At their extraordinary summit held today (6 March), called in response to the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, EU leaders demanded that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Crimea, grant access to monitors, and begin negotiations. If it does not comply, Moscow has been threatened with travel bans and an assets freeze, which could also hit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following a seven-hour summit which was called “stormy” by the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, EU leaders agreed on a tougher than expected warning to Russia, which was presented to the press by Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

During the summit, Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia and decided that a referendum on the status of the Ukrainian peninsula would take place on 16 March. It was announced that state property would be "nationalised", the Russian rouble adopted, and Ukrainian troops treated as occupiers and forced to surrender or leave.

The EU leaders' meeting will also be remembered for the presence of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk. Never before has an EU summit been attended by the leader of a non-EU country. As Van Rompuy said, this testified to the seriousness of the situation.

“Acts of aggression cannot be without consequences,” Van Rompuy stated. The Council President said that EU leaders considered the decision taken by Crimea’s parliament to hold a referendum as going against the Ukrainian constitution, and was therefore illegal.  EU Leaders strongly condemned Russia's “unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity", and called on Russia to immediately withdraw its armed forces and allow immediate access for international monitors.

Van Rompuy insisted that Russia's failure to engage in negotiations would have serious consequences for its relationship with the Union.

Some of the sanctions were adopted were already agreed on at a ministerial level. These included the freezing of the visa facilitation dialogue, putting on hold the talks for establishing a new bilateral agreement, as well as stopping preparations for the June G8 summit in Sochi.

On all these accounts, the Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told EurActiv that his country remained basically unimpressed.

‘Additional measures’

In addition, EU leaders warned that in the absence of a start of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, including through multilateral mechanisms such as OSCE, the EU may decide on additional measures, such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit. The Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) will begin preparatory work on these measures, Van Rompuy said.

“Any further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilise the situation in Ukraine would lead to severe and far reaching consequences for relations between the European Union and its member states, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation, on the other hand, which will include a broad range of economic areas,” the European Council President stated.

Regarding Ukraine, in addition to the assistance package of approximately €11 billion, decided yesterday, EU leaders decided that the political chapters of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement could be signed soon, before the Ukrainian Presidential elections scheduled on 25 May.

Asked if the travel ban and the asset freeze could also be targeted at Putin, Van Rompuy said he will answer this question “when the appropriate time comes”.

Speaking after the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if Russia was to adopt further destablising measures, or was to take military actions of some sort, then the EU’s relationship with this country would have far-reaching consequences, including broad-based economic measures.

“We made it clear that we would be ready to adopt such a measure in a third stage,” Merkel said.

Economic sanctions could be, however, a bitter pill to swallow also for the EU countries. The Russian parliament is reported to be preparing legislation allowing the confiscation of Western assets in Russia, as a response to possible economic sanctions.

Reportedly, EU countries have been divided on how tough the sanctions against Russia should be. The agreement reached however looks pretty tough compared to expectations and raises the question how determined would all EU countries be in case Russia decides to ignore the call to begin talks.

Poland and the Baltic countries are also reported to have raised the issue of “red lines” beyond which the Union needs to act decisively. These red lines are alleged to concern the territory of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, which may be further destabilised by Russia in the shorter term, as well as Moldova and Georgia.

World ‘going crazy’

As Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė told the press, having occupied Crimea, Russia is trying to redraw the neighbouring states’ borders, and that Moldova, the Baltic States and Poland could be next in line after Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk gave a press conference at the summit, in which he said that the world was “going crazy” and global security needed an overhaul.

Asked if he thought that “Russia is dangerous” as Grybauskaitė had said, he replied: “I would say, Russia is not friendly, as you probably realised. Having Russian boots on the ground, having Russian tanks is unacceptable in the 21st century. What’s happening to the global security? Are we going crazy? Is it acceptable that in the 21st century, with no legal grounds, with no reason, one country which possesses nuclear weapons just decides to invade another? So probably we need to do something with the global security, to overhaul the entire system? As this is not the end. God knows where is the limit, where are the boundaries.”