Just when EU foreign ministers had a chance to act decisively over Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine, they refused to jump at the opportunity. Instead, they put interests before values.

That was clear from their meeting of July 22. When a Malaysian civilian airliner was shot down on July 17 in a part of eastern Ukraine that is controlled by pro-Russian rebels, several European foreign ministers called on the EU to act and speak strongly with one voice. That didn’t happen.

Instead of imposing an arms embargo on Russia, the foreign ministers proposed a range of other sanctions. These include blocking Russian access to Europe’s capital markets and placing limits on military and other sensitive technologies. The measures may be finalized on July 24.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Russia would survive any EU arms embargo. Europe has imposed such a restriction on China for several years. That has not prevented Beijing from modernizing its armed forces and buying weapons from any number of other suppliers.

That is not the point. An arms embargo carries considerable significance. Yet as the foreign ministers’ meeting showed, interests prevailed over values. François Hollande, the French president, is determined to deliver on an agreement to sell a series of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia. The carriers can hold up to 16 helicopters, such as Russia’s Kamov Ka-50 or Ka-52, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles—including 40 tanks—and 450 soldiers.

Already in June, some 400 Russian sailors arrived in western France for training on a Mistral ship. There’s no turning back on this €1.2 billion ($1.7 billion) contract.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, railed against Hollande’s refusal to scrap the deal. But Cameron himself has been loath to clamp down on the many Russian oligarchs who have invested heavily in the City of London, the heart of the capital’s financial center. Indeed, it is precisely because he knows that the EU is weak when it comes to imposing the toughest of sanctions against Russia that Cameron can afford, for the moment, to speak out loudly and not bear the consequences.

Germany, too, has strong economic and trade ties with Russia that it wants to maintain. But there is a shift taking place among German company executives. The leaders of the Federation of German Industry have said that if German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to call for much more stringent sanctions on Russia, they would support her. But Merkel is reluctant to go down that path.

Instead, Berlin still believes in the diplomatic option. “I say we remain open to defusing the situation with all political and diplomatic means, but it will be necessary to accompany this willingness with higher pressure,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

However, that policy has had no effect on the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine—not to speak of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to stop destabilizing the country. Yes, Putin has used his influence to persuade the separatists to allow forensic experts unhindered access to the crash site of downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. That was only after he denied the Kremlin had any sway over them.

But that does not change the status on the ground. As the Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, told his counterparts at the July 22 meeting, “the Netherlands wants the European Union to make a united, and also [a] strong, clear statement against the unrest in eastern Ukraine.”

That means deciding about two things: power and priorities.

First, European leaders must ask themselves whether they are prepared to use their soft-power instruments to the full. Since hard power is out of the question in the current crisis, soft power is the only option.

The EU’s approach to Russia so far—a combination of weak sanctions and weak diplomacy—has not worked, because the big European countries fear that they too will be affected by tougher measures. At the same time, there are other countries, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, that are completely dependent on Russia for their energy. Despite that dependence, these countries are prepared to take the hit if further sanctions are imposed.

The second issue European leaders as a whole must address is whether they are prepared to put their values before national interests. Paradoxically, it is in Europeans’ common interests to protect and project the values that are the core of liberal democracies and to which civil society movements beyond Europe’s borders aspire.

So far, the wretched situation in eastern Ukraine, which has only been exacerbated by the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, has shown that Europe has little willingness to tackle this issue of values and interests.