As President Vladimir Putin officially completed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, David Cameron warned that any further military incursions into Ukraine would result in harsh and wide-ranging economic sanctions which could stretch to oligarchs with assets in Britain.
With the signing of a law incorporating the Black Sea peninsula into Russia, Mr Putin made official the act that triggered the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
The EU has been scrambling to come up with an appropriate response, and is split between nations that want it to hit Russia with all the punitive tools at its disposal, and those urging caution. Early on Friday, the EU’s 28 leaders agreed to add 12 more names to a list of 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials under visa bans and assets freezes for their role in the annexation of Crimea.
Also on Friday, the EU finally signed an association agreement with Ukraine. It was this document promising closer trade and political ties with the EU that sparked the crisis in November. After months of preparation, the then-President, Viktor Yanukovych, pulled out of signing it, sparking the months of street protests that eventually removed him from power.
Fearful of losing influence in the former Soviet state, Moscow sent troops into Crimea – home to a Russian naval base – and helped organised a hasty referendum on separation.
Such behaviour by Russia, Mr Cameron said, “belongs to the Europe of the last century not this one”, warning that unless Europe took a tough, united stance now, “we will face similar situations in similar countries”.
The EU has imposed trade restrictions on goods from Crimea and asked the European Commission – the bloc’s administrative arm – to draw up potential sanctions that would hit at the heart of the Russian economy. These would be implemented if Russia made further moves to destabilise Ukraine.
Mr Cameron spelled out the line Russia needed to cross: “If, for instance, Russian troops were to go into the east of the country, the Russians need to know that would trigger… far-reaching consequences in a broad range of economic areas.” Sectors to be investigated for potential sanctions “must include some of the key areas like finance, like the military, like energy”, he added.
The EU’s expanded sanctions list did not, however, go as far as one published by Washington a day earlier, which included a bank and oligarchs providing Russia with “material support”.
There is substantial Russian money in banks and property in Britain, and Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has suggested that the EU should target Premier League football club owners Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov. Asked about Mr Abramovich, Mr Cameron said: “We certainly haven’t ruled anyone out from this approach.” But he added that the EU approach differed from the US’s as the bloc had to demonstrate that people under sanctions had a link with Russian actions in the Ukraine.
While there have been divisions in the past few days, in the end, EU leaders valued a united approach. Many Baltic and Eastern European states have had to balance their concerns about the vulnerability of their proximity to Russia with their dependence on Russian energy supplies.
“Putin can understand only a strong stance from the EU,” said Dalia Grybauskaite, the President of Lithuania.
Mr Putin has brushed off all threats and sanctions, but Russian shares fell sharply yesterday after news that the country could be in for an economic blockade.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies