Perhaps I have been too hard on the Europeans. I hope so. As Russia tightens its grip on Crimea there have been gathering signs that the continent’s democratic leaders are crossing an important bridge. They are seeing Vladimir Putin as he is rather than as the Russian president they once imagined they could coax him into becoming. Differences about the response to Moscow’s march into Ukraine are making way for glimmers of much-needed realism.
No one is quite sure how Moscow will respond to the rigged referendum in Crimea planned for Sunday. The outcome is predetermined – dark humour in European chancelleries has it that Mr Putin has already totted up the votes in favour of Crimea’s return to Mother Russia. One European foreign minister talks openly of the impending “Anschluss”. The EU and US will probably respond on Monday with an escalation of sanctions.
Whether immediate annexation suits the Kremlin is not certain. Ready as Mr Putin is to trample on international law and redraw the boundaries of Europe by force, he frets about legal niceties. Ludicrous though it seems to the rest of the world, this is why occupying Russian troopsare not wearing insignia. Even as they ensure the referendum is anything but free and fair, the pseudo legalists in Moscow are weighing the options after Crimea has been wrenched out of Ukraine.
The lawyer in Mr Putin might see advantage in Crimea retaining for now a fig leaf of independence. The tactician may agree. It will be harder to sustain the pretence that he is ready to negotiate once Crimea has been formally annexed. Perhaps, like Trans Dnestr, Crimea will be left in constitutional limbo under the control of Moscow. Yet Mr Putin may press ahead regardless.
There is still debate among Europeans about the level of sanctions to apply against the Kremlin. At one end of the spectrum – Greece, Cyprus and, to an extent, Italy come to mind – there are those who seem to think the way to avoid escalation is to give Mr Putin whatever he wants. At the other end are Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states, making the serious case that a tough response is the
only thing that will get the Kremlin’s attention.
Britain’s David Cameron has won plaudits for stiffening EU resolve at a recent summit. France, though, worries about the cost of cancelling lucrative defence deals with Moscow.
The pivotal player is Germany. Berlin’s diplomatic establishment is institutionally cautious. For reasons of geography and history, as well as economic ties, Germany has more at stake than its partners. It initially harboured hopes that Mr Putin would be willing to negotiate a way out of the crisis.
Angela Merkel’s tough speech to the Bundestag this week seemed to put such delusion to rest. A child of communist East Germany, the chancellor should be more attuned than most to authoritarian mindsets. Her speech marked recognition that Mr Putin sees confrontation with the west as integral to his tsarist rule in Moscow. In Ms Merkel’s description, the Russian leader’s might-is-right approach belongs to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Berlin will always want good relations with Moscow but, as one diplomat says, it is now beginning to look beyond Mr Putin for any normalisation.
Economic sanctions could well hurt EU states more than Moscow in the short term, particularly if they result in disrupted Russian gas supplies. In the medium term, however, Russia would be the big loser from any rupture of economic ties. The march into Crimea has already cost untold billions in future western investment.
No serious business can now put money into, or share technology with, Russia with any confidence that its investment will be safe. Banks too must think hard as to whether their Russian relationships would withstand the scrutiny and asset freezes that would follow further escalation. When Ms Merkel spoke of Russia suffering “massive harm”, she was not exaggerating.
The EU also has an opportunity to seize the moment and accelerate policies that reduce its dependence on Russian gas. It should be looking at alternative sources of liquid natural gas, at better cross-border “interconnectors” to reduce the vulnerability of individual states, and at new pipeline routes from central Asia. Washington has a vital role to play here. Lifting the bar on exports of US gas would not have an immediate impact on European supplies. It would mark out a medium-term trajectory for the gas market that would do serious damage to Moscow. It would also stiffen European sinews.
More important than sanctions, however, is the scope and scale of prospective western help to the new government in Kiev. It is time for Europeans and Americans to open their wallets.
For all its bravado, the seizure of Crimea marked a strategic failure for Mr Putin. He will not want to be remembered as the tsar who lost Ukraine. His goal now will be to turn it instead into a failed state and thus block the establishment of a west-leaning democratic government.
So the west’s focus should be on Kiev as much as Moscow – on supplying the massive economic and political aid needed if Ukrainian politicians are to lay the foundations of sustainable democracy and economic revival. This will be neither cheap nor easy. I once heard a Russian oligarch complain that he could not do business in Ukraine because it was “too corrupt”. There are no guarantees of success.
What, though, is the alternative? A continent that settles disputes and frontiers by force? Europe has been there before.