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Inside the European Union's response to the Russia-Ukraine war

A Ukrainian police officer stands in front of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian police officer stands in front of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
This article is more than 1 year old.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zalenskyy says Europe has enough strength to stop Russia aggression.

But with war in their front yard what are European leaders willing to do?

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU commission, laid out on Sunday the aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

"The European Union steps up once more in support for Ukraine," von der Leyen said.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to go nuclear, his war is also being fought online.

Disinformation expert Nina Jankowicz says this is the world’s most digital war.

“I think it's all just being laid bare in the brutality of the conflict and the bold faced lies that have been exposed," Jankowicz says.

Today, On Point: How does the West need to respond to walk back from the nuclear line?


Tom Nichols, national security scholar at the U.S. Naval War College. Contributing writer and proprietor of Peacefield newsletter at The Atlantic. (@RadioFreeTom)

Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Author of "How To Lose the Information War." (@wiczipedia)

Naomi O’Leary, Europe correspondent for The Irish Times. (@NaomiOhReally)

Olga Tokariuk, freelance correspondent. Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. (@olgatokariuk)

Interview Highlights

On the last two days in western Ukraine

Olga Tokariuk: “Here in the western Ukraine, it's relatively calm, definitely compared to what is happening in central and eastern parts of the country. In Kiev ... in southern Ukraine, that is a part of which is under control now of Russian occupying forces. There are heavy battles going on around Kiev. Also in Kharkiv. Kharkiv has been shelled earlier today by Russian artillery, using cluster munitions causing massive casualties and dozens of casualties. That was done deliberately during the talks between Russia and Ukraine, so Russia is escalating again.

"Well, you know, compared to that, it's relatively safe here. There was an air alert last night. And we had to go in the basement at about midnight local time. It was planned about one hour in the bomb shelter before this air alert was lifted, and we were told that we can go back safely to sleep. And there is a curfew. But as I said, it's nothing in comparison to what is happening around Kharkiv.

"The main issue here is we are having a large influx of internally displaced people coming from those areas that are most affected by the fighting. And currently in the house where I'm staying, also, we are hosting six other people who fled from Kiev, and some more people are about to come today. And almost I think every family now in western Ukraine is sheltering someone. Because there is a massive influx of internally displaced people. And some of them also go further west and southwest towards the border between Ukraine and the EU countries such as Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, so a humanitarian exodus of big proportion.”

On unity within the EU 

Naomi O’Leary: “It's been a really momentous weekend. And there's been a striking transformation, I suppose, in the public policy of EU national governments. We're talking about 27 countries. And usually they have different viewpoints on things. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved almost the opposite of what he wanted. He's not divided, but he's united the European Union. He's caused them to take steps that were once unthinkable. And there's been an outpouring of solidarity for Ukraine.

"And the EU had been ready for this. They had some sanctions ready, but they were rapidly overtaken by events. The public horror at the invasion was such that national leaders began to come under really fierce pressure to do more, to isolate Russia more and to help Ukraine more. And in response to that, over the weekend, we saw a series of really historic shifts in policy. From Germany announcing enormous arms investment, to the EU paying for lethal military aid itself.”

The EU is funding military equipment, including fighter jets, to Ukraine. How much of a difference is that from the EU that we knew in the past?

Naomi O’Leary: “It's astonishing. The agreement was reached incredibly quickly on Sunday. What it is is there have been efforts for years, like you mentioned, for the EU to do more to cooperate on defense. All of its member states have some kind of national defense. And it's been argued for a very long time that if they work together, if they cooperate, they'll be one of the world's biggest military forces. But that cooperation has been very slow in coming. Not much public appetite for military spending, usually. And also the nervousness, I mean, you know, governments are not so sure about whether it's a good idea to sort of club up on it.

"But the major step forward that we saw this weekend is, for the first time, a decision to jointly fund arms for a conflict. 450 million has been set aside for that. The agreement was reached incredibly quickly. It didn't have to be written anew. It was actually a program that had been designed and agreed last year. It's just that it had never been used for lethal aid before, so that was ready. Everyone came on board. There were three countries that traditionally have a neutrality policy, and they were able to opt out of being involved, of their cash going to military aid. But they used what's called constructive abstention. So that means they don't mind other people going ahead and doing it. And that was Ireland, Malta and Austria.

"So the rest of the EU member states clubbed up, and arms have already reached Ukraine. Now, under this program, there's anti-tank systems that have come from the Netherlands, you mentioned fighter jets. That is a separate agreement that is bilateral between, I believe, the countries of Bulgaria and Poland. Bulgaria and Poland happen to have the kind of fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly, MiGs. ... But those two governments are supposed to be lending them, making them available. But that's not actually under the joint EU fund. It's actually a separate thing.”

On Zelenskyy's appeal for EU support

Olga Tokariuk: “The EU and NATO membership have been for a long time. Major Ukrainian foreign policy goals and now is the moment to raise these issues again, as the world stands in solidarity in Ukraine. But also, finally starting to understand why Ukraine was pressuring, and was insisting that it needs to join this alliance. This is a moment to put that back on the table. The war is still going on, but we already have to think about the future and how Ukraine will come out of this war. Well, actually here in Ukraine, I would say that we are sure that Ukraine will win.

"The problem is that we don't know what the human cost of it will be. Because it is clear that Russia is willing to impose huge losses and attacking residential areas and stuff like that. ... I hope they will not do what they did in Syria and in other places, but they are showing that they are prepared for that. But despite that, Ukrainians keep their spirits up, and we are absolutely sure now that there could be no further obstacles and delays to Ukraine's accession into the EU.

"And well, I would say personally, also in NATO, this should be on the table. Ukraine has demonstrated that it is a part of the West. There could be no doubts about that. Everything told by Russia before, it is abundantly clear that it is not true. Ukraine doesn't want to be part of Russian sphere of influence. And especially after this war, this argument is just completely discredited. So that would be also kind of something that Ukrainians really deserve.”

On the possibility of Ukraine joining the EU 

Naomi O’Leary: “When it would have been really useful for the EU to have done something about moving towards Ukraine's accession to the bloc would have been before the invasion. The situation is that the Ukrainian government is operating from basements under bombardment. Accession to the European Union is a technical, long process with many steps. It's not something that can really go on during the war situation, during an invasion.

"What the declarations that we are hearing now with Ursula von der Leyen, suggesting that the Ukraine belongs in the EU and other comments like that. What those are are statements of political solidarity, [they are] political statements, it doesn't mean like in technical terms about, it doesn't mean much in terms of unofficial accession. That's really something for the future. It was something that would take a very long time. Certainly, this war, at least as so far as it's gone, will have helped public opinion, I think. In terms of helping Western European public opinion to maybe warm again to the idea of admitting more member states. Because in recent years, the whole concept of expanding the EU had become controversial. Because there had been difficult issues with the integration of existing states.”

Is this a more cohesive European Union action than you've seen before?

Tom Nichols “We have seen it before, but not in over 40 years. Putin has made the classic mistake that his Soviet predecessors made, which was over the years he's had a Europe that's been somewhat, I won't say, divided, but disagrees about how to deal with Russia. Mostly interested in just doing business, leaving aside the old grudges and conflict. And through his own stupidity, I mean, he's not a stupid human being, but this is really stupid strategy. Through his own strategic errors, he has united Europe against him, again.

"This happened in the late '70s when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Led to the confrontations of the 1980s. It's really remarkable. I mean, some pundit got off a great tweet over the weekend that said Putin had ended Swedish neutrality and German pacifism all in one weekend. Which is, you know, kind of really a remarkable thing to say. And when you have even the Swiss talking about joining, you know, sanctions ... and things like that. I mean, there has to be some sense in Moscow that 30 years of Soviet and Russian diplomacy has now just collapsed in a big heap. Simply because Putin got this crazy idea that he was going to recreate the Soviet space.”

On what might happen next

Tom Nichols: “That's a good observation. That Putin is somebody from the 21st century, really. I mean, history for him stops somewhere around 1985, and the 21st century certainly didn't happen. There are two things. Well, first, I just want to emphasize something Nina just brought up, about being careful about information. This is going to sound odd, but you know, the average consumer, you don't need to know exactly. You're not in the situation room.

"You're not in the Pentagon, you're not at Downing Street. You can wait ... wait until a little time passes to start digesting that news. I think people wanting to know things instantaneously is opening opportunities for the Russians to feed kind of toxic material into the mainstream. What I'll be looking for is whether or not Putin renews the offensive. Because this whole thing has gone bad. He expected to end in four days, and now I want to see if he takes a pause or if he starts it up again."

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: "How Should the U.S. Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Provocation?" — "Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s strategic nuclear forces to raise their alert status."

The Atlantic: "How Ukraine Could Become a Nuclear Crisis" — "The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not a nuclear crisis. Yet. Concern about the role of nuclear weapons is perfectly understandable, however, now that a paranoid dictator has led Russia into a major war in the middle of Europe, attacking a country that shares a border with four of America’s NATO allies. A nuclear crisis is unlikely, but not impossible.

The Irish Times: "EU funds weapons for Ukraine in steely policy shift" — "The European Union has hardened its response towards Russia, announcing a €450 million fund for weapons for the Ukrainian army while working to isolate Moscow internationally."

This program aired on February 28, 2022.


Dorey Scheimer Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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