Washington, Europe getting serious about Russia sanctions over Crimea?

Almost two weeks after Russian troops began taking over the Crimean peninsula, Western nations have finally started taking a serious look at substantive sanctions. The European Union has drafted a seven-page proposal for applying sanctions on travel and financial assets for those responsible for the invasion. Reuters has an exclusive look at the document, which passed its first reading on a silent vote:


EU member states have agreed the wording of sanctions on Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes against those responsible for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

The seven-page document describes in detail the restrictive measures to be taken against Moscow if it does not reverse course in Crimea and begin talks with international mediators on efforts to resolve the crisis over Ukraine.

If approved by EU foreign ministers at a meeting on Monday, they would be the first sanctions imposed by the European Union against Russia since the end of the Cold War, marking a severe deterioration in East-West relations.

“Member states shall take the necessary measures to prevent the entry into, or transit through, their territories of the natural persons responsible for actions which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” reads Article 1 of the document.

The second article covers assets held in the European Union and states that “all funds and economic resources belonging to, owned, held or controlled” by those responsible for actions which have undermined Ukraine’s integrity “shall be frozen”.

The Washington Post reported earlier today that the West has finally decided to get serious, but it may be a little late for that. The government installed in Crimea will hold a plebescite on Sunday to give Crimeans a choice between annexation with Russia now, or … annexation with Russia later. The campaign is as thoughtful and open as one would imagine — in the Soviet era:


But ahead of a Sunday referendum on whether Crimea should remain in Ukraine or become part of Russia, billboards and posters popped up for what has become a one-sided campaign. The signs, all favoring Russia, boiled down the choice to one between being annexed to Russia or enduring fascism and Nazism by staying in Ukraine.

One billboard showed two maps of Crimea: one adorned with a swastika, the other with the tricolor stripes of the Russian flag. Another showed the acronym NATO with an X drawn over it in a way that suggests a vulgarity in Russian.

Crimean authorities are moving apace as if the referendum had already taken place. On Tuesday, the regional parliament voted to declare Crimea an independent state, a move evidently aimed at legally smoothing the way for the region’s annexation to Russia.

The 78 to 3 parliament vote was denounced by human rights and opposition activists, who have urged a boycott of the referendum.

Alex Mnatsakanian, a Moscow-based human rights activist now working in Simferopol, described pro-Russian Crimean leaders as a “locomotive” trying to rush through annexation under a thin cover of legislative decrees with no legal standing.

“They are trying to make a trick that will stop the world from blaming Russia,” Mnatsakanian said. “But if they are trying to put a good face on it, this is impossible with all the Russian forces who are everywhere in Crimea now. It is just a circus.”

That may also describe the efforts to apply sanctions by the EU. They depend on Russia for natural-gas imports, in part because they don’t like drilling and fracking to get their own. European officials are now pleading with the US to loosen restrictions on exporting liquid natural gas in order to hit Russia where it will really hurt — in its treasury:


But with Russian troops tightening their grip on Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, the advocates for more U.S. gas exports have added what they hope will be a compelling geopolitical argument to their quiver: The Obama administration and Congress can use the nation’s enormous gas reserves as a weapon to help Ukraine and other European countries break their dependency on Russian gas and thereby reduce Moscow’s political leverage over them.

“Russia has repeatedly used its supply of natural gas to pressure Ukraine economically and politically, and has announced that it will significantly increase its cost in a deliberate effort to squeeze Ukraine,” California Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing last week on the Ukraine crisis. “Fortunately, we have an option to counter this threat, namely reducing the current impediments to exports of American natural gas.”

The Ukraine crisis also has brought new players to the debate. European officials who want to reduce their dependency on Russian gas also have seized on the situation to mount a major lobbying campaign in Washington for new legislation to ease regulations on American LNG exports. Some of these countries, including Bulgaria, Sweden and the Baltic states, rely on Russia for 100 percent of their gas supplies, and Moscow has shown repeatedly it is willing to crimp supplies for leverage in political disputes. Just last week, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom threatened to cut off gas exports to Ukraine over unpaid bills, as it did in 2009.

Over the past few weeks, ambassadors from Eastern and Central Europe, the Baltic states and Greece have met with Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Edward Whitfield of Kentucky, to plead for a liberalization of the laws and regulations that limit U.S. gas exports. They also have conferred with Republican Michael R. Turner of Ohio, who sits on the Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform panels.

“The presence of U.S. natural gas would be much welcome in Central and Eastern Europe, and congressional action to expedite LNG exports to America’s allies would come at a critically important time for the region,” the ambassadors of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia wrote in a letter last week to Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, another outspoken supporter of expanding gas exports. “Energy security is not only a day-to-day issue for millions of citizens in our region, but it is one of the most important security challenges that America’s allies face in Central and Eastern Europe today.”


Russia will not hesitate to cut off or restrict its nat-gas exports to the EU in order to fight these sanctions. They have done the same with Ukraine in the past when it first threatened to spin into the West’s orbit after the 2004 Orange Revolution that first pushed Viktor Yanukovich out of power. That puts a rather literal spin on the term “cold war,” and it’s likely to be an accurate term if the EU continues with its sanctions. It will need another source of supply to neutralize the only economic weapon Russia has.

If the US wants to hit Russia over its seizure of Crimea, boosting LNG exports to Europe makes a lot more sense than travel restrictions for Russia’s oligarchs. It will create a lot more jobs here, too.

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