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A closer look at Von der Leyen’s reassurance mission to Ukraine

8 months ago 36

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KYIV, UKRAINE – When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stepped out on the train platform at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi on Saturday (4 November), day 619 of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the timing of her sixth visit to the war-torn country was itself the message.

While the trip had already been planned before the Israel-Hamas war broke out, with Western attention turning to the Middle East, it has taken on a double meaning: managing expectations and providing reassurance.

It comes four days before the EU’s executive is expected to publish its enlargement progress reports and likely recommend opening accession talks with Ukraine.

Speaking alongside Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after their bilateral talks, von der Leyen said Kyiv has made “excellent progress” on reform conditions for future EU accession.

Although Ukraine achieved candidate status in record time last year and all pointers indicate that it will be able to open EU accession talks later this year – pending EU leaders’ approval in mid-December – it is clear that Kyiv faces a long road of reforms before joining the bloc.

Ukraine has always had maximalist demands when it came to Kyiv’s future EU membership, and this has tactically worked well for them, EU officials and diplomats admit.

Both Zelenskyy and Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna were optimistic in comments on Saturday.

Asked whether she expects any potential resistance from some EU countries, Stefanishyna said she thought that “even Hungary, which may use the momentum for certain manipulation and speculation, [will approve] and by and large, there will be consensus”.

But while so far the main reference point has been the EU’s December summit and the opening of accession talks, it is increasingly clear to both sides that there will be a need to think about what comes after.

There is no end date, especially while the country is at war.

But while von der Leyen’s flying visit to Ukraine follows an extensive tour of the Western Balkans and Moldova, it was to be about more than just reassuring Kyiv over enlargement.

It was also about sending a key message to Kyiv that despite the war in the Middle East, the EU is still focused on supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia.

One uncertainty remains, however, as EU member states have so far stalled over a proposal by the EU’s executive to top up the bloc’s joint budget and include a €50 billion financial support package to help fund the country for the next four years.

On Saturday, von der Leyen pledged to maintain financial aid to Ukraine and said she was “working very hard” to get agreement on the funding package, but so far there is no guarantee that a compromise deal will be reached by the end of the year.

A day before her arrival in Kyiv, Russia launched its largest drone attack on Ukraine in weeks on Friday, hitting critical infrastructure in the west and south of the country and destroying private houses and commercial buildings in Kharkiv.

But winter is coming — and the war has stalled, after a summer counteroffensive that has liberated far less territory than Kyiv had hoped.

Western officials increasingly speak, at least privately, about the possible need to start preparing for a scenario in which the combat in Ukraine drags on and risks ending up in a frozen conflict.

The likelihood of a prolonged stalemate, lasting at least into next spring, has also revived hints at peace negotiations that would return much of battered eastern Ukraine to Kyiv.

Zelenskyy on Saturday reaffirmed his stance that this is not the time to negotiate with Russia, and he also denied that any Western leaders were pressuring him to do so.

“Nobody is putting pressure on me today. No leader of the US or EU puts pressure on us to sit down at the negotiation table,” Zelenskyy said, stressing that such a decision would lie only with him and the Ukrainian people.

Zelenskyy also rejected remarks by his own commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who this week candidly described a “stalemate” on the battlefield, adding that a protracted, attritional war would favour Russia with its greater resources and manpower.

Only more and better Western capabilities, including fighter jets as well as locally produced drones, would tip the balance back in Kyiv’s favour, Zaluzhnyi said.

“We have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate (…) There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough,” he added.

Zelenskyy’s office was rather displeased with this public display of military challenges.

After Ukraine suffered enormous civilian casualties over the past 20 months, it is hard to imagine that its public would accept a truce that doesn’t give back virtually every square inch lost since Russia invaded.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, seems to be willing to accept more casualties as he waits out the West, continuing to believe it will falter in its support and unity.

A tired-looking but determined Zelenskyy admitted to reporters in Kyiv that “there are difficulties, yes”.

“There are different opinions [on the conflict]. This is true. But I believe that we don’t have any right to even think about a defeat. There is no alternative,” he added.

  • Local elections in Moldova
    | Sunday, 5 November 2023| Moldova
  • Annual EU Ambassadors Conference
    | Mo-Fri, 6-10 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
  • Polish transport companies to block checkpoints on Ukraine’s border to protest against liberalisation of the EU rules for Ukrainian rivals
    | Monday, 6 November 2023| Dorohust, Poland
  • G7 foreign ministers meeting
    | Tuesday, 7 November 2023| Tokyo, Japan
  • Informal ministerial meeting on space policy
    | Tue-Wed, 7-8 November 2023| Sevilla, Spain
  • European Commission to present annual enlargement package
    | Wednesday, 8 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
  • European Commission President von der Leyen meets Jordan’s King Abdullah II
  • ECHR hearing on the admissibility of Ukrainian applications in case brought against Russia concerning Crimea
    | Wednesday, 8 November 2023| Strasbourg, France
  • Paris Peace Forum
    | Thu-Fri, 9-10 November 2023| Paris, France

  • Foreign Affairs Council / Defence
    | Mo-Tue, 13-14 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
  • Southern Neighbourhood Ministerial Meeting
    | Mo-Tue, 27-28 November 2023| Barcelona, Spain
  • NATO Foreign Ministers meet
    | Tue-Wed, 28-29 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
  • United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28)
    | Mo-Tue, 30 November – 12 December 2023| Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • EU-Western-Balkans Summit
    | Thursday, 14 December 2023 TBC| Brussels, Belgium
  • EU leaders to decide on Ukraine, Moldova accession talks, discuss MFF review
    | Thu-Fri, 14-15 December 2023| Brussels, Belgium

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