Ukraine crisis: Europe wrings hands as Vladimir Putin checkmates Crimea

Sanctions or mediation? Or maybe a little of both? Europe is anything but united over Vladimir Putin's chess-piece move into Crimea, Don Murray writes. Little wonder, it has misread the Russian leader for years.

Little wonder EU is divided, it's been misreading Vladimir Putin for years

A handful of protesters gathered outside an emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday to protest against Russian troops in Ukraine. (Yves Herman / Reuters)

Another fine mess you've got us into. That used to be Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel in those Depression-era films. Now it's the European Union to Vladimir Putin.

The great beast with 28 heads and too many legs looks to be floundering again in the midst of what the British foreign secretary calls "the biggest crisis in Europe of the 21st century."

In London, there is talk of sanctions. But in Brussels, in the headquarters of the EU, there is only talk of mediation, with the most powerful leader on the continent, Angela Merkel, about to spearhead that effort.

Alas, she came away from her latest conversation with the Russian leader saying "he lives in another world."

Meanwhile, Putin sits in the Kremlin, pulling the levers, and sending his troops into the firepot that is the Crimea.

Why the surprise and confusion? Because the EU dinosaur doesn't, indeed can't think fast. But it is also because of the beast's contradictory reading of Putin himself.

Many leaders in the EU have seen him as a politician like themselves, a man, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, speaking of Mikhail Gorbachev, that "we can do business with."

Indeed, many EU countries have been doing big business with Putin's Russia — energy business. Russia supplies one-quarter of the continent's oil and gas.

But Putin, despite the trappings of elections and a parliament, is not a politician like them.

He controls the airwaves, as we've just seen in the onslaught of tendentious propaganda pouring out over Russian television channels about the imperative need to protect Russian lives in danger in Ukraine.

He controls who can run, indeed, who can run against him. He stacks the deck.

Different objectives

But above all, he thinks differently. This is the man who described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geo-political disaster of the last century.

This is also the man who was willing to spend upwards of $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics. The thought is linked to the act. Putin saw the Games as a signal to the world that Russia, as Mao Zedong said of his country, has again "stood up."

Europe's talk of sanctions and mediation is almost certainly wasted. The retaking of Crimea by the Russian bear is another signal that Moscow has stood up.

Spain's foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo (L) and and his French counterpart Laurent Fabius, at the start of a European Union emergency foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday. The ministers decided to push for high-level mediation to resolve the crisis over Russia's invasion of Crimea. (Reuters)

Monetary losses, stock market losses, the ruble retreating, the threat of personal sanctions on Putin and his senior officials — all that is irrelevant in Putin's equation.

The restoration of Russia as a great power is the goal, however costly it may be in the short term.

And it may also be costly to the EU if Putin threatens to counter any punitive measures by shutting off the gas or oil to Europe. He has already used the tactic with Ukraine itself. It gets one's attention.

Putin's demands

The EU can't say it wasn't warned. Russia's war with Georgia in the summer of 2008 can now be seen as an out-of-town tryout for the big performance. It coincided with the holding of another Olympics, this time in Beijing.

Russia's armoured personnel carriers rolled into the self-declared state of South Ossetia with the Kremlin saying it had no choice: the local Russian population was in danger.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin walks to watch military exercises upon his arrival at the Kirillovsky firing ground in the Leningrad region on Monday. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters)

Sound familiar? To ensure the endangered population was big enough, the Russian army arrived in South Ossetia with blank passports to create instant Russians.

Right on cue, Europe reacted in disarray. France's then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, led the disordered charge, rushing to Russia to negotiate a ceasefire.

It was "peace in our time," his loyalists shouted. It was also a document that gave legal cement to the Russian military presence in South Ossetia, where the Russian military remain to this day.

Europe's leaders, including the French, are more circumspect this time.

Merkel, after dismissing Putin as not in touch with reality in a conversation with Barack Obama, then discussed with the U.S. president the priority for the West — the rapid dispatch of a fact-finding group to Ukraine. Putin must be worried.

As for the French, they've already thrown in the towel. Sanctions "would shut the channel of discussion with Moscow," one presidential adviser told Le Monde. This flows from the conclusion that Putin "is keeping some doors open, but only a few."

In fact, hardly any. What emerged from Putin's reported discussions with leaders in Paris, Berlin and Warsaw was a set of Russian demands: the rights of Russian minorities must be protected in Ukraine, the legal status of the Russian fleet in Crimea must be guaranteed, and Ukraine's new leaders must agree not to do a deal with the EU.

As a French official said, that's tantamount to putting Ukraine under Russian trusteeship.

But what's the alternative?

For the European Union, it's pretty unpalatable. Ukraine was already poisoned fruit, with its finance minister pleading for $40 billion to save it from bankruptcy.

And that was before the Russians moved in. The German electorate has already made plain its distaste for bankrolling the Greece bailout. Can you seriously see it tolerating an even bigger bill for Ukraine?

 A fine mess, and this is no comedy.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.