As Russia rolls into Ukraine, are Europe's hands tied?

European leaders have been loudly critical of Russia's military intervention, but trade and energy realities limit the options available to respond.

Andrew Kravchenko/AP
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (l.) shakes hands with British Foreign Secretary William Hague in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. Despite tough talk across Europe over Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, Europe's options remain limited, say experts.

Europe has been blunt over Russia's military intervention in Ukraine: British Foreign Secretary William Hague, for one, called it the “biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st century.”

His words come as the West scrambles to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down. Members of the Group of Eight on Sunday pulled out of talks that slated for June in Sochi, US Secretary of State John Kerry threatened visa bans and asset freezes for Russia, and EU foreign ministers are meeting today to discuss options.

But despite tough rhetoric, some experts say that ultimately there is very little that Europe can do, and that what might appear as caution might simply be a thorough understanding of how complicated the politics at their doorstep is. Europeans are expected to favor dialogue with – but not direct threats to – Moscow.

"Throwing Putin out of the G8 is nothing, and what else can be done? Sending NATO in? That's not possible. Half of Ukraine or more does not want NATO in," says Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, who teaches democratization and policy analysis at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and has studied Crimea and Ukraine.

“Ukraine is divided. Perhaps in time the EU can help a part of it become European. All of it, including Crimea, [that] will never happen, regardless how tough we talk to Putin. Maybe Europeans understand [this] and this is why they do not rush into this."

The EU and Ukraine

It was the EU's offer of a trade and association agreement, which then-President Victor Yanukovych rejected under pressure from Russia, that set off protests in November. The EU was caught off-guard by the pro-Western marches, as well as Russia’s game of hardball with Ukraine and its most recent decision to send in troops, risking a military conflict.

EU policy toward Ukraine has been hampered from the beginning by competing views of where Ukraine belongs. While some of the 28 member states clearly want to integrate the post-Soviet country into the bloc, for others it has not been a priority, especially in an era of economic crisis and EU enlargement fatigue.

EU diplomacy has also been complicated by EU dependence on the Russian market, particularly its energy resources. Russia is the EU’s third-largest trading partner, after China and the US.

Divided views on foreign policy is a hallmark of a bloc with 28 members. On Ukraine and Russia, countries like Poland and those like Portugal have widely divergent attitudes about how important the “east” is to Europe.

But that is changing, as Russia’s actions demand European cohesion. As protests turned deadly in Ukraine, Europe quickly came together to help put an end to the standoff, and last week promised financial aid, even though the question of how much aid the country needs and when has been temporarily overshadowed.

Now they are coming together to respond to the risk of a military showdown. “Putin is driving them together,” says Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs in the Brussels office of the Spanish think tank FRIDE.

Germany as mediator

Key to that response, he says, is Germany.

The powerhouse of Europe, Germany has been reluctant to engage in foreign policy generally since World War II and has traditionally been cautious with Russia because of its dependence on its gas. But Germany is out front trying to de-escalate the crisis in a way that acknowledges that any solution in Ukraine requires that it have a constructive relationship both with Russia and the EU.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Brussels today for an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers underlining a diplomatic response to this crisis that he called the worst since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The threat of a division of Europe is real again," he said, according to Agence France-Presse. "Now is the time for diplomacy."

"Diplomacy does not mean weakness, but is more needed than ever to prevent us from being drawn into the abyss of military escalation,” he added.  

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke with Mr. Putin Sunday, suggested a “contact group” to set up dialogue in the crisis, even as she underlined Russia’s violation of an international accord to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The EU could threaten sanctions but its main focus is on mediation.

Europeans know that no matter what comes out of the crisis, Russia will still be there, and can still call shots, no matter how “strong a EU stance is,” says Mr. Keohane. “You cannot resolve Ukraine without Russian cooperation. That is the bind we are in.”

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