March 2. 2024. 2:02

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How Europe prepares to support Ukraine for ‘as long as it takes’

As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion nears, Kyiv and its Western allies are looking at how to keep up sustained long-term support. To do so, this could see the EU entering unchartered territories.

Sustaining Ukraine’s fight and EU unity while keeping the war from escalating into a potentially disastrous global conflict is one of the bloc’s biggest foreign policy challenges to date.

Ukraine said its forces had repelled Russian assaults along the length of the front line on the eve of the war’s anniversary, as President Vladimir Putin, empty-handed after a bloody winter offensive, talked up Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

“We will continue to do whatever it takes to defend Ukraine’s freedom,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told EURACTIV at the beginning of this year.

“[Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin underestimated the EU’s and our partners’ powerful reaction and the unity we have demonstrated after his invasion, and this unity is one of our main assets,” Borrell said.

But while the EU seems now to be on firmer footing, European officials and diplomats worry that unity is fragile.

Sanctions and how to keep them

Since Russia invaded Ukraine the bloc’s member states have started to systematically cut all economic ties via nine sanctions packages adopted by EU leaders.

The proposed tenth “anniversary” package includes trade curbs worth more than €11 billion, according to the European Commission, barring EU exports to Russia of tech equipment and spare parts that could be used on the battlefield.

But while EU member states have shown unprecedented unity in their sanctions policy toward Russia – albeit with a few hiccups here, here and here – the question of when the bloc might reach ‘peak unity’ on sanctions remains.

Arms and ammo: ‘As long as it takes’, but how?

If there’s a question mark over how long Russia can keep fighting the war in Ukraine, it’s also unclear how quickly Ukraine can get what it needs to shorten Moscow’s time.

As Ukraine is pressed to defend against a potential Russian offensive towards spring, the biggest constraint on the Ukrainian side will be the availability of materials such as armoured vehicles and ammunition.

A Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting in January broke the NATO member states’ taboo of delivering heavy ground combat capabilities, but so far, the number of Western-made tanks that have reached Ukrainian soil remains low.

As Europeans have moved from breaking the bloc’s defence taboos, one after the other, first with the use of the European Peace Facility for Ukraine, support for the joint purchase of ammunition is gaining traction among EU member states.

EU breaks ‘taboo’ to finance purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine

In a ‘watershed moment’ for its defence policy, the EU on Sunday (28 February) agreed to unblock some €500 million for members states to buy arms for Ukraine’s armed forces, hoping to stop Russia’s invasion.

Now, EU officials and diplomats agree that it seems more a matter of when and how, not if, the Commission will be granted the powers to negotiate ammunition contracts on behalf of the bloc’s member states.

According to a proposal by Estonia earlier this month, the bloc should pool resources to accelerate ammunition production and deliveries to Ukraine in a mechanism akin to the one used during the COVID-19 pandemic to jointly acquire vaccines.

EU foreign ministers discussing the idea on Monday (20 February) said there is little time to waste, with the bloc’s officials and diplomats mostly agreeing such an approach would be more efficient and cost-effective than member states placing orders individually.

“Our immediate priority remains to deliver to Ukraine. Time is of the essence,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell wrote in a letter to EU member states, seen by EURACTIV, a day later, urging them to send Kyiv ammunition from their own, current stocks immediately.

Borrell confirmed the EU is working on proposals to jointly procure ammunition, ramp up production capacity and refill stocks. One option on the table is the European Peace Facility, the EU’s intergovernmental weapons kitty currently used to reimburse member states for their military support to Ukraine.

In parallel, the EU is also looking into setting up joint procurement projects, including on ammunition, through the European Defence Agency (EDA).

An options paper is expected when the bloc’s defence ministers meet in two weeks in Stockholm, with EU senior officials stressing the matter is “treated with utmost urgency” and “needs to be resolved in a matter of weeks”.

But with needs on the rise and European support adopting an ‘as long as it takes’ mentality, some European diplomats have started to suggest a shift when it comes to Western responsibility.

“With the growing amount of more sophisticated Western weapons we’ll be providing to Ukraine in the long run, there will need to be a discussion about our say how this war ends,” one Western European diplomat told EURACTIV in Munich, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Peace plans multiply

In the run-up to the anniversary, there’s a flurry of diplomatic activity both in Russia and the West, with the singular focus on weapons deliveries starting to shift towards consideration of a post-war order.

Zelenskyy first announced his 10-point peace formula, supported by the EU, at the G20 summit in Bali last November, urging world leaders to hold a Global Peace Summit based on it.

But others are weighing into the post-war peace discussion, too.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surprised some of his counterparts last weekend at the Munich Security Conference with a bold but vague proposal for a new “charter” to assure Ukraine’s long-term security.

China announced support for peace talks, which will come in the form of a position paper on the political settlement of the war.

President Xi Jinping is expected to make a “peace speech” on Friday, but Ukraine says there can be no talk of peace while Russian troops occupy its territory.

For Ukraine, however, it is clear that it will not agree to any peace plan “at any price” as past experience has shown that no compromises are possible with Russia.

“No concessions, no compromises are possible, not over the smallest square metre,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters in Munich over the weekend, adding it would be in Ukraine’s interest that China plays a role in the search for peace, but that its territorial integrity is not negotiable.

After Munich, Beijing’s chief diplomat Wang Yi met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday (23 February), in the first visit by a top Chinese official since Russia’s invasion.

“The sequence is interesting because in Munich Yi met with a number of Western high-level officials including Blinken, Borrell and Kuleba, going only afterwards to Moscow, not before,” one EU diplomat, who was present at the Munich Security Conference, pointed out.

A European Commission spokesperson said that the EU would “not have all elements to evaluate the [Chinese] peace plans”.

Accession talks with meaning

For Ukraine, EU accession efforts go in parallel with the country’s war efforts. For the EU, this year will be about deciding how hard it is going to fight to keep Ukraine in its sphere.

On the issue of the EU membership bid, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy voiced hopes Kyiv could start opening “the dialogue about our future within the EU” this year, not least because it is a way of motivating Ukraine’s armed forces.

“We need [#EU accession talks] this year (…) And this year, Charles, when I say it, I mean this year — 2-0-2-3,” #Ukraine’s @ZelenskyyUa told @eucopresident.

As quickly as things move, the latter will likely have the task to rally member states on this issue by end of year.

— Alexandra Brzozowski (@alex_owski) February 9, 2023

“We are not starting from scratch here,” Igor Zhovkva, Zelenskyy’s foreign policy advisor, told EURACTIV after the summit.

“Large parts of the Association Agreement have been implemented, and now we have the EU-Ukraine action plan of integrated sectors and economic growth – this is about concrete things, and it’s irreversible,” Zhovkva said.

“De facto, everybody understands Ukraine already belongs to the EU – Ukrainians are working in the EU, economies are integrated, there’s visa-free travel…,” he added.

“After the victory of Ukraine, the geopolitical circumstances will change severely, and so will the political decisions,” Zhovkva concluded.

But while Zelenskyy received a hero’s welcome in Brussels earlier this month, EU leaders remain cautious about making accession promises.

It’s true that for the EU, enlargement is no longer a one-way street, but many in Brussels don’t see it as a highway either.

The European Commission is set to release its assessment of Ukraine’s progress later this year, with an oral presentation of the EU executive’s seven reform recommendations expected in spring and the formal enlargement package in autumn.

Ukraine rushing to show progress on EU-bound reforms

Ukraine is pressing ahead with reforms like never before, despite the ongoing war, Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told EURACTIV as Kyiv is racing to demonstrate progress in the face of growing signals that it is unlikely to get preferential treatment on its EU path.

Provided that positive progress is noted in those reports, some EU officials and diplomats say that there could be two crucial summits.

One in October (26-27), which could formally discuss the accession matter for the first time, and the other in December (15-16), which could see EU leaders making a decision.

“There are two factors that play in Ukraine’s favour,” an EU senior official with knowledge of the enlargement portfolio told EURACTIV recently.

“First, EU top leaders, and especially Von der Leyen, seem to have tied their legacy to Ukraine’s accession process,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“And second, should progress go hand in hand with victory on the battlefield, it will be difficult to say ‘no’ to Kyiv – whether that’s in the short-term, it needs to be seen, but that definitely applies in the long-term,” the official added.