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Opinion: No half measures

So far, the threat of comprehensive sanctions has frightened Brussels more than Moscow. They're the only way to impress Putin, says DW's Christoph Hasselbach.

The EU has appeared helpless over the past few weeks as the beautiful, old world order slowly broke down.

In that world order, East and West had found a peaceful balance. They respected the territorial integrity of the other; if borders were changed at all, it happened amicably, and only after a well-regulated round of negotiations and assurances of minority safeguards.

Brussels still has great difficulty adjusting to the new, old realities - to power politics, geopolitics and military thinking. The EU apparently has yet to process Crimea's annexation as the great turning point that it is. It now appears increasingly likely that Russia will also acquire a slice of eastern Ukraine, sooner or later. A couple of frozen bank accounts will not deter Vladimir Putin from his goal of restoring foregone Soviet glory to the greatest extent possible.

That's why each of Brussels' offers to Russia for dialogue has ultimately died in the void. Putin's one-off concessions are of a tactical nature. And, up to a certain point, he is quite willing to take economic hits and isolation.

Putin celebrates the national resurgence

So now the EU is tightening the sanctions screws a half-turn more. Who's supposed to be impressed? Definitely not Putin. The national prestige boost he celebrated during the recent Victory Day parade trumps a few grumbling oligarchs or a weakened ruble.

That said, the EU could still hit Russia where the country is sensitive - if only it really wanted to.

To do so, Brussels would have to actually wield the big stick, namely comprehensive economic sanctions. The very idea sends tremors through many EU governments, which don't want to hurt themselves, economically as well as politically.

While it's true that Russia is more economically dependent on the EU than the EU on Russia, politicians in the West have to sound the polls for the potentially negative financial news that might result. A man like Putin, with his "guided democracy," can simply skip that part.

Care to make a sacrifice for Ukraine?

The European Commission has now delivered to every individual EU member state a prognosis on the sort of damage that extensive economic sanctions would have upon them. The figures are secret - and for good reason. But the news site stern.de claims to have obtained them and has published them. Germany, for example, would go from strong growth this year to a slight decline in economic activity next year.

That means Western politicians have their hands tied: a drop of a few GDP decimal points and they can forget their re-election. They'll be asking themselves: Would workers in Germany or France be prepared to give up wage increases to keep eastern Ukraine ? Would they accept higher gas prices? Would the crisis-hit countries of southern Europe, which are slowly standing up on their own two feet again, be prepared to wait out recovery even longer in order to save a single principle of international law? The Poles or Estonians might be, even in the face of sacrifices: They know the value of independence from Moscow.

It's just that the question will never be formulated as such, because economic sanctions have to be decided upon unanimously.

The EU remains deeply divided. It has to decide. Brussels responded to Russia's annexation of Crimea with an outcry, but ultimately acquiesced. If the EU continues to maneuver half-heartedly and settle for dialog, it will be signaling to Putin that he has a free hand.

And then, no one should be surprised if, at some point, Russian troops end up in Moldova - or even Latvia.

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