarmingly high in some parts of the EU. The price of a break in supplies would have to be borne by normal EU citizens.

Ukraine has lost Crimea

The sanctions decided upon by the EU are by no means the "strongest possible signal," as they were described by EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton. On the contrary, they were just another sign of helplessness. They will of course affect a few leadership figures who, together with their wives, can no longer go shopping on the Cote d'Azur or in London. But if that's the full price of Crimea, then Putin will have gotten it on the cheap.

Many Russians will celebrate him for stopping what they see as the decline and humiliation of their country ever since the days of the Soviet Union. It means Ukraine will have to write off Crimea. And the EU will no longer be able to take a stand on the issue of secession.

How was it nearly six years ago, when Russia annexed the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after a brief war? The West shouted and issued threats, and officially, EU and NATO representatives to this day say the areas belong to Georgia. But no Georgian government has been able to turn those statements into anything worth having. And the incident had no long-term consequences for Russia. It will come to the same thing in Crimea.

Little understanding for wounded Russian pride

If he is clever, Putin will now demonstrate a readiness to discuss the "technical details" of complete annexation - without ever calling into question the outrageous premise. He will likely leave the rest of Ukraine alone, at least at first. Beyond that, Moscow will simply have to wait until the EU gets tired of letting sanctions ruin their good business relations with Russia and most people get used to the new state of affairs.

The implications for Europe are devastating: it means that, apart from the mutual defense commitments of NATO members, the West is not in a position to do very much. Sanctions have rarely led to a new awareness or repentance on the part of those affected, and that perhaps holds especially true for a country with as proud a past as Russia.

The EU must reckon with the injured pride of Russia more than it has in the past when it deals with former Soviet republics. And that means that any discussion of NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia would prove counterproductive.

And the EU should look with particular care at the politicians who posture against Russia in those countries before Brussels supports them. Hotheads are definitely of no use there.

If that means that it will take longer for closer relations with the EU to come about than the people there might wish for, then that is perhaps hard for them to swallow. But a dramatic confrontation would be much worse. That could throw Europe decades into reverse.

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