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Europe and Ukraine: Victory for the timid

Barbara Wesel Kommentarbild App *PROVISORISCH*
Barbara Wesel
March 13, 2022

At the start of the war in Ukraine, the EU acted decisively. But now, when it comes to Ukrainian membership in the EU, it behaves cautiously, says DW's Barbara Wesel, even while it continues to buy Russian gas and oil.

EU leaders in front of Versailles castle
After a summit in France, EU leaders did not give a go-ahead for faster Ukrainian membershipImage: Michel Euler/AP/picture alliance

Putin earns about a billion euros a day from Russian oil and gas exports, expert estimates suggest. And the higher prices go, the faster the Russian President's war chest fills. Yet Germany and others continue to reject a boycott of Russian oil and gas, arguing it is simply too expensive for their own economies. And as for Ukraine's stated wish to join the European Union, the Europeans couldn't come up with any better answer than the usual, empty diplomatic formula.

There was division between the older members of the European Union and the more recent, and a debate about what sort of signal the EU could now send Ukraine about the country's desire to join. Everybody here knows it would be a symbolic gesture, something that would give the tortured Ukrainians hope and the feeling that they are welcomed by Europe. Because after all, this pro-Western outlook is exactly why Ukraine is now paying a terrible price.

But the eastern European nations that wanted to be more accommodating toward their Ukrainian neighbors were stymied. There was resistance from the Netherlands and others, who brought up EU rules on accession, saying that exceptions could not be made and that the process usually takes many years. That seems like a poor argument indeed, for a country that is currently being bombed into dirt by Russia.

Barbara Wesel
DW Europe correspondent Barbara Wesel

The EU's most cautious and doubtful prevailed. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that he was disappointed with the outcome — and he has every right to be.

EU leaders are still boasting about the tough sanctions they imposed on Russia immediately after that country's invasion of Ukraine. With a few further turns of the screw, no doubt a few more banks will be blocked and a few more oligarchs put on a blacklist. This obviously damages the Russian economy in both the medium and long term. But it doesn't appear to be making the slightest impression on Vladimir Putin. In any case, it certainly has not brought him closer to a ceasefire or to the negotiating table.

War crimes daily

Instead, there are new war crimes committed daily, the civilian population in Ukraine is bombed, rockets are fired at those trying to evacuate, and at maternity hospitals and kindergartens. Putin's is a scorched earth strategy.

And at the same time, the Europeans continue to fill his war chest to the tune of a billion euros a day as they buy Russian oil and gas.

When is the right time to turn off the Russian tap, if not now? But once again, self-interest trumps morals.

It would severely damage the German economy, the country's leader, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has said. Other countries, including Hungary and Bulgaria, also reject it because they are too dependent on supplies from Russia. Even if the majority of Germans are now in favor of a boycott like this, their leaders' sense of caution and fear is stronger.

We probably won't get a boycott until the very end, when Ukraine is just rubble, when the numbers of people killed are too high to bear and the flow of refugees can no longer be accommodated. But by then it will be too late. Right now is when this sanction of last resort could have an impact. Instead Europe is helping Putin win his war, and all the desperate messages from the brave Ukrainian president change nothing at all.

Too little, too late

You also have to ask whether it was smart to rule out a no-fly zone from the very start. EU member states, most of whom also belong to NATO, quickly folded in the face of Putin's vague threats of nuclear missiles. Cleverer strategists might have left that option on the table. But in fact, EU leaders have made one thing very clear. No matter what happens in Ukraine, no matter how awful things get there, we will stay on the sidelines.

At the beginning of this war, there were big words about how this invasion was an attack on all of Europe and its security. As a result, the EU deducted that it must better learn how to take care of itself, its economic autonomy, its defense and its position within the world order. That's not wrong. In fact, in geopolitical terms, this should have happened years ago.

Faced with the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine now, one can only say this is all too little, too late. The cautious, the concerned and the miserly conservatives have won out. They have abandoned Ukraine to Putin's missiles and his delusions about the return of the Russian empire.

The EU is happy to supply aid and weapons, and to take care of Ukrainian refugees, but seems unwilling to take any greater risks or make any more effort than that. Only the next weeks and months will tell us if this is a huge miscalculation.

Germany's gas addiction 'a European problem'

This piece was originally published in German.