If the situation in Ukraine wasn't so grim, one could almost laugh at an irony it has produced. Earlier this month, American diplomat Victoria Nuland gained instant worldwide notoriety when a recording of her saying "Fuck the EU" went viral. In the bugged telephone call with a colleague, she expressed her clear hope that the EU would finally apply sanctions against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Europe was indignant; the outcry was intense. But now, following the events of Tuesday in Ukraine, Nuland is likely to get what she wanted.
The images from Independence Square in Kiev have become too brutal to ignore. And with neither side having shown a willingness to back down, Wednesday night could very well see more fatalities on top of the 25 who lost their lives on Tuesday.
On Thursday, European Union foreign ministers are set to meet at a hurriedly arranged meeting in Brussels to determine the extent of the penalties that will be levied on Ukraine's political leadership. According to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, member-state diplomats laid the foundation for such penalties on Wednesday. "All possible options will be explored," she said in a statement, "including restrictive measures against those responsible for repression and human rights violations."
What Can the EU Do?
Few in Brussels doubt that sanctions of some kind are coming. Several European leaders on Wednesday went public with their demands for penalties, from Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met in Paris on Wednesday, also threw their support behind targeted sanctions, echoing a statement released by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier early on Wednesday.
But what can the EU really do? It seems likely that whatever sanctions are approved will be modest. Most probable are bans on travel to the EU for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his closest aides along with the freezing of any accounts they might have in the European bloc. Select companies in Ukraine could also find themselves blacklisted.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission emphasized, however, that sanctions against the opposition would also be under consideration. Their attacks on government buildings, she noted, were likewise unacceptable. Any penalties agreed upon could be applied as soon as Friday.
A New Stick
Still, there remains widespread doubt within the EU as to the effectiveness of sanctions. Critics recognize that Yanukovych has essentially dashed all hopes of a political solution in recent days and they also understand that penalties could graphically demonstrate to Ukrainian oligarchs that there is a price to be paid for supporting the president.
"But there are reasons why sanctions weren't imposed long ago," says one high-ranking EU diplomat. Not only are Ukraine's neighbors fearful of escalation, but many also believe that individually targeted measures are easy to circumvent. Critics say they also significantly limit the chances that fruitful negotiations can take place -- even if the events of Tuesday seem to have precluded any such talks for the foreseeable future.
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder shares such concerns. Sanctions achieve "little," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Wednesday. Even Merkel was in the skeptics' camp prior to her Wednesday appearance with Hollande, preferring instead to exert pressure via public appearances with opposition leaders.
Now, though, it would appear that the EU no longer has much of an option. The protesters on Independence Square have become Europe's to a certain extent, with many of them wrapping themselves in EU flags. Were European diplomats to stand by and do nothing, it would be a declaration of impotence.
On Thursday, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski -- whose government has long supported European efforts to court Ukraine -- is traveling to Kiev on behalf of the EU. He will be joined by German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and their French counterpart Laurent Fabius. The carrot, in the form of EU aid and partnership agreements, has long since been proffered, offers that the EU on Wednesday insisted are still valid.
Now, after the events of Tuesday night, the trio has a stick to take along as well.