Don't add to President Putin's catastrophe

Surely it is time for EU leaders to take stock and to try to see the situation through the other side's eyes

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One thing the European Union lacks is a united foreign policy, as has been all too evident in its response to the crisis in Ukraine. Although it was the desire of a majority of Ukrainians to join the EU – not now, but eventually – that triggered the crisis in the first place, the EU itself has failed to decide how it should respond to the awkward consequences of its popularity.

When Russia annexed Crimea after a rushed referendum, the EU condemned it strongly but could not agree on actions to back up its words – not least because so many of its members, including Germany, depend in varying degrees on Russian gas. Since then, each step in worsening the situation has prompted a repeat of the same response.

As it became obvious that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, was fomenting separatism in eastern Ukraine and arming the separatists, the EU's reaction was to condemn it and to discuss sanctions. Now the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Donetsk by a missile almost certainly supplied by Russia has been condemned and sanctions are being discussed, even as arms sales from Britain and France go ahead.

This incoherence may have led to the worst of both worlds. It means that the EU has struck a high moral tone while being unwilling to follow it through. We thus appear to be both weak and hypocritical.

Still, perhaps this is better than one option, which would be a united posture of confrontation. The centenary of the First World War has served as a reminder of the dangers of European conflict arising from the leaders of nations misreading each others' intentions. There are fewer excuses in these days of instant communications for the West's failure to understand how the world looks to Russian eyes. Yet there is still too little recognition here of Russian national feeling. That means that Western policy often fails to take into account the extent to which Russians see Ukraine as part of their historic motherland. We find President Putin's popularity in Russia puzzling, being so used to regarding our own leaders with contempt. And generally we have little idea of the way in which Russians see Nato – and to a lesser extent the EU – as trying to weaken, encroach upon and encircle them.

Because a majority of Ukrainians themselves were eager to leave the Russian sphere of influence, the EU failed to appreciate the sensitivities of those whose sphere was being rejected. Thus it was that when the crisis began, David Cameron's first instincts were to protect the interests of the City of London by avoiding financial sanctions (as revealed by a briefing paper caught on camera as an official carried it into No 10) and to keep the Government's focus on domestic policies for next year's election.

Surely it is time now for EU leaders to take stock, and to engage in the intelligent negotiating tactic of trying to see the situation through the other side's eyes. Were they to do that, they might see that Mr Putin's approach has been disastrous for Russia's long-term interest. His actions have strengthened Ukrainian opinion against Russia. As a matter of arithmetic, detaching Crimea from Ukraine has reduced the number of Russian-oriented people in Ukraine. As a matter of military strategy, Mr Putin risks being dragged into a local war he cannot win easily in eastern Ukraine. For him, the shooting down of a civilian aircraft has been a catastrophe: it has rallied world opinion against him and his separatist stooges.

For all our horror at the downing of MH17, the policy of the EU and its allies ought to be one of understanding Russian pride and of giving Mr Putin the space to pull back with dignity from a Ukrainian civil war in which he has nothing to gain.

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