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POV: Where Is Europe While Ukraine Burns?

After airliner downing, time for our allies to join US sanctions on Russia

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A European Union policy last year is at the root of the Ukrainian conflict that saw last Friday’s horrific downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane (by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, according to the United States). The Union offered Ukraine an “association agreement” designed to tighten the political and economic links between the two parties. When the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown last February after rejecting the agreement in favor of closer relations with Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin forcibly annexed the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula. He also provided military and economic assistance to the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine, whose leaders launched an armed insurrection against the government in Kiev.

In the course of that war of secession in the past several months, one voice has been conspicuously muted amid the global debate about how to resolve this crisis: that of the European Union.

At a dinner party just before the outbreak of violence in Eastern Ukraine, I heard an EU official waxing lyrical about the prospects of bringing the economically depressed, politically unstable, corruption-riddled Ukraine into the EU orbit. He said that would make Ukraine a prosperous, Western-style democracy under the rule of law, the way its neighbor Poland has been. That ambition struck me as an eminently laudable one that had apparently appealed to the Ukrainian people, who had gone to the streets to oust their pro-Russian president. It promised EU financial support to the impoverished people and the virtually bankrupt government in Kiev as well as preferential access to the EU market. It would promote political reforms designed to root out the pervasive corruption and strengthen the shaky democratic institutions in the country. The political provisions of the agreement were signed in March and its economic portion toward the end of last month, even as the violent rebellion against the Kiev government continued to rage with active support from Russia.

The Obama administration has taken a strong stand in opposition to Russia’s support for the secessionist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. The first round of sanctions included travel bans and asset freezes directed at Russian officials and companies. Last week, a new round targeted Russian financial institutions and blocked US bank loans to the country’s energy and defense businesses.

But the new, unilateral US sanctions are unlikely to have the desired effect on the Russian government unless the European Union joins the campaign. US trade and financial relations with Russia are miniscule; conversely, the European Union imports huge quantities of oil and natural gas from Russia, and Russia depends heavily on these energy exports to pay for a wide variety of essential imports. The European Central Bank is fully capable of providing loans that American banks cannot. To put it bluntly, the EU possesses much more commercial and financial leverage over Russia than the US does. EU trade and financial sanctions, added to those unilaterally imposed by the United States, would send a powerful message to Vladimir Putin.

But from the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Brussels has dragged its feet on following Washington’s lead in imposing economic sanctions, for the very reason that gives the EU its powerful weapon to bring Moscow to heel: trade and finance are a two-way street. The loss of Russian energy imports and Russian bond sales would adversely affect the European economies, just as the loss of the European trade and capital markets would harm the Russian economy.

The day after the downing of the commercial aircraft (most of whose passengers were Dutch), the British and Dutch governments called for a reevaluation of the EU’s relationship with the Russian Federation. If such reconsideration takes place, and if it results in the imposition of tough trade and financial sanctions equivalent to those imposed unilaterally by Washington, then the question, “Where is Europe as Ukraine burns?” will have been answered. But on Tuesday, EU foreign ministers balked at imposing truly tough sanctions on Putin’s regime. Until the Europeans prove willing to endure the economic consequences of sanctions against Russia (while seeking alternative sources of energy to lessen the pain), the Obama administration will be waging a lonely and probably losing campaign to preserve the political independence of a country far from the United States—but right in Europe’s backyard.

William Keylor, a professor of international relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies, can be reached at wrkeylor@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

22 Comments

22 Comments on POV: Where Is Europe While Ukraine Burns?

  • Anonymous on 07.24.2014 at 5:27 am

    Indeed where is the world? Where is the world while Gaza bleeds?

  • Sergei on 07.24.2014 at 6:50 am

    Honestly, never did I think BU was ever going to get this political in it’s news stories. You have to understand that a lot of people even at BU are pro-Russia. I for one fully support the Donetsk People’s Republic and it only takes an idiot to not acknowledge how much of a backlash any sanctions are going to have on the European economy. Instead, stop the sanctions and allow the people themselves decide if they want to join Russia or not.

    • David on 07.24.2014 at 9:59 am

      Mr. Sergei – this is not a ‘news story’ as you state. This is an opinion piece. Furthermore, if the people of eastern Ukraine are to be allowed to decide on their future nationality – the Russians need to stay out. Which they clearly have not. Economic sanctions are not a tool unknown to the Russians – they have on numerous occasions placed embargoes of natural gas on the Ukrainians in an effort to maintain control of the region. The Mr. Putin has had plenty of time to use his influence to foster democratic and economic reforms in Ukraine – he and his government and their puppets in Ukraine chose instead to perpetuate corruption and totalitarianism. Russia and Putin need to step down and step back.

      • Sergei on 07.24.2014 at 11:20 am

        I for one live in Russia and attend BU. I am half Ukrainian from Donetsk and Artyomovsk cities. I have been in Ukraine many times and can tell you that the majority in these cities are Russians and fully believe things are as good as they were under Yanukovich. Without Russia, Ukraine will fail. I love Russia and I am simply in BU to achieve degree and go back and serve my homeland. I do not like these liberal freedoms in the United States. It is better to live in a country of strict control and keeping everyone in line. It is simply the way I believe and my opinion.

        • Irene on 07.24.2014 at 11:46 am

          You are entitled to your values and opinions, Sergei, but so are the people of eastern Ukraine (Russophone or not) who may prefer rule of law and open political expression over “strict control and keeping everyone in line.” Given geography, history and so much mixed heritage, Ukraine can never be “without” Russia. This has repeatedly been acknowledged by the current government in Kyiv. None of that gives Russia the right to continue subjugating and colonizing its “little brother.”

    • YK on 07.24.2014 at 1:21 pm

      Sergei, whether or not you are pro-Russia (and Russia does not equal Putin) has little to do with Ukraine’s fight for the sovereignty of its borders and the safety of its people.

      While fully acknowledging that Russia and Putin are not synonymous, Russia is in a unilateral breach of international laws governing relations between countries and its own 1994 agreement with Ukraine to respect and protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its land.

      Putin’s policies of subjugation of its neigbours and land-grabbing are appalling. They have led to the deaths of hundreds of Ukrainians protecting its land from foreign invasion and is likely to bring many more. I suppose those are the people who do not to be under Putin “strict control and keeping everyone in line.”

      The EU’s weak response to Putin’s atrocities is quite telling; it is a testament to the fright the EU feels towards sadistic backlash that is likely to ensue as soon as the Russia-bully is reminded of the need to behave by international laws.

      Being a bully in a playpen has consequences as the history of European conflicts teaches and Putin and pro-Putin aggressors are well advised to heed the lessons.

      Finally, does it not strike you as ingenuous that for all your disdain for “these liberal freedoms in the US”, you use the freedom of speech to express your dissent without fear of repercussions?
      Hey, why not enjoy the freedoms while you can; upon return to the land of strict control, you will need to fall in line with the official opinion. On the other hand, maybe that is exactly what you doing already?

  • Peter on 07.24.2014 at 8:16 am

    This is not the business of the US, or even of the EU. They have already managed to do enough damage in Iraq, Afganistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, etc. CIA are provocateurs who should be working on our own southern border if they need some action.

  • Dee G on 07.24.2014 at 8:58 am

    As much as you do not want to see innocent people to die the Palestinians have also created a lot of those problems. Their leadership has failed them and they have given support to Hamas and other groups vent on the destruction of the state of Israel.

  • Irene on 07.24.2014 at 9:11 am

    There are also a lot of people at BU who are appalled at Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and not just instigation but continued direction of armed insurrection. Appalled also by Russia’s 1984-esque propaganda campaign whose big lies are apparently fooling even those with free access to evidence based information. People in Donetsk may have legitimate political complaints but Ukraine’s political system provides non-violent means of addressing them. Despite all its problems, Ukraine allows a relatively free press and political expression, in sharp contrast to Russia. Therein lies a powerful reason for Russian intervention….

  • AG on 07.24.2014 at 9:17 am

    The hypocricy of Russians who live in the West, like Sergei, and enjoy what the West can offer, but deny the possibility of the same liberal freedoms to people in Ukraine (or Russia, for that matter) is maddening. Or do you live in the West and despise the West at the same time? The so-called Dontetsk Rep is nothing but thugs supported by the rogue Russian government.

    • Peter on 07.28.2014 at 8:47 pm

      They are simply freedom fighters seeking independence from a fascist state that does not respect their ethnicity language and culture. The US is falling apart with the erosion of it,s culture, mainly driven by a anarchistic driven political regime, and supported by the mainstream media. People naturally seek order in their lives, but the future here is chaos.

  • MS on 07.24.2014 at 10:41 am

    Right after going through the worst financial crisis since the introduction of the Euro, which has left multiple European economies devestated you want the EU to stop importing 1/3 of its energy? 5 countries are even 100% dependent on Russian gas. The European continent doesn’t have enough gas to self-sustain even if all of it were extracted immediately. And the energy revolution that transitions to renewable energy is going as fast as possible (and has come along very far). Do you really expect that the dependency on Russian gas can be changed within a few months?

    And therefore sanctions will inevitably be more hesitant… do I think there should be sanctions? Of course! But let’s be honest, the US has in its days done worse things to ensure its supply of energy.

  • Dan on 07.24.2014 at 11:00 am

    The hypocracy of people living in the west is astounding, full stop. I live in Africa, and so rely entirely on the internet to keep in touch with modern political affairs. I can easily, and objectively, ascertain what reads as propoganda, as opposed to what investigative journalism propounds. This is an opinion piece, but the writer is obviously biased. Not a problem. Its when all, and I mean all, of your media (you live in the US, so read CNN, Fox, WP, NYT etc) are blasting out a very one sided opinion based story, its time to get suspicious. The information we recieve through the news outlets should by definition be neutral, investigative, and not propaganda, which by definition is misinformation…
    The truth is out there, and an opinion is an expression of our bias…
    Peace

  • Kostya on 07.24.2014 at 11:05 am

    I am quite appalled at BU today editor for allowing such a misguided and subjective op-ed. Mr. Keylor is definitely lacks objectiveness and it is scary that he is allowed under his professorship umbrella to teach to BU students. I only hope that his curriculum is not based on Tom Clancy’s novels. Why would not CAS hire someone like Stephen Cohen from NYU? Or at least let someone from Nation or Democracy Now to write an op-ed? Just as an example of trying to be objective in presentation please remember that in 1999 some allied countries did not care too much about “territorial integrity” of Serbia when Kosovo wanted to be independent. Or how about Salvador Allende in 1973? Did somebody object to the selection of Chilean people at the time? It is all well documented. C’mon Mr. Keylor…

    • IM on 07.24.2014 at 11:28 am

      Kostya, looks like you don’t understand the nature of op-ed. It is
      by definition an opinion piece and therefore subjective. If well done, it marshals factual evidence in support of its position. Do you dispute the evidence Professor Keylor presents? If so, counter his argument with other evidence. Your comments do not demonstrate having learned reasoned debate. Do you really think Stephen Cohen, who has long staked out the Russophile end of the “expert” spectrum, is any less subjective? Or that the Nation and Democracy Now do not represent a particular ideological perspective? Just because you agree with something does not make it objective or “true.”

  • Dimitrije on 07.24.2014 at 1:51 pm

    It is sad when one finds in a university paper an article totally in line with the official government policy. Since their creation, universities have been places of opposition to the government policy, to the establishment and to proclaimed social values. That was so in the US in the 1960s, I am old enough to remember it well. Alas, those times are gone; today I read in a university paper State Department propaganda interpreted by a fellow professor.

    • Paul on 07.24.2014 at 2:42 pm

      So every government policy is wrong and Universities should always oppose them? The 1960s was also very juvenile and destructive socially.

      In the US we happen to have many good laws and an outstanding Constitution that is worthy of the assent of the truly educated.

      Dissent for the sake of dissent is immaturity.

  • Just another BU parent on 07.24.2014 at 2:29 pm

    By hanging low, the people of the Ukraine (both Russian and Ukrainian) have proven themselves wiser than the politicians, thugs and pundits. If things go the way of Syria, we in the USA have nothing to lose. In fact, we may gain by having a new market for armaments. Europe and Russia has a lot more to lose. Any questions?

    A quarter century ago, Russia went for western-style freedom but China didn’t. China opted for economic growth, but Russia didn’t focus on its economy. Look at who is our dependable partner now. I think it will take some time before Americans and Russians can see eye to eye on the meaning of freedom and security; everyone can learn from any serious dialogue.

    It seems like wise Chinese parents opt to send their students to top US schools to study STEM fields, not international relations. Perhaps Sweden is the place to go for expertise in international relations?

    Peace and prosperity to all.

    • Concerned Human Being on 07.28.2014 at 2:44 pm

      “If things go the way of Syria, we in the USA have nothing to lose. In fact, we may gain by having a new market for armaments.”

      Are you serious? Is this what you’re looking for in international diplomacy? Screwing over and destabilizing countries so that you get a new market for armaments?

      I don’t think you realize that Russia beat you to that by flooding in cheap AK-47s. Maybe the Americans will take it one step further and flood the region with their own paid thugs armed with american and german weapons, wouldn’t that be great???

      Yeah man, peace and prosperity in the form of expanding the arms market! You’re a great student of international expansion!

      • Just another BU parent on 08.01.2014 at 12:04 pm

        … and where does Blackwater Securities fit into this picture?

        If diplomacy was quick and simple, the Middle East would be a great place to be. I was hoping for a way to take the high road.

  • Stop the hypocrisy on 07.24.2014 at 5:55 pm

    So where the hell is the US while Palestine is being torn apart? I hope we learn to stop pretending to care about things that we only care about for our own benefit. Disgusting situation. And what a biased article. So surprised to see this in an official BU site.

  • Zachary Bos on 09.11.2014 at 3:51 pm

    I wish I’d seen this well-made piece earlier; I fear that my efforts to spread it around the BU community now will be seen as too long after the fact to bring it any readers. Even so, spread it around I shall.

    I recently translated (well, to the point of co-writing) a guide on social media terms circulating in the Russian-language blogosphere in discussion about Russian’s violations against Ukraine. For those interested: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/08/new-slang-for-sevastopol-vladimir-savich-and-zachary-bos.

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