Europe Pulls Punches With Limited Sanctions, Wary Of Backfire

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European leaders have condemned the secession referendum in Crimea. They have reacted by imposing a visa ban and asset freeze on 21 people said to be behind Russia's actions in the region.


The United States and Europe both condemn the vote in Crimea. President Obama announced measures he says will increase the cost on Russia. They include the freezing of U.S. assets of certain Russian officials. The president warned there would be more to come, quote, "if Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine." The European Union is also issuing sanctions.

Foreign ministers met in Brussels today and NPR's Ari Shapiro tells us what they did.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In a flurry of written statements last night, Western leaders rejected Crimea's independence vote. Some of those statements even put the word referendum in quotes. European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton took the same approach speaking to reporters at the start of today's meeting in Brussels.

CATHERINE ASHTON: Look, we've been looking today at what we do about this so-called referendum in Crimea.

SHAPIRO: The West sees this so-called referendum as unconstitutional and illegal, but Ashton knows it's not easy to get 28 member states to agree on a specific set of consequences.

ASHTON: Well, you can't simply sit back and say this situation can't be allowed to happen. So first of all, we have to think very carefully about what the response ought to be and there should be a response.

SHAPIRO: A few hours later, the foreign ministers produced their response: narrowly targeted sanctions against 21 high level officials in Ukraine and Russia. The U.S. passed a similar round of sanctions. Some are describing the American approach as harder-hitting. In Brussels, the EU's Catherine Ashton said it's not a contest.

ASHTON: I don't believe this has anything to do with softer or harder approaches. We've taken our decision based on the best information and work that we've done to establish what we believe is the right approach for the European Union.

SHAPIRO: Few people believe this punishment will actually change Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior. Professor Gwendolyn Sasse is a political scientist at Oxford University who calls this more of a gesture.

GWENDOLYN SASSE: The hope is by targeting individuals, elites around Putin, you can bring about a push towards a more negotiated solution to the crisis, but I'm doubtful that this will have this immediate effect.

SHAPIRO: Even British foreign minister William Hague seemed to try to lower people's short term expectations.

WILLIAM HAGUE: The important thing is that we're also prepared to move to further measures and that there will be long term costs and consequences for Russia if they continue to approach things in this way.

SHAPIRO: The options are limited because Russian's economy is deeply intertwined with Europe's financial health. Russia supplies about a third of Europe's natural gas. Countries like Britain and Germany hold a lot of Russian business assets so if the EU cuts Russia too deeply, Europe itself may bleed. After today's meeting, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Europe is trying to stay flexible.

FRANK-WALTER STEINMEIER: (Through interpreter) This is still what I call a menacing situation and we are, unfortunately, not so far along that we have overcome what's been written about again and again in the past days and weeks: the threat of a divided Europe.

SHAPIRO: Russia is certainly aware that tough sanctions could backfire on Western Europe. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov spoke through an interpreter in London a few days ago.

SERGEI LAVROV: (Through interpreter) It's a counterproductive measure and if such sanctions or decisions of this kind is taken, it would not contribute to mutual interest of the businesses, the mutual interest of our partnership being developed. I think it's a fact.

SHAPIRO: But European leaders say they are still considering greater consequences for Russia. EU leaders are meeting in Brussels Thursday and depending on what Putin does next, a new round of sanctions could come before the end of the week. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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