How can the EU impose costs on Russia?

The key challenge for the West is to deter any possible Russian action in Eastern Ukraine, and pursue a twin-track policy aimed at de-escalation.

The developments in Crimea over the weekend reminded many of what happened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. But what is happening in Ukraine’s autonomous republic is much worse: it was unprovoked and followed a long battle in Kyiv that was finally won by pro-European and pro-democratic forces. The pretext used by Russia – that it is intervening to defend Russian citizens – does not stand up. It seems that the only Russian citizen who has perished in recent events in Ukraine was a protester in Kyiv shot by the Berkut milita. Nor were the events in Kiev a fascist coup, as Russia claims. What happened was a classic popular revolution and what Russia is opposing in Crimea is democracy. In fact, Crimea is more reminiscent of Transnistria: a frozen conflict that might plague the future of Ukraine for decades to come.

For the time being, the key challenge for the West is to deter any possible Russian action in Eastern Ukraine. While Russia has exposed itself internationally, it does not feel threatened because it does not believe that there will be any immediate, tangible consequences. Unless the EU and the US demonstrate what the “costs” of Russia’s invasion of Crimea are, Ukraine will remain under threat of further de-stabilisation and its territorial integrity will be in jeopardy. The credibility of many of the West’s post-Cold War policies – from the assurances given to Ukraine by the US and UK in 1994 to the Eastern Partnership promise extended by the EU to Moldova and Georgia – is now dependent on its ability to adequately react to the events in Ukraine.

As immediate steps, the EU should pursue a twin-track policy aimed at de-escalation:

In relation to Ukraine, the EU should:

·         demonstrate support for the government in Kyiv, offer immediate financial assistance, and help foster a broad coalition behind the government that would include representatives of the east and the south. 

·         make clear that the next elections in Ukraine should take place in a normalised situation, which may entail postponing them until after May 25. Urge the country to conduct parliamentary elections when the situation is calmer in order to give the authorities proper legitimacy and to address the potentially destructive split between the Maidan and the Rada. The same goes for the new constitution and balanced language laws.

·         ensure a high-level European presence in Ukraine to bring in clearheaded advice and support. Try to send observes to Crimea – possibly under the auspices of OSCE. Do not let Crimea end up being a bilateral matter between Russia and Ukraine, urge multilateral settlement mechanisms of which become a party to any diplomatic settlement mechanism. Do not allow any referendum in Crimea to be conducted in haste – try to settle for a referendum two to five years down the road.

In relation to Russia, the EU should:

·         stop business as usual. This could include cancelling the South Stream agreements with Russia, stopping talk of visa liberalisation (the irresponsible and politically motivated distribution of Russian passports does not allow us to consider any visa-freedom any longer); stopping visa-free exchange for diplomatic passports; and stop pingselling weapons and dual use technologies to Russia.

·         impose visa ban and asset freezefor members of the Federation Council who voted for the deployment of the Russian Army in Ukraine. Threaten to freeze foreign currency assets of the Russian government, central bank and state-owned companies.

·         identify/prompt reaction from Russia’s Central Asian neighbours who do not accept the neglect of a neighbours’ territorial sovereignty. Sharp negative reactions from countries like Kazakhstan will put the Eurasian Union in question.

·         explore options for engaging with Turkey, based on its support for the Tatars in Crimea. The Tatars are in danger of becoming the first ethnic group that is discriminated against. 

It may be difficult to impose immediate costs on Russia. But if the EU begins planning now, it could impose costs in the medium term. It is therefore crucial to start communicating these costs and threaten to increase them if the situation deteriorates further – for example if Russia takes action in Eastern Ukraine.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow

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