Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) The Russian invasion of Ukraine shocked entire Europe, when waking up to the reality of war a year ago on the morning of February 24, 2022. The consequences were far-reaching. One of the greatest advantages of today’s society which lay in its interconnectivity also meant that the war and its consequences were felt not only by the attacked Ukraine but by the whole of Europe and, more or less, the entire world. Many things have changed since then. Europe suddenly faces many challenges that it had not experienced for decades.
Admirable solidarity from day one
In all modern conflicts, the civilian population suffers the most. This war is no exception. Immediately after the Russian invasion, it was a priority to help people who lost all their property and left their land because of the war. In the first days, Europe was able to show admirable solidarity in providing humanitarian aid and accepting refugees. According to the latest data, four million Ukrainian refugees have been granted international protection in the EU. The biggest burden was borne by the surrounding countries, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary, but also, for example, the Czech Republic, which has the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per population among European countries.
However, while Ukraine is vigorously defending itself against the aggressor, military aid is of no less importance than humanitarian. Many member states aided the Ukrainian army with the supply of materials, although some have long delayed the supply of weapons. It is no coincidence that, due to historical experience, post-communist states, especially those near Russia, became the forerunners and continuously argued for support for Ukraine. Therefore it is not surprising at all that the war in Ukraine strengthened the importance of some Central European and Baltic countries, which began to be percieved more than ever on the political map of Europe. After all, it was Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Lithuanian Prime Minister Gitanas Nausėda who urged the world and, at the end, convinced German Chancellor Scholz to provide military support to Ukraine.
Another significant moment was the visit of the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia in March last year in the then-besieged Kyiv. Some people tried to trivialize the importance of their visit, and some even called it useless. However, there can be no doubt about its importance. Unfortunately, visits like that are often forgotten but these symbolic gestures are (not only) important in politics. For Ukraine, this visit by representatives of three European countries under very risky conditions was a huge boost and a clear assurance that Central European countries stood behind it.
The delivery of T-72 tanks from the Czech Republic in April last year was another breakthrough in military support for Ukraine. The taboo on supplying tanks to Ukraine was suddenly broken. Even the countries otherwise supporting Ukraine were not willing to deliver this type of weapon because they were afraid of further escalation of the conflict. Even though those tanks were older, they greatly benefited Ukraine, which had experience in their operation. This also allowed for the current supply of German Leopard, American Abrams, and British Challenger 2 tanks. Unfortunately, the problem still remains that it takes a long time for some countries to swing to the support and supply of weapons that Ukraine so desperately needs. Procrastination is out of place now because stopping Russia is in the interest of the entire of Europe.
The EU is supplying weapons for the first time in its history
Support for Ukraine is provided not only through individual states but also by the European Union as a whole. In 2022, the EU provided €7.2 billion in macro-financial assistance to the EU in the form of loans and grants. The goal of this financial assistance is to support stability in Ukraine and to address the most urgent funding needs for things such as the restoration of critical infrastructure. This year 18 billion euros of financial assistance was approved with a clear goal: to provide financing for immediate needs, infrastructure renewal, and initial support for post-war reconstruction, and in the long term, for European integration.
The so-called European Peace Facility (EPF) also provides weapons to Ukraine. This kind of aid has no precedent in the history of the EU. It is the first time that the EU is supplying arms to a third country, and to date, the EU has allocated €3.6 billion for this purpose. In October 2022, the EU also approved a new training mission for the Ukrainian armed forces. Together with the military support provided by the EU member states, the total EU military support to Ukraine is estimated at almost 12 billion euros. The total support of Ukraine so far from the EU and its member states has reached a value of 67 billion euros.
The great failure of the “Wandel durch Wandel” policy
The problems caused by the war had to be solved not only by war-torn Ukraine but also (of course, to a much greater extent) by Europe in the hinterland. Even to the biggest doubters, it is now clear that in a situation where relations with Russia have reached a dead end, it is no longer possible to rely on importing strategic raw materials such as gas and oil from the East.
Unfortunately, many countries’ approach to ensuring energy security has been short-sighted and extremely irresponsible in recent years. Many countries relied on cheap gas imports from Russia. For Germany, Russian imports were even supposed to play a critical role in its green efforts. Russian gas was supposed to serve as an alternative energy source when all nuclear and thermal power plants were to be closed. The EU’s most robust economy also liked to brag about its policy of “Wandel durch Handel,” i.e., change through trade. However, there was no change for the better or a shift, for example, in Russia’s human rights field. The opposite was true.
On the other hand, Europe only deepened its dependency on Russia with the Nord Stream gas pipeline opening and celebrated in 2011. Thus Europe became more easily blackmailed. The pressure from German companies and banks was relentless and further forced the construction of another gas-powered Nord Stream 2, which was never launched because the course of war events unfolded much faster. Two days before the outbreak of war, its approval was delayed, and a few months later, last September, it was destroyed by explosions.
According to data from 2021, the entire EU imported more than 83% of its natural gas from elsewhere. Unfortunately, by then, many countries, including the Czech Republic, had imprudently created a very strong dependence on Russian gas. In the last few years, more than 40% of the gas came from Russia. In some months, it was even more than half. Initially, the question was, whether Europe would have enough gas and oil. Won’t people in Europe freeze in winter due to a lack of gas?
The worst scenarios have not materialized. Fortunately, Russia does not have a monopoly on oil and gas export. Europe, especially in case of gas, was able to largely diversify to other suppliers within a short time, e.g., Norway, and was also able to ensure the import of a larger amount of liquefied gas (LNG), especially from the USA. The import capacity of LNG in the EU can cover 40% of the total consumption. The outages were covered, and there is still enough gas, thanks to Norway and the USA supplies. In addition, energy prices are falling.
Russian President Vladimir Putin mistakenly hoped that the closing of the taps and the sanctions imposed by the EU on imports of Russian goods would help him bring Europe to its knees economically and force it to make concessions to Russia. But he was very wrong. Europe can breathe a sigh of relief, at least for a while, because the gas reservoirs are still almost full. According to the latest data, gas reservoirs in the EU are now more than 80% full. Although some member countries do not have storage capacity, solidarity agreements with others help a lot here. The EU and individual member countries have decided to cap energy prices, which are already starting to become cheaper globally. European countries demonstrated their capacity for solidarity, and the EU showed its ability to react quickly to the challenges that arose. Europe was able to get rid of its dependence on Russia. Of course, the mild winter also helped a lot, significantly reducing household consumption and saving energy costs.
Sanctions are starting to be effective
Europe had to show its strength by making a clear statement right from the start: aggression will not be left without an adequate response. EU imposed sanctions on Russia, which steadily expanded. The first package was aimed at important representatives of Russia or at preventing Russian access to capital and financial markets and services in the EU. It included a ban on transactions with the Russian Central Bank and a prohibition on accessing European airspace and airports for Russian carriers. The EU also excluded seven Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which helped to disconnect them from the international financial system and cripple their global influence. Other sanctions focused on suspending Russian media broadcasting and banned all transactions with state-owned enterprises preventing new investments in the Russian energy sector.
Especially in the first months, there was frequent criticism of the inadequacy and weakness of sanctions. The fifth package from April was important because it included for the first time a ban on the import of coal and other solid fossil fuels from Russia, the entry of all Russian vessels into EU ports, the entry of Russian and Belarusian road carriers into the EU, and the export of jet fuel to Russia. The coal import ban was the most significant since the Russian economy depends on fossil fuel export. The coal import ban also prepared for extending the prohibition to other fossil fuels.
Other measures also focused on the importance of fossil fuel exports and tried to hit Russia at its weakest point. Last June’s sixth package of sanctions introduced a ban on importing crude oil and oil products. The goal was to reduce oil imports from Russia by 90% from the beginning of this year. Insurance and financing of maritime transport of Russian oil to third countries was also prohibited, making it more difficult to redirect Russian oil exports from Europe to other parts of the world. Several member countries, including the Czech Republic, had a problem with securing a quick replacement for Russian oil coming from the Druzhba pipeline, so they obtained a time delay.
The eighth package of sanctions adopted last October brought, in addition to the expansion of the list of goods prohibited from being imported into Russia, a price ceiling on the maritime transport of Russian oil for third countries and the previously established EU ban on importing Russian crude oil by sea would continue to apply. The price ceiling, once introduced, would allow European companies to transport Russian oil to third countries, provided that its price does not exceed a predetermined ceiling. The purpose of this step was to contribute to the further reduction of Russia’s income and, at the same time, thanks to uninterrupted supplies, to maintain stability in the global energy markets.
The ban is thus supposed to help tackle inflation and maintain the stability of energy costs at a time when increased fuel prices are raising the eyebrows of all Europeans. This measure was introduced with the G7 and came into effect after December 5, 2022, for crude oil and after February 5, 2023, for refined petroleum products. The EU agreed on a price ceiling of USD 60 per barrel. It is also worth noting that Iran will be included in the tenth EU sanctions package aimed at Russia. This is at least what the European Commission proposes. Iran’s drones are helping commit war atrocities in Ukraine, and Tehran must be held accountable. Specifically, the sanctions include three Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity due to their involvement in the development and supply of drones used by Russia in Ukraine.
Now that the sanctions on importing Russian oil have entered into force, Russia is beginning to feel their consequences profoundly. For instance, Russia suffered a noticeable decrease in profits from the sale of fossil fuels. It had to broadly diversify towards the Asian markets, where oil transportation is much more complicated than to Europe. In addition, Asian powers such as India or China are acting more assertively now and want to receive oil at the lowest possible prices. The Russian state budget is bleeding and started with a high deficit, making up more than half of the total intended deficit for the entire year. Besides the higher expenses caused by the war campaign in Ukraine, the drop in public finances is due to significantly lower income from the sale of fossil fuels, especially oil.
Here are a few numbers for an overall idea of how bad the Russian economy is suffering. The Russian budget was completed in January with a deficit of 1.776 trillion roubles. By comparison, the Russian budget ended last year with a surplus of 125 billion roubles. In addition, the January deficit represents 60% of the total deficit planned for this year (2.925 trillion roubles) which adds wrinkles to Russia. So Russia will have to tap into the reserves in the national welfare fund.
It is, therefore, absolutely clear from the latest data that the imposed sanctions are starting to have a substantial effect and Russia may have a big problem with further financing the war. The sanctions must have already hurt some important Russian representatives. The EU managed to freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs worth 450 billion euros. It is time to use this money to rebuild Ukraine. European institutions, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council, are faced with the task of clearly mapping the situation and have presented a plan on how to use this money meaningfully and effectively for the benefit of Ukraine.
European Security is not free
Quite understandably, next to the mentioned energy security, European security has become a priority. Russian aggression has drastically changed the geopolitical reality in Europe. It has created unprecedented security instability, which Europe has not experienced for several decades. Most EU countries are members of NATO, however, the other side of the Atlantic expects Europe to finally show more initiative. An adequate response to the conflict in Ukraine should be the intensification of cooperation in the field of defence within the EU, including through financing the supply of arms to Ukraine.
My fellow Estonian MEP Riho Terras put it very well: “Security is not free. The transatlantic community can only protect its citizens if we live up to our commitments and strengthen our capabilities by increasing defence spending to reach 3% of GDP.” Europe must stop being naive and show more initiative in ensuring its own defence and security. We must finally stop relying so much on the US to solve our problems. Europe’s prestige is at stake.
Underrated in many ways, the EU surprised all, and ended up doing better than expected last year. In particular, the problem with the gas supply was handled beyond expectations. EU has shown to be able to react quickly when things get tough. Although Europeans needed to save more, they certainly did not suffer this winter.
The Russian Christmas propaganda clip showing a European family suffering from a lack of electricity and food was far from describing reality. However, this certainly does not mean that Europe can relax and rest on its laurels. The war is far from won. The energy crisis has been managed for the time being, however, the problem of importing strategic raw materials still remains. We cannot rely on a mild winter forever.
One also cannot underestimate the population’s fatigue from economic or financial difficulties due to rising prices and a decrease in willingness to help Ukraine in some places. This unpleasant mix may appeal to many countries’ pro-Russian and anti-establishment political forces. It would also be premature to be swayed by some news about how Russia is failing in many ways. We have to remember that, unfortunately, the Ukrainian army is also facing several problems now, and some of the findings are alarming. European states should react as quickly as possible for their own good.
Russia significantly increased arms production when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Ukraine is facing a shortage of ammunition because it is consuming more than the West can produce. So the Ukrainians need to speed up the ammunition and military equipment supply. Above all, there is a shortage of artillery shells and tank shells. However good news is that if Ukraine succeeds in stopping the current Russian offensive, it will be difficult for Russia to fulfil its strategic goals, and the chances of ending the war will increase. Arms deliveries to Ukraine must be faster.
While Russia is going full steam ahead, Europe is still stepping over the edge. What are we waiting for? When will the Russian flag fly over Kyiv? The European countries, NATO, and the EU fell deeply asleep in the post-war period. The fact that no one in Europe wants war does not mean we will not be confronted by it. This must be our wake-up call. Every day I hear in various places the opinion that to end the war, we must stop the supply of weapons. This is an entirely misguided idea and an absolute misunderstanding of Putin and Russia. The only way to stop the conflict is to increase the supply of weapons to Ukraine. This is the only possible way to get Putin to negotiate peace. We all want peace, but not one that equates to the surrender of Ukraine. One year after the outbreak of the conflict, the EU and its member states achieved several surprising victories. On the other hand, many things still need to be done. Therefore, Europe’s main challenge this year is clear: To endure and continue supporting Ukraine because there is no other option. There is nothing less at stake than the security and prestige of Europe.