LISBON, Portugal — While European governments were struggling to agree on the names of a handful of Russians they could blacklist in response to the latest mayhem in Ukraine, one of the continent’s preeminent elder statesmen was out partying with his old buddy Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president was a guest at a caviar-and-champagne 70th-birthday bash Monday for former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
The pair were snapped hugging outside the palatial venue of the late-night soiree, which was hosted by Schroeder’s employer, a pipeline operator that pumps gas to Germany for the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Although the German government was quick to distance itself from the festivities, the party in St. Petersburg symbolizes how an ambivalent approach in much of Europe toward Putin’s destabilization of Ukraine is crippling efforts to build a resolute EU response.
“The latest sanctions show that Europe doesn’t have the spunk or the solidarity, or the political will and unity to actually take a tough stance against what Russia is doing in Ukraine,” says Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Europe think-tank.
“It says an awful lot about Europe’s lack of political courage,” Dempsey added in an interview from her base in Berlin.
Foreign Ministers from the 28 European Union nations agreed two weeks ago to extend the list of Russian officials and their Ukrainian friends to be subjected to an asset freeze and ban on travel to the EU.
Then they spent two weeks dithering over the names while armed pro-Moscow gangs ran amok through much of eastern Ukraine, comforted by presence of 40,000 Russian troops deployed just over the border.
The list of 15, finally published Tuesday morning, contains a trio of big names: Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, armed forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov and head of military intelligence Igor Sergun.
Unlike the United States, which targeted Putin cronies and their companies in new sanctions announced on Monday, the EU list avoids hitting members of the president’s inner circle or their business interests.
EU countries that had lobbied for a stronger line are frustrated, concerned that the limp response is encouraging the Russians to extend their romp in Ukraine.
“I cannot be satisfied,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told GlobalPost.
“We can see that the situation is not getting better, it’s deteriorating. That means the measures we are taking are not enough,” he said in a telephone interview. “We need to take these targeted measures against those who are really taking decisions, the inner circle of the leadership.”
Some put it less diplomatically.
“Very weak EU sanctions list. Deliberately avoided touching any of Putin’s money. Will come back to bite EU in the ass,” tweeted Bill Browder, a London-based businessman. Browder has been a vocal Putin critic since his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died in a Russian jail in 2009.
The Kremlin duly condemned the EU sanctions, ridiculed the Europeans as tools of Washington and threatened dire consequences.
But the measures were less than expected and reflect division among the EU states.
From Spain to Bulgaria, Germany to Cyprus, many EU members are wary of taking strong action against Putin. Some are worried about provoking the Russian leader to even stronger action.
Others fear the impact of sanctions on their own economies.
That’s a clear source of frustration in countries such as Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, which are lobbying for a stronger EU line even though their economies are among the most exposed to Russian economic pressure.
“Of course we are taking a risk,” Linkevicius said. “We are dependent 100 percent on gas supplies from Russia, but if our position is not clear, the other side will see it as a weakness.”
Still, many in Western and Southern Europe see the Ukraine crisis as distant. They wonder why they should get into a fight with a belligerent, nuclear-armed wannabe superpower over a faraway country with which they feel little empathy.
Those divisions have also hamstrung NATO’s response to the crisis.
Although the alliance has made a symbolic deployment of fighter jets and warships eastward to assure exposed allies that it stands ready to defend them from any spillover from Ukraine’s conflict, the likes of Poland and Estonia want a more permanent basing of allied troops on their territory.
Sources at alliance headquarters in Brussels say military planners are furious that their hands have been tied by politicians in more cautious allied members.
Germany is key. Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the few Western leaders to whom Putin listens.
But even though three German military officers are among members of an international monitoring mission taken hostage in eastern Ukraine and paraded by a pro-Moscow rebels as NATO spies, Berlin remains among the European capitals most opposed to stronger Western action.
The government in Berlin has criticized Schroeder’s St. Petersburg shindig and pointed out that the former chancellor left active politics after his election defeat by Merkel in 2005.
However, German news media reported the event in the ornate Yusupov Palace was also attended by other senior Germans, including Philipp Missfelder, parliamentary foreign affairs spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party. Erwin Sellering, governor of the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and a leader of the Social Democratic Party of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was also reportedly present.
Sellering has been enthusiastically promoting business ties with Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis.
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Not everyone in Western Europe is happy about that.
As pro-Russian units stormed more government buildings in eastern Ukraine Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius threatened that the EU would introduce wider economic sanctions next week if Moscow does not move to de-escalate the crisis.
But he can expect resistance, and without concerted action, such threats are starting to look empty.
“We are speaking loudly… but carrying no stick,” former Czech Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra told a security conference in Washington. “We have to respond with some strength, this is what these guys understand.”