Murderous groups of secessionists have occupied parts of eastern Ukraine for months carrying out murder and atrocities among the civilian population. They have Russia’s backing, although the Kremlin does not admit this recognition officially. The secessionist movement has a strong popular approval rating in Russia, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
The West is asking Russia, and specifically its President Vladimir Putin, to use their influence to make the secessionists abandon their activities.
Support from Russia has to stop. Some economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia and there are threats of more. But to date, these have proved toothless with no unity between the US and Europe on how far they should go.
America has little trade with Russia, so tough sanctions will not damage the US economy. Europe has close economic ties with Russia and public support for sanctions in Western Europe has been weak.
This situation appeared to change when the Malaysian airliner Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew on board. The plane is thought to have been brought down by a missile fired by Ukrainian rebels and this triggered tougher talk among European Union governments for increasing sanctions.
But this is unconvincing. The proposals are just for more ineffective sanctions. France has even failed to agree to stop delivery of a helicopter carrier it is building for the Russian navy.
The shooting down of Flight MH17 is a political disaster for President Putin, but he is very aware that any effective economic sanctions imposed by Europe will hurt their economies too. Europe has been lukewarm so far in reacting to the atrocities in Ukraine’s occupied territories, so President Putin may hope the uproar over Flight MH17, involving mainly Western Europeans, will fade.
The basic problem is that the West, especially Europe, has been utterly unconvincing in its stance on Ukraine.
Economic sanctions alone are not enough when a large trading partner is involved because of the reciprocal damage they cause. There is also no consensus between the US and Europe or even Europeans themselves.
Popular support for the Kremlin’s policies remains high in Russia. This backing will not be damaged by tougher sanctions. But any move against the secessionists by President Putin would be opposed by a majority in Russia. President Putin is therefore trapped between the West’s toothless sanctions and Russian public opinion. His choice seems clear.
The key issue is in Europe where a convincing, decisive and strong European defence and security system, co-ordinated with the US as equal partners, would impress the Kremlin. Credible deployment of armed forces on Europe’s eastern border from the start would have made all the difference.
Europe’s foreign policy is as weak and unconvincing as its defence. Together they demonstrate a disastrously weak element of EU governance.
The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Ashton, has been unconvincing and, as her term in foreign affairs comes to an end, she has become a lame duck.
Her successor should have been nominated last week. It was essential to appoint a strong and experienced personality at such a time of crisis. Finding a pool of experienced foreign policy talent among Europe’s politicians will be challenging. The choice was limited further when the criteria stipulated it should be a female social democrat. The best person should be chosen irrespective of gender or political party.
Yet again Europe failed to reach agreement, and finding a successor in this key post was postponed to the end of August.
The US has no robust foreign policy in the Middle East or central Europe at the moment. Europe is unable to take coordinated action while Ukraine receives little more than supportive words.
Russia feels humiliated by the West’s sanction charade and is likely to be further antagonised, despite Europe’s politics of appeasement.