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EU finance ministers face the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened. Last night, the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers made little progress bar agreeing that they needed to agree quickly.
Intractable issues such as who decides when a bank is failing, how a decision is taken to wind down a failing bank, what is the precise role of the European Central Bank, European Commission and European Parliament and how long it will take to build up a fund from bank levies to pay for failing lenders all have to be sorted out.
Plan A was for the fund to be built up over 10 years and then be pooled but critics say that leaves the bloc’s governments exposed for too long.
European governments disagree not only amongst themselves on the details but also with the European Parliament, which must give its blessing before the project can become law.
Shots were fired at an international team of monitors in Crimea over the weekend, violence flared in Sevastopol as thousands staged rallies and Angela Merkel, who perhaps has the most receptive western ear to Vladimir Putin, rebuked him for supporting a referendum on Ukraine’s southern region joining Russia. But in truth we’re not much further forward or backwards in this crisis.
The West from Barack Obama on down has said the referendum vote next Sunday is illegal under international law but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle if Ukraine’s southern region chooses to break away. The best guess – but it is only a guess – is that barring an accidental sparking of hostilities, there is not much percentage in Russia putting its forces in Crimea onto a more aggressive footing in advance of the vote.
By Pierre Briançon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The Western governments wondering what Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine should start by focusing on what he doesn’t. That has become a little clearer after the Russian president’s rambling press conference earlier this week, during which glimpses of rationality appeared amidst a long, disingenuous rant against the new authorities in Kiev. Putin doesn’t want Crimea - which is only a pawn in his Ukrainian game. He is not ready to take the risk of a Western-style democracy in the former Soviet republic. And he fears the disruption of the economic and financial ties that bind Russia and Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin said this morning Russia and the United States are still far apart over Ukraine. Moscow, he said, could not ignore “illegitimate decisions” imposed on the east and south of the country and calls for help by ethnic Russians there but the two powers should not sacrifice relations over it.
In an hour-long telephone call last night Barack Obama urged Putin to accept the terms of a potential diplomatic solution to the crisis whereby Moscow would keep its military bases in Crimea while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty. But he also ordered sanctions – including travel bans and freezing of assets in the U.S. - on people responsible for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine though Putin himself is not on the list.
Foreign ministerial talks in Paris yesterday made little progress on Ukraine. Russia rejected Western demands that its forces in Crimea should return to their bases and its foreign minister refused to recognise his Ukrainian counterpart. Moscow continues to assert that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under its command. The West is pushing for international monitors to go in.
Today, at least some of the focus switches to Brussels where EU leaders will hold an emergency summit with a twin agenda of how to help the new government in Kiev and possible sanctions against Russia. On the latter, Europe has appeared more reticent than Washington not least because of its deep financial and energy ties, none more so than Germany and Britain.
The end of Russian military exercises near the Ukrainian border and Vladimir Putin’s statement that force would only be used as a very last resort seemed to have taken some of the tension out of this crisis but the situation remains on a knife edge.
Moscow chose to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile though Washington said it had been notified of plans to do so before the standoff in Crimea blew up. And there is always the possibility of conflict being triggered inadvertently.
A reported 0300 GMT deadline, which Russian forces denied had been issued, for Ukraine’s troops to disarm in Crimea or face the consequences has passed without incident and in the last hour President Vladimir Putin has ordered troops that took part in military exercises in western Russia to return to base.
That has helped lift the euro but the situation remains incredibly tense. Russia’s stock market is up a little over two percent and the rouble has found a footing but they are nowhere near clawing back Monday’s precipitous losses.
Is it war if no shots have been fired? The Ukrainians say so but Moscow, its grip on Crimea now pretty much complete, says it is merely protecting its people. The rest of the world and its financial markets watch on very uneasily.
There is virtually no chance of any western military response after Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour – NATO expressed "grave concern" but did not come up with any significant measures to apply pressure on. But there will be a diplomatic and economic price to pay.
Russia’s next move remains the great unanswered question for Ukraine but there are glimmers that things might be starting to move elsewhere.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said last night she would send a technical support team to Ukraine soon if Kiev makes a request. It can’t do so until an interim government is formed, probably tomorrow. That would be step one, but only step one, down the road to an international aid package.
If the hastily drawn up timetable is adhered to an interim Ukrainian government will be formed today. Whatever the line-up, it is likely to repeat its urgent call for aid.
The West, led by the EU, is trying to drum up support – Brussels has already talked with Japan, China, Canada, Turkey and the United States on possible help -- but the signals are that big money will only flow after May 25 elections when a permanent government is in place. Can it wait that long? The IMF adds that conditions it imposed on a previous loan offer would still apply, strings that it would be tough for any government in Kiev to meet.