Attack on MH17 raises question of how far EU will go

Sanctions against Russia may look feeble as EU forges unified reaction

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin (centre) warned the UN Security Council  against  attempts to pressure an investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Photograph: Reuters

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin (centre) warned the UN Security Council against attempts to pressure an investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Photograph: Reuters


The shooting down of flight MH17 on Thursday afternoon in Ukrainian airspace potentially opens up a new front in the ongoing tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine.

With most diplomatic attention focused this week on the deepening crisis in Gaza, the air crash was a dramatic reminder of the violence festering in the region since Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The incident happened less than 24 hours after EU leaders agreed on new measures against Russia at a summit in Brussels and the White House widened its sanctions to include companies such as Rosneft and Gazprombank.

With EU foreign ministers due to gather for a council meeting next Tuesday, the question emerging is how far the West is prepared to go.

The EU has been – and remains – deeply divided over how to respond to Russia, even before Ukraine decided not to sign an association agreement with the EU in November, prompting the current crisis. On one hand, the three Baltic countries, Sweden and others have consistently called for tougher action against its eastern neighbour, while the Mediterranean countries, Bulgaria and Slovakia favour a conciliatory approach.

Middle ground

Countries such as Ireland and Denmark lie somewhere in the middle, while diplomats yesterday noted the three Benelux countries have been moving closer to the hardline position in the last few weeks, a shift likely to be consolidated following the massive death toll of Dutch nationals.

The reason for the polarisation of views is obvious – many member states are highly dependent on Russia for energy and trade.

The European Commission’s “impact assessment” reports, carried out to assess the potential impact on each member state of further financial sanctions against Russia, are playing a central role at official level.

The range of issues involved is encapsulated by France. So far, it is proceeding with the planned sale of two Mistral warships to Russia, a move criticised by president Barack Obama at last month’s summit and yesterday by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

As always, Germany’s position is of vital importance, with the chancellor understood to be relatively tough on Russia, a position not necessarily shared by the German government.

Whether the EU is prepared to impose deeper economic sanctions is unclear, with Merkel dampening expectations of further sanctions next week at her press conference yesterday.

One conundrum for Europe is that its leaders had already agreed to increase sanctions on Wednesday night in Brussels, which had been due to be rubber-stamped next Tuesday, although the new names affected are not set to be published until Thursday.

Putin’s allies

EU officials pointed out yesterday the new package of sanctions – particularly the move to target some of Putin’s allies – was a significant development.

While there has been much debate over whether the EU should impose the more punitive “phase three” sanctions, officials in Brussels yesterday pointed out the new package of “phase two” sanctions have significant scope and could even be more effective than low-level economic sanctions.

While the EU is perceived to have shied away from the US’s more hard-hitting efforts, sanctions are much more difficult for the EU to implement legally, as legislators are required to provide proof sanctions against individuals are justified.

While the US, EU and national capitals are likely to continue to work in tandem on forging a response to Russia in the coming days, EU officials played down any expectation a military response would be discussed on Tuesday. Such matters are likely to remain the preserve of Nato, though significantly the attack took place over Ukraine, a non-Nato country.

Foreign policy chief

The crisis has occurred at a pivotal point for EU foreign policy as the bloc prepares to elect a successor to Cathy Ashton as foreign policy chief. The decision not to appoint a candidate on Wednesday is seen as a blow to Italy’s quest for the foreign policy brief, amid concerns 41-year-old its foreign minister Federica Mogherini is too pro-Russian.

The dramatic turn taken in the Ukraine crisis has made the job of the next foreign policy chief all the more important as Europe works to avoid the perception of disunity in the face of deepening instability on its eastern borders.

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