Crimea River

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Pic by Kanstantsin Lashkevich (Flickr)

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE GATEWAY

If it wasn’t for the bright yellow and blue rosette fastened to his lapel, the slumped figure ambling down a South London hill towards me would’ve blended seamlessly in with the fog of early evening commuters that surrounded him. As I got closer, I recognised the face, hidden behind a glum glare, from a protest I’d attended a fortnight before. It was Stepan Shakhno, a leading member and spokesperson for Euromaidan London, the UK arm of the Ukrainian protest group that helped overthrow the government in Kiev.

At the protest outside the City offices of a leading state-owned Russian banks, he’d been defiant, telling me that Russia should be sanctioned to the hilt by the west for its incursions onto Ukrainian territory; that the US and EU should subject Moscow to the same scything embargoes they enforced on Tehran. Now though, he seemed less buoyant. “The sanctions aren’t enough,” he told me, in reference to those placed on individual members of Putin’s inner circle and former members of the Ukrainian government.

Shakhno seems articulate and urbane. He speaks perfect English and works in the London offices of German oil and gas explorer RWE Dea. With his colleagues in Euromaidan London, he’s part of a growing group of young Ukrainians who wish their homeland to modernise and grow closer to the west. As we spoke, 1,610 miles away a garrison of Russian troops was amassing on the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian soldiers soon vacated their barracks’ in Crimea and the fear remains that Russia might launch an invasion into mainland Ukraine and perhaps even Russophile parts of Moldova and Georgia.

It’s a situation which has escalated perilously quickly. Late last year, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych postponed the signing of a treaty with the EU which would have given Ukraine access to visa-free movement of people and funds for modernising its infrastructure. The postponement was done so in the face of Russian ‘soft power’: President Vladimir Putin offered Kiev billions of dollars in financial support to renege on the agreement and threatened potentially crippling economic and trade sanctions if it didn’t.

In truth, it’s the kind of diplomatic policy favoured by the west. When a country steps out of line – Zimbabwe, Syria, etc – the west imposes sanctions. When it falls back in again – Burma, Iran – it lifts them. Similarly, when a country is ‘friendly’ to the west, it can expect to be lavished with aid and infrastructure investment (usually in return for economic reform, to bring it into line with the liberal doctrine favoured by the US and EU). Russia, it could be argued, has tried the same soft power model in Ukraine. But when it failed, they decided to take military action.

For many Ukrainians, who have long since lived in the Soviet shadow, it has been too much to take. Euromaidan took to the streets of Kiev shortly after the treaty was pulled and their protests, which have been replicated on smaller scales throughout Europe, led to the almost slapstick departure of Yanukovych.

The anger isn’t limited to the youth. I was in the audience at a commodities conference in London recently when an executive at Metinvest, a steel producer and one of Ukraine’s biggest companies, called Vladimir Putin “a criminal” and pled with the west to not stand idly by as the aggression continued. His daughter, he said, had been among the protestors in Kiev and had been subject to “the tyranny” of Yanukovych’s henchmen on the ground. It was a remarkable outburst from a man who conducts a large portion of his business within the Russian borders.

So what exact course of actions do the protestors want the west to take? I recently spoke with Chrystyna Chymera, another of Euromaidan London’s spokespeople, who said: “The token sanctions announced by the EU and US simply fail to target the individuals in the Kremlin and their financial backers responsible for the invasion and occupation in Ukraine. Ukrainians and Tartars in Crimea are fearful of their lives as Russian troops, tanks and paid thugs line the streets. We demand harsher sanctions that directly reach the pockets of Putin and those responsible for this illegal invasion.

“Even when it’s doing well, the Russian economy is fundamentally weak and propped up by high-gas prices. Of course Russian gas is important to Europe, but Putin knows that the euros and pounds flowing the other way are much, much more vital to the Russian economy. The UK, Europe and the US have the power to use financial pressure to stop Putin’s aggressive advances and interference in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. It simply a matter of political will, and they have no need to fear Putin’s bluffs that he will cut off the gas. The UK, Europe and the US can severely hamper Putin’s illegal invasion by stopping or at least reducing the amount of Russian gas they are importing.”

But for the members or Euromaidan, the unfortunate truth is that the west will likely use another unofficial form of diplomacy: appeasement. The rhetoric needs to be tough, but the action has thus far been tame. The sanctions placed have targeted peripheral members of Putin’s regime, along with one minor Russian bank, freezing their overseas assets and revoking visa rights. They are more token than anything else, but unless Russia launches a fully-fledged invasion of Ukraine, this is how things will remain. The political and economic will to sanction Russia’s trade and exports doesn’t exist in the corridors of European power. France, Germany and the UK, Europe’s three-largest economies, all import the majority of their energy from Russia in the form of oil and gas. Slapping sanctions on Russia would mean they have to look elsewhere, at a greater cost. Perhaps, one UK treasury employee told me jokingly recently, the stance might change with the weather, when energy demand falls in line with the departure of winter from Northern Europe.

Many Westminster figures are also opposed to tightening sanctions against individual Russians. What would happen to Chelsea FC if its oligarch owner Roman Abramovich’s assets were frozen, for instance? A Dutch banker told me recently that if Francois Hollande, France’s president, were to freeze Russian assets in Paris, then what is to stop Putin seizing those of French banks Société Générale and BNP Paribas in Moscow? It’s not a romantic conclusion, but the kind of realpolitik which rules the world. It’s difficult not to admire the earnestness of Shakhno and his cohorts; equally tough to dispel the fear that their efforts are in vain.

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