The symbolic sanctions against Moscow passed on Thursday by the 28 EU members in Brussels coincided with a decision by the Crimean parliament to ask its two million citizens to join Russia via a referendum. This initiative, which can only have come from the Kremlin, has raised the level of the Ukrainian crisis, is driving Kiev to distraction and has accentuated Vladimir Putin's challenge. The situation in Ukraine is putting into stark contrast the West's inability to deal with a confrontation that requires firm convictions and the political will to defend them.
The European Union preaches a policy of principles, yet practices one of national interests, and this is especially true of its most relevant members. The application of rigorous economic and commercial sanctions against Russia, including a smaller dependence on its energy exports, would have hurt Moscow in an increasingly globalized and inter-dependent world. But nothing could be further from this than the catalogue of inane reprisals approved on Thursday, at an apparent emergency meeting held five days after the facts, by an EU facing the destabilization of Europe's largest country and the suppression of the democratic desire felt by many of its inhabitants. Brussels committed to providing 11 billion euros to prevent Kiev from going bankrupt, but Ukraine requires many more gestures than that in its hour of need.
The Kremlin is moving quickly and firmly. Putin is keeping all of his options open: he denies having invaded Crimea, rejects the legitimacy of the government in Kiev and has not ruled out the option of "helping out" other pro-Russian parts of Ukraine. The diplomatic efforts at bringing Moscow and Kiev to stand on common ground have failed. Following yesterday's move, Crimea will, in the worst-case scenario, join Russia in flagrant violation of international law. If not, it will become one more of the entrenched conflicts along the Russian border (South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabaj, Chechnya and others), regions that are outside the rule of law and are subjected to the Kremlin's designs.
The European Union preaches a policy of principles, yet practices one of national interests
Putin's determination has not just left the EU exposed. Barack Obama's final reply to the crisis, a timid list of selective sanctions, will stand out as a defining moment for his ability to lead the West. With regard to the situation in Ukraine - a geopolitical struggle that is characteristic of the Cold War in Europe - Obama has underestimated Putin's capacity for challenging the status quo.
A diplomatic resolution to the escalating conflict is theoretically still possible, as long as Moscow and Washington keep talking to each other. For obvious reasons, nobody in the West wants a prolonged confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, but avoiding it requires the kind of determination that has so far proven non-existent. Allowing Moscow to dismember a neighboring country with impunity, violating the red line of established borders, is not the best way to preserve peace in Europe.