The Wake-Up Call: Europe Toughens Stance against Putin

By SPIEGEL Staff

A column of hearses leaves an airbase in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, carrying the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash. Zoom
DPA

A column of hearses leaves an airbase in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, carrying the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash.

It took the shooting down of a Boeing jet carrying almost 300 people before the EU agreed on the first true economic sanctions against Russia. The Americans want further action, but it is impossible to know if punitive measures can sway Vladimir Putin.

It was the images. Absurdly tattooed pro-Russian fighters, cigarettes dangling from their lips and Kalashnikovs tucked under their arms, stomping around in the field of bodies and wreckage at the crash site, as if the dead children from the downed Boeing had nothing to do with them. Experts holding their noses as they opened a railroad car full of dead bodies. A seemingly endless convoy of hearses leaving Eindhoven Airport in the Netherlands. And Russian President Vladimir Putin took it all in without losing his composure.

It's usually the images.

It's part of the occasionally cynical business of political experts to refer to a tragedy of this magnitude, and to the endlessly repeated TV images of the suffering of innocent people, as a "game changer." It's the moment that divides the course of a crisis into "before" and "after" -- a time when the public and politicians hold their breaths and take a new look at the situation. But one of the unique features of the European Union is that in the "after" period, it often continues for a time to behave the way it did in the "before" period. Supporting evidence was provided by an exchange from last Tuesday, almost a week after Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 was shot down:

Let's at least do an arms embargo, argued British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

No, you can't even do financial sanctions, responded his French counterpart Laurent Fabius in the hearing room of the European Council building in Brussels.

Prior to the meeting, EU foreign ministers had seemed deeply disconcerted. But behind closed doors, the overriding objective was apparently not to determine how best to force Putin to back down, but how best to protect their own domestic economies.

'Simply Ridiculous"

In the days following, senior representatives of Eastern European member states voiced doubts about their smug cousins from the EU's western member states. It is "simply ridiculous," one representative said.

But by the end of the week, Europe had finally arrived in the "after" phase. The "game changer" had had its effect. It is now all but certain that flight MH 17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile system from Russian inventories, a system that hardly would have reached Ukraine without Putin's approval. The 28 EU ambassadors agreed in principle on initial tough economic sanctions against Russia, which they plan to wrap up on Tuesday. In a letter to European leaders, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy wrote: ""I would like to ask you that you instruct your ambassador to complete an agreement by Tuesday." Unless the EU abandons its resolve once again, "we can now pull the plug on Russia and Putin in a very controlled manner," say officials in Berlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far resisted Western attempts to force him to abandon support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Zoom
AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far resisted Western attempts to force him to abandon support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

European leaders are expected to officially approve the new sanctions against Russian banks, companies and private citizens by the end of this week. Despite the summer break, the German government is hoping for a special summit in Brussels. The EU message to Putin, after all, must also be accompanied by images -- symbolism strong enough to be worthy of the pictures from the MH 17 crash site.

In practical terms, the sanctions revolve around oil, natural gas, weapons, high tech and a lot of money. If it weren't for the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine, where people are dying every day, the latest European offensive would be dubbed an "economic war."

Is this the way to stop Putin? And how will he respond?

The EU wants the Russian president to promptly close the border with Ukraine and cut off supplies to the separatists. It also wants Putin to disarm the separatists, recognize the Ukrainian government and guarantee freedom of movement for OSCE observers. The German Foreign Ministry wants even more: a UN police mission with a clearly defined mandate and time frame, to investigate the crash of flight MH 17. "Talks to that effect are already underway with our Dutch and Australian partners," say German Foreign Ministry officials. This would require a resolution in the UN Security Council, to which Putin would have to agree.

Staying the Course

It would be a first test to see if the Europeans' newfound courage has made an impression on the Russian president.

As Western agencies did during the Cold War, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, is now trying to figure out what Putin's advisors are telling him. There are signs that Kremlin hardliners and business leaders are locked in a fierce battle for the upper hand. In contrast to what Western intelligence services believed at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, cracks now appear to be forming in Putin's power structure. This, at least, was reported by the head of the BND, Gerhard Schindler, in a recent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, the Bundestag. He delivered a similar report in the Chancellery a short time later, during the weekly intelligence briefing, sources say. BND officials believe that it is quite possible that some Russian oligarchs will soon place economic interests above the political and try to get Putin to change course.

Sergey Glazyev, 53, is one of the most influential hardliners who want Putin to stay the course. Glazyev is responsible for relations with Ukraine and the Eurasian Economic Community in the Kremlin.

Glazyev calls Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a "Nazi" and is also calling for airstrikes against Ukrainian troops. He views Europe as degenerate, and the United States as an enemy that is secretly printing enough money to enable it to buy up or ruin Russia. As a consequence, Glazyev wants to seal off his country and make it self-sufficient in key areas. For Putin confidants like Glazyev, EU sanctions are the perfect trigger for such a renunciation of the Western world. If Glazyev had his way, Moscow would cease holding its $472 billion (€351 billion) in foreign currency reserves in US dollars or euros, would replace Visa and MasterCard with "Eurasian credit cards," and would replace Europe with China as Russia's most important partner.

Already, Russian civil servants and politicians are no longer permitted to have bank accounts and own companies or houses abroad, and 4 million police officers, military officials and intelligence agents are not allowed to vacation in the West. In the future, all Russian government employees will be required to drive official cars made in Russia.

A world is taking shape that mirrors Putin's weltanschauung. It is a world in which Russia, supposedly humiliated by the West, regains its old glory.

Pushing Putin into a Corner

Moscow political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky is reminded of Putin's interview-based biography "First Person," published in 2000. In it, the president says: "You should never drive a rat into a corner." And because one shouldn't apply pressure to Putin, who is not a flexible person, says Belkovsky, "we can expect all kinds of aggressive decisions from him now."

So far, Putin has avoided direct military intervention in Ukraine. But according to Western intelligence information, Russia moved heavy military equipment across the three border crossings rebels captured during the recent ceasefire declared by the Ukrainian government in Kiev. And by acquiring anti-aircraft missiles, the separatists have offset the Ukrainian army's biggest military advantage, its air superiority. More than a dozen aircraft have already been shot down.

Since the shooting down of MH 17, Putin has lost any political capital he still had in Europe and the US. And with nothing left to lose, it seems likely that he is approaching tougher sanctions with sanguinity.

Eckhard Cordes, the chairman of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, an organization representing German business interests in Russia, agrees. "In the current situation, too much external pressure can achieve the opposite of what is intended. It does no one any good if we completely force Putin into a corner." Indeed, such a prospect alarms quite a few people in the Russian economy. Oligarchs may be concerned about their billions and their villas in Cyprus, on the Côte d'Azur and in London. But they also know that without machinery and know-how from the West, the Russian economy is doomed.

Of the very few people who have dared to say this openly, one is former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a liberal. According to his calculations, rearmament, military intervention in eastern Ukraine and sanctions could cost Russia up to 20 percent of its economic strength within a few years. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov was even blunter: "If sanctions were imposed against the entire Russian financial sector, our economy would collapse in six weeks."

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1. double edged sword
lol1232 07/28/2014
This was written May 19,2014 in Daily Beast...interesting don't you think? And now Germany wants to play strong arm and engage in conflict when the answers aren't even all in yet. Why the rush?????? The latest showdown between the U.S. and Russia could go ballistic. Congress is looking to pressure a Ukrainian lab to end its maintenance of one of Moscow’s fiercest missiles. Earlier this month, the Russians announced they would discontinue the sale of rocket engines to the United States if those engines could be used for military purposes. At least some members of Congress are looking to retaliate in kind. An amendment to the annual Pentagon budget bill, expected to pass this week, instructs President Obama to begin talks with the Ukrainian government aimed at ending long-standing cooperation between Kiev and Moscow on the maintenance of their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs. The long-range missiles are known in Russia as the RS-20s and dubbed by NATO as the SATANs.
2.
george orwell 1984 07/28/2014
Have you ever cornered a Ratazana Raivosa (angered)? rat) it crazily jumps into you...besides the above bla bla bla which are really the sanctions?
3.
spon-facebook-10000608134 07/28/2014
The U.S. has become a dangerous nation persuing a crazed policy that can only backfire eventually
4. German Insouciance, Full-Spectrum-Dominance = 3WW
Mockingbird 07/28/2014
Is this journalism? WHERE IS YOUR EVIDENCE? Russia has laid out all the information it has about the shooting down of the Malaysian plane. America and the Ukraine still refuse to reveal theirs. There are important questions still not answered. (i) Why was the flight path of the Malaysian aircraft changed? (ii) Why was the pilot of the Malaysian plane told to reduce altitude by the Ukrainian air traffic control? (iii) Why was there a Ukrainian fighter jet an Su-25 in the vicinity of the Malaysian passenger jet. Well, the US does have satellite imagery of who did fire those rockets, unfortunately they show Ukrainian soldiers (in Ukrainian uniforms) and not separatists. That is the reason the US has not released them. So here's the plan of attack, the blueprint. Before America militarily attacks a country, it (i) demonizes its head of state using the media, (that's you), depicting him as an evil, wicked man, this in turn (ii) negates that countries culture and history making it worthless, (iii) organizes a “false flag” operation, an atrocity of some kind, poisoned gas is used on civilian populations, a plane mysteriously crashes, buildings are blown up, ships are attacked, (iv) the targeted country of course is blamed, (v) the final act, targeted country attacked. This formula has been used time, and time and time again. Although there have been disgusting empires before, this is something horribly new. It is the essence of Full-Spectrum-Dominance. As America has mutilated its own history, (the glorification of brutal cowboys, real American history was not nice), it wishes to perform the same on the world and reduce it to its own low standard. The neo-conservatives in Washington and the Pentagon Warlords now believe that a nuclear first strike attack on Russia is winnable. To preserve their hegemony they are quite prepared to sacrifice Europe in the process. Germany sacrificing its profitable economic links with Russia will not be enough, even though it may send the German economy into recession. Washington wants to see blood, Russian blood. It wants to see Russia not just economically destroyed but totally destroyed. Putin by appealing to European common sense had hoped that rational argument would keep Europe on his side. It hasn't worked. In fact, Putin's restraint is seen as a weakness by the Pentagon's warlords and apparently by NATO. Putin in attempting to reach out to Germany has even spoken in the Bundestag, (in German), and the Germans spat in his face. Russia destroyed Napoleon’s armies, Russia destroyed Hitler's armies, Russia will destroy anyone who attacks it. It has the nuclear capability to destroy both Europe and North America. Of that dear reader be assured. Der Spiegel's attempt to demonize Russia by attacking Putin and therefore bring “the pliant masses on board” has failed. Your propaganda is seen for what it is, garbage. You will lose. Crowds are not demonstrating against Putin, but Israel. However, your propaganda may indeed help towards a thermonuclear war. Your are therefore in my eyes the bacteria that lives in sewage.
5. Nothing leads to nothing
2ndiceberg 07/28/2014
If the plane crash was the game changer, do you not even want to know what happened? If you have evidence, why has it not been released? There are several countries in the E.U. pushing for sanctions against Russia. Forgive me, but those countries seem to be the same old, same old....always determined to dominate Europe one way or another.
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