EU freezes Yanukovych assets. Will it target Russians next?

Europe is moving more assertively after misjudging the situation in Ukraine. But sanctioning Russians over the Kremlin's military intervention may be a hard sell.

Yves Herman/Reuters
British Prime Minister David Cameron (l.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.) and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (r.) meet ahead of a European leaders emergency summit on Ukraine, in Brussels today. The European Union froze the assets of several Ukrainian officials, including former President Viktor Yanukovych, and European Union leaders are set to discuss sanctions against Russia on Thursday over its military intervention in Ukraine.

In freezing the assets of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the European Union is showing a new kind of swagger in the East-West crisis playing out on its doorstep.

The EU's black list of Ukrainian officials accused of embezzlement – which includes a total of 18 individuals, including Mr. Yanukovych’s two sons – sets the tone as the leaders of the EU meet for an emergency summit in Brussels on Russia's interference in Ukraine.

It also comes as the EU offered a significant amount of aid to help the new Ukrainian government avert financial collapse. On Wednesday it announced $15 billion in grants and loans to the troubled nation.

These moves, within 48 hours of one another, mark a change in attitude and approach on the part of the EU, which has been accused of ambivalence and naivete leading up to the crisis.

The conflict began when Ukraine spurned a trade and association agreement in November that the EU had offered. In the days before and after, observers say that Europe made many mistakes: failing to see that the offer itself, which did not include short-term cash, was unappealing to the leadership of Yanukovych; how Russia would geopolitically view EU ties with Ukraine and rush in to sever them; and failing to put a Plan B in place for what to do if and when Ukraine rejected the deal.

Months of protests, which started in favor of the EU and ended in demands for Yanukovych's ouster, have turned into a major global diplomatic crisis, as Russia capped off months of protest by sending in troops to Crimea last week.

The sanctions on the 18 Ukrainians, who the EU says misappropriated funds, go into effect today. Now many are waiting to see if the same tactics are taken with Russia or Russian individuals over its military intervention.

While the countries in Eastern Europe largely favor as tough a response as possible, others in the bloc are favoring dialogue over direct sanction. That’s in part, they say, because dialogue is what works best. But their dependence on Russian energy and the wealth generated by Russian oligarchs cannot be overlooked.

A tough, uniform response from Europe to Russia’s incursion would be a remarkable outcome. It's also the real test of Europe’s unity on the matter, and its will to be a powerbroker in the crisis.

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