Europe headed for East-West showdown

Europe headed for East-West showdown
A man holding a Russian flag on the roof of the naval headquarters in Sevastopol yesterday. Three Russian flags were flying at one of the entrances to Ukraine's naval headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol yesterday, suggesting that at least part of the base was under the control of pro-Russian forces.

RUSSIA is facing a fresh round of economic sanctions as European Union heads of states and governments gather today in Brussels for an unprecedented second summit in as many weeks devoted to the crisis in Ukraine.

"This must be the occasion for a strong and coordinated European response to the new stage that has now been reached," said French President Francois Hollande, referring to the Russian decision to annex Ukraine's Crimea province.

But far from being alarmed by the prospect of sanctions, officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin are threatening their own retaliation against Europe. The continent is heading for an East-West showdown which, as British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned legislators in London, could last "for years".

The first round of sanctions unveiled by the EU at the start of this week concerned the freezing of assets and travel bans on 21 Russian businessmen and officials. The intention was to hit at Mr Putin's friends and financial backers who supported the forceful seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

But the exercise backfired when it became clear that, far from including the big oligarchs and other famous Russian decision-makers, the EU's "black list" was largely composed of nobodies, little-known individuals whose isolation would make not the slightest bit of difference to Moscow's behaviour.

One option scheduled to be discussed at the EU summit today is to heap additional pressure on the Putin government by issuing a further EU list of Russian officials banned from travelling to the West. The list could include, for instance, some ministers or the heads of Russia's energy utilities, who are Moscow's chief paymasters.

Yet getting a consensus on this will not come easy, especially since the Germans remain adamantly opposed to blacklisting energy officials due to Germany's dependency on Russia's oil and gas.

Nor are discussions about other potential sanctions faring any better. Britain has announced that it is halting military exports to Russia and has called on France and other EU member-states to do the same.

But British military-related trade with Russia amounted to only €102 million (S$179 million) last year, while France stands to lose €1.2 billion - 10 times that amount - should it cancel a contract to deliver two military ships to Russia.

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