Europe divided over Russia as NATO meets on Ukraine crisis


NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses the media in Brussels on Tuesday. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

NATO members held emergency talks about the crisis in Ukraine on Tuesday and pledged their “solidarity,” but there were signs of division in Europe over how to respond to Russia’s intervention in Crimea.

Among the biggest obstacles to consensus: Fears dating to the Cold War are running up against the economic clout of the new Russia.

In the former Eastern bloc, political leaders and the populace are seeing the ghost of the Cold War. A nervous Poland, where Lech Walesa stared down the Soviet Union in the 1980s, called Tuesday’s snap meeting of NATO members by invoking a rarely used lever available to members who believe their security or territorial integrity is under threat.

Like the United States, Poland is seeking a relatively aggressive stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for diplomacy but also preparations for economic sanctions and other punitive steps.

Other European powers have offered harsh condemnations of Russia’s military moves while keeping one eye on the economic interests they have cultivated with Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry met with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and the acting Ukrainian foreign ministry delegation to discuss the situation in Crimea. (Reuters)

Russia is Germany’s fourth-largest trading partner outside the European Union and its largest supplier of energy.

Among the French companies with vast investments in Russia is Renault, which is partly owned by the French government. Through a partnership with Nissan, Renault is set to boost its ownership in Russia’s largest automaker to nearly 75 percent this year.

Among Russian oligarchs, London is affectionately known as “Moscow on the Thames.” Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, a close Putin ally, owns the Chelsea soccer club. In the City — London’s financial district, which drives a substantial portion of the British economy — Russian money is courted as king, with ice-cold vodka and caviar a staple on the menus of elegant restaurants.

Given that Europe has a much greater economic relationship with Russia than does the United States, securing its cooperation will be paramount to any effort by Washington to secure significant sanctions. Yet that relationship will not be lightly jeopardized, observers say, even in the defense of a fellow European nation under threat.

A briefing paper caught on camera as a British official walked into No. 10 Downing St., for instance, indicated that the British government is advocating rigorous diplomacy over sanctions.

“The European position is a mess,” said Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think it’s quite chaotic and hit-and-miss, and there’s no unanimity as to what to do.”

In Brussels, the NATO meeting broke up with a brief statement asserting that “allies stand together in the spirit of strong solidarity” and promising to “support all constructive efforts for a peaceful solution to the current crisis.” Russian and NATO officials were set to meet in Brussels on Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected Moscow's argument that there is no "legitimate" government in Kiev.

On Monday, European foreign ministers had appeared to rally behind a limited plan of action, including ending preparations for a Group of Eight meeting in Sochi, Russia, and potentially suspending talks on easing visa requirements for Russians.

But as European leaders prepared to convene Thursday to solidify a plan, it was clear that divisions over how and whether to impose sanctions remained. Following Tuesday’s NATO meeting, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, whose country led the effort to bring Kiev closer to the E.U., told reporters that “the rest of the Europe is sometimes half a phase behind us.”

It was also clear that major powers in Western Europe were seriously alarmed and might be compelled to take bolder action.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking to Parliament on Tuesday, said the photographed document “should not be taken as a guide” to the government’s response, adding, “Our options remain open.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was pressing for international mediation between Ukraine and Russia. But he added, “If we don’t agree on decisive steps towards an international agreement . . . then I expect the discussion [among European leaders on Thursday] will proceed in a way that measures will indeed be decided upon.”

Virtually no one in official E.U. circles, be they east or west, is calling for NATO boots on Ukrainian soil. But east of Berlin, there is no doubting the larger sense of alarm over a newly belligerent Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, three nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have joined NATO, as have its former Warsaw Pact allies. Particularly among those countries, and far more than during Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008, the Crimean intervention is stoking terrifying memories that were always just below the surface.

“For these countries, their worst fears are materializing,” said Igor Sutyagin, a fellow at RUSI, a London-based military think tank. “They have been saying for years that Russia is unpredictable, that anything might happen. And now it has.”

On Tuesday, the Estonian newspaper Ohtuleht published an editorial expressing concerns about the economic links between Russia and Western European economies dependent on its gas supplies. “What government would dare to suggest to its voters to spend the next winter in a cold apartment just because of a peninsula nobody can point out on the map?” the editorial said. But it warned that “every bit of compliancy will only increase the appetite of the aggressor,” adding that “for us Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, this is particularly painful.”

In Prague, where Soviet tanks rolled in after a Western-leaning government came to power in 1968, the Ukrainian crisis has stirred deep-seated fears. The Czech daily Lidove Noviny compared Putin to Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time.

“The decisive factor for Putin isn’t whether the Russian minority in Ukraine really is under threat,” the paper said in an editorial. “He wants to demonstrate that Russia calls the shots and that the sovereignty of other nations on its border is no more than a scrap of paper.”

Under debate now are the tools to be used to pressure Russia diplomatically. Andrejs Pildegovics, Latvia’s state secretary for foreign affairs, said his nation is trying to build a consensus for a diplomatic solution while keeping “sanctions on the table.”

“Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it is not under the nuclear umbrella, and there are no obligations to protect it,” he said. “But it is part of Europe, and we can’t forget that.”

Karla Adam in London and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed tothis report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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