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Dramatic call with Ukraine leader prompted historic EU move to provide arms -Breaking


© Reuters. FILE PHOTO – Volodymyr Zeleskiy, Ukrainian President, talks to Reuters during an interview after Russia invaded Ukraine. This was in Kyiv on March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

John Chalmers

BRUSSELS – On Saturday morning, just 48 hours after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, President of Ukraine, called Brussels, calling from Kyiv, asking for assistance.

During the Feb. 26 phone call with the head of the European Council, the body that represents the European Union’s member states, Zelenskiy provided an update on Russia’s advance. He said he was proud of his country’s efforts to stem the blitz so far but that he was worried about a dwindling supply of arms, a senior European Union official told Reuters.

Zelenskiy’s message, according to the senior official: Can you help us with weapons? Could you help coordinate EU offer?

Charles Michel, the Belgian president of Council, asked for an inventory of weapons that Ukraine required, another EU official stated. They said Michel then contacted Poland’s prime minister to ask if his country would be the logistics hub for the equipment; Michel’s team drew up plans for a joint fund worth 500 million euros to finance the emergency arms, and shared Kyiv’s wish list with EU governments.

Ukraine saw the first arm deliveries arrive over the weekend.

Inside the futuristic glass Europa Building known as “The Egg”, the Council’s headquarters in Brussels, officials were already working on an unprecedented slew of sanctions agreed by the EU’s 27 member countries aimed at punishing Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. Then they started to line up even more.

The historic precedent set by the EU’s decision to supply weapons to Ukraine is even greater. This is the first time that the EU, which was established in the aftermath of World War Two to maintain peace on the continent, has provided weapons to third countries. The EU’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, described it as a “watershed moment” when the bloc announced the weapons funding plan Sunday.

This comes with the potential of further antagonizing Russia. Russia has been resentful about sanctions. “We know that it is a very thin line,” a third EU official said.

His office stated that Michel could not comment. On Sunday, Michel, President of the Council, addressed Ukrainian citizens, stating that they were not only defending their democracy, freedom and those of Europe as a whole. “That is why we in the EU have a political and moral duty to rise to this historic challenge,” Michel said.

Two senior EU officials refused to provide details about the weapons Zelenskiy asked for. Through a European peace facility, the EU is funding the weapons. It has also promised to fund 50 million non-lethal gear and 450 million euro of weapons. The anti-tank weaponry, as well the surface-to air missiles and machine guns of Germany have all been supplied or received so far.

The Ukrainian and Polish governments didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Zelenskiy pressed for greater assistance from the West during a joint interview on Tuesday with CNN and Reuters. Zelenskiy, speaking in an extremely guarded compound of the government, urged NATO to establish a no-fly zone to prevent Russian air forces.

Russia, which calls the invasion “a special operation,” has condemned the EU’s decision to fund the delivery of weapons to Kyiv. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said at a news briefing on Monday that Western arms supplies to Ukraine was “an extremely dangerous and destabilizing factor” and showed that Moscow was right to try to demilitarise its neighbour.


This latest crisis is just one of a number of that the EU has been facing in recent years. Others include an influx in migrants and refugees as well rising eurosceptic populism, Britain’s bitter departure, and a growing list of crises. There are deep divisions, and a rift ideological between Eastern and Western Europe over issues such as the rule of Law and the democracy in Hungary or Poland remains. This poses a serious threat to the EU.

EU has so far resisted imposing harsh sanctions on Russia. The EU did not stop short from imposing sanctions on Russian energy imports which are responsible for about half the country’s total export earnings. Germany is one of the EU’s most reluctant partners in the recovery from the pandemic. Russia supplies more than three quarters of Europe’s oil imports while Russia accounts for more than one-third of Europe’s gas imports. Inflation is already being stoked by a scarcity of energy resources.

But the speedy moves to help supply arms to Ukraine and impose sweeping sanctions demonstrated an exceptional level of speed and unity in responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression for an organisation that has long faced criticism for being dithering and quarrelsome.

The EU was immediately under public pressure after Putin officially recognized two regions of Ukraine on Monday, February 21st.

In a sudden turnaround the next day, Germany stopped the Nord Stream 2 Baltic pipeline’s start-up. This was designed to increase the Russian gas flow to Germany by doubling it. The next days saw a series of major German U-turns. Berlin pledged a drastic increase in military spending above 2% of national output and ended decades of not exporting arms and ammunition to war zones.

A senior German government official said the big shift in Berlin’s thinking began when Russian started launching airstrikes on Ukrainian cities and advancing troops and tanks across the border on Thursday, Feb. 24.

That evening, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz – in office less than three months – gathered with the EU’s other 26 leaders in Brussels for an emergency summit over dinner.

Many were subject to growing domestic protests and negative media comments for not supporting sanctions as opposed to Washington or London. Notable criticism was directed at the EU for refusing to remove Russia from SWIFT’s international payment system.

Michel, who chairs the bloc’s summits, had arranged for Zelenskiy to join the EU leaders’ emergency summit by video link from Kyiv. Two senior EU officials said that Zelenskiy was dressed in army fatigues and spoke from an apparent bunker. Zelenskiy’s concluding message, according to the second official: This may be the last time you see me alive.

The first official said, “There was an inexplicable silence.” “People were speechless. Some had tears in their eyes.”

His moving address prompted many in the room to question if the second package of sanctions they were meeting to approve was enough and whether events in Ukraine “meant we had to have the political courage to go further,” the first senior EU official said.

According to this official, it was at this point that more people supported punitive actions such as disconnection of Russian financial institutions from SWIFT, which is the global dominant payment system and personal sanctions against Sergei Lavrov and Putin.


The EU leaders’ doubts about whether they were doing enough were echoed the next morning by former European Council President Donald Tusk, who publicly criticized the leaders for not going far enough with sanctions. “In this war everything is real: Putin’s madness and cruelty, Ukrainian victims, bombs falling on Kyiv,” Tusk tweeted, adding that the EU’s sanctions were just a pretense.

By Monday, the EU had added to an array of financial, energy, export and travel bans beyond what was agreed at Thursday’s summit. The additional measures included the freezing of Russian central bank assets, the closing of EU airspace towards Russia and sanctions against a number of Russian tycoons. It had also agreed to block SWIFT from a few Russian banks, a move that was intended to limit their global operations.

The sanctions were supported by even Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban who has openedly maintained warm relations with Russia.

While much of this was coordinated with the United States and Britain, one senior EU diplomat said the speed and scope of Brussels’ response to the crisis was unparalleled in its history. After the August 2020 election, Belarus’ president had crushed protests and it took over a year for the EU to issue several sanctions. They were less severe than sanctions that it had imposed against Russia within a matter of weeks.

“I am not sure we should use the words ‘coming of age’ but it’s definitely a paradigm shift,” said the senior diplomat, referring to critics who have long dismissed the EU as a “giant NGO.”

It was also agreed by the EU that Ukrainians fleeing war have the right to work and stay in the EU for up to 3 years. This proposal will be approved by the EU on Thursday. It is the first use of a mechanism that was created after the 1991 war in Balkans. That move marked a stark contrast to the deep discord in 2015 over a flood of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia that tore at the bloc’s cohesion.

Zelenskiy, in spite of the impressive series of EU steps that were taken within a matter days, is still looking for more. Zelenskiy called on European leaders Tuesday to show that they supported Kyiv just days after Ukraine requested membership. Any membership process will be long and difficult, even if it manages to avoid falling back under Moscow’s domination.

“Do prove that you are with us,” he said.