The Ukrainian crisis has sent European leaders scurrying to find responses to Russia's aggression. But so far, they seem more confused over what to do than they are united. One reason for the confusion is that many EU member states have close trade ties with Moscow and are loathe to jeopardize them by slapping punitive sanctions on Moscow. In the meantime, the scramble over what to do is producing some notable moments: from threats, to backpedaling, to even some embarrassments.
A Czech Flip-Flop
The Czech Republic has personal experience with Moscow invading other countries, having suffered a Soviet invasion itself in 1968. So, some Czech officials have reacted fiercely to news of Russia intervening in Crimea. On March 3, Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky said he could "hardly imagine" that Russia could now win its bid against a U.S.-based company to carry out the planned $10 billion expansion of the Czech Republic's sole nuclear plant. But by day's end, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka walked back the defense minister's statement. "It is impossible to imagine that we will burn all bridges by rupturing all commercial ties with Russia because of this crisis," Sobotka said. "That would be very unwise."
Britain Warns Of 'Significant Costs' -- But No Trade Sanctions?
British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned President Vladimir Putin that Russia will have to pay "significant costs" unless the Kremlin changes course on Ukraine. So a photo of an apparently official document as it was being carried into Downing Street on March 3 caused quite a stir by suggesting London might, in fact, oppose curbs on Russian trade. The document says "the U.K. should not support for now trade sanctions...or close London's financial center to Russians." Downing Street has refused to comment.
The German Contact Group
Germany says it is counting on a "contact group" to open channels between Kyiv and Moscow and de-escalate a crisis that could endanger trade ties between Berlin and Russia, the source of almost 40 percent of its oil and gas, But Berlin, which has suggested the contact group could be composed of states and international organizations, is moving ahead slowly. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman said on March 3 that the initiative so far has been limited to just one phone call between the chancellor and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The EU: 'Sanctions Are Not In Order Today'
European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on March 3 united over calls on Moscow to return its troops to their bases and threatened to put visa liberalization and economic cooperation talks on hold. But they made it clear they wouldn't go as far as the United States in terms of economic steps. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for more diplomacy, saying "crisis diplomacy is not a weakness." The Netherlands' foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, said "sanctions are not in order today." Some numbers may help provide context: trade between Russia and the EU states is worth $460 billion yearly, while U.S. trade with Russia is worth just $40 billion.
Long Hours At NATO -- And A New Europe, Old Europe Divide?
Warsaw has pushed NATO to hold emergency meetings over Ukraine, saying the crisis endangers Poland. But the most recent meeting went four hours overtime on March 3 as the members struggled to agree on a statement. The new member states, which only recently left Moscow's orbit themselves, wanted tough warnings for Russia. So did Britain and the United States. But France and Germany prefer a more moderate tone. Germany says it is still of the opinion that one can talk to the Russians without coming to threats and ultimatums. That came as, separately, German officials denied U.S. reports that Merkel said on March 3 in a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama that Putin has lost touch with reality.