Ukrainians protest in the City

Businesspeople from the beseiged eastern European nation are speaking out against Russia in London, reports Finbarr Thomas

If it wasn't for the bright yellow and blue rosette fastened to his lapel, the slumped figure ambling down a South London hill towards me would've blended seamlessly in with the fog of early evening commuters that surrounded him.

As I got closer, I recognised the face, hidden behind a glum glare, from a protest I'd attended a fortnight before. It was Stepan Shakhno, who works in the London offices of German oil and gas explorer RWE Dea and is a leading member and spokesperson for Euromaidan London, the UK arm of the Ukrainian protest group that helped overthrow the pro-Russia government in Kiev.

Current sanctions aren't enough

At the protest outside the City offices of a leading state-owned Russian banks, he'd been defiant, telling me that Russia should be sanctioned to the hilt by the west for its incursions onto Ukrainian territory; that the US and EU should subject Moscow to the same scything embargoes they enforced on Tehran. Now though, he seemed less buoyant.

"The sanctions aren't enough," he told me, in reference to those placed so far by the EU and the US on peripheral members of Putin's regime and one minor Russian bank. Shakhno seems articulate and urbane. With his colleagues in Euromaidan London, he's part of a growing group of young Ukrainians who'd like their homeland to modernise and grow closer to the west.

It's not just young Ukrainians in the business world who are angry. I was in the audience at a commodities conference in London recently when an executive at Metinvest, a steel producer and one of Ukraine's biggest companies, called Vladimir Putin "a criminal" and begged the west to not stand idly by as the aggression continued.

His daughter, he said, had been among the protestors in Kiev and had been subject to "the tyranny" of Yanukovych's henchmen on the ground. It was a remarkable outburst from a man who conducts a large portion of his business within the Russian borders.

What the protestors want

So what do the protestors want the west to do? I recently spoke with Chrystyna Chymera, another of Euromaidan London's spokespeople, who said: "The token sanctions announced by the EU and US simply fail to target the individuals in the Kremlin and their financial backers responsible for the invasion and occupation in Ukraine."

"Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea are fearful of their lives as Russian troops, tanks and paid thugs line the streets. We demand harsher sanctions that directly reach the pockets of Putin and those responsible for this illegal invasion."

"The UK, Europe and the US can severely hamper Putin's illegal invasion by stopping or at least reducing the amount of Russian gas they're importing."

Why tougher action won't be taken

Unless Russia launches a fully-fledged invasion of Ukraine, things are likely to remain as they are. The political and economic will to sanction Russia's trade and exports doesn't exist in the corridors of European power. France, Germany and the UK, Europe's three largest economies, all import the majority of their energy from Russia in the form of oil and gas.

Slapping sanctions on imports of Russian oil and gas would mean they'd have to look elsewhere, at a greater cost. Perhaps, one UK treasury employee told me jokingly recently, the stance might change with the weather, when energy demand falls in line with the departure of winter from Northern Europe.

There's also opposition to tightening sanctions against individual Russians and Russian businesses. What would happen to Chelsea FC if its oligarch owner Roman Abramovich's assets were frozen, for instance? A Dutch banker told me recently that if Francois Hollande, France's president, were to freeze Russian assets in Paris, then what's to stop Putin seizing those of French banks Société Générale and BNP Paribas in Moscow?

This is the kind of realpolitik that rules the world. It's difficult not to admire the earnestness of Shakhno and his cohorts, but equally tough to dispel the fear that their efforts are in vain.

Photo: Duncan C