Ukraine: The Response from the West
By Margaux Marzuoli, Uilson Jones, Federico Arcuri & Fernando López
Having covered the Eastern European response in yesterday’s article, a second part on the Western response was needed. The unified reaction of the European countries cannot be understood in isolation, but only in relation to each other. Capacities in the provision of aid vary, leading some to do more and others to do less. Today’s article takes a deep dive into what Western European countries along with the United States have done to not only express solidarity with the Ukrainian people, but also provide meaningful aid in its many forms.
France has brought a lot of support to Ukraine throughout the years, condemning and sanctioning Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization operations in Donetsk and Luhansk. France has also been involved in initiating diplomatic discussion between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, which resulted in the Minsk agreements.
As tensions rose between Ukraine and Russia in the beginning of February, the president of France and the current holder of the presidency of the Council of the European Union met with Putin and Zelenskyy urging de-escalation. He later met with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz who had just returned from talks with President Joe Biden, to further discuss a diplomatic solution to the crisis. On the 21st of February, Macron condemned Putin’s decision to recognize Donetsk and the Lugansk People’s Republics independence. Macron also called for an urgent meeting with the United Nations Security Council and requested a joint response from all members of the European Union. Unfortunately, France’s efforts to dissuade the Russian invasion of Ukraine failed.
On the 24th of February, Macron was one of the first to firmly condemn the Russian invasion. Macron has since continued to call Putin demanding that he put a halt to the military operations. In a special meeting of the European Council, Macron declared that “Europe has no choice but to become a great power.” In practice, this resulted in a series of measures taken by the European Union as a whole. These include blocking the access of some Russian banks to SWIFT (an essential tool in international financial transactions); shutting its airspace to Russian airlines; banning Russian media such as RT and Sputnik within the European Union; providing €1.2 billion in humanitarian aid; and buying €450 million worth of weapons and sending it to Ukraine. France has also sent soldiers to Romania and Estonia to support NATO missions in the region.
At the national level, the war in Ukraine has had a rally-’round-the-flag effect, uniting a population that had been majorly divided and agitated by the upcoming presidential elections in April. All politicians condemned the Russian aggression, even the anti-American and pro-Russian candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon; and controversial candidates from the far-right like Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. Municipalities in France have mobilised to a great extent to show their support for Ukraine; gathering funds and resources, and organising housing for incoming Ukrainian refugees. Like Germany, Austria and Poland, the SNCF, the national railway company, has also announced that Ukrainian refugees will be able to travel for free in France on TGVs and Intercity trains.
On March 1st, Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, announced that France was going to “wage an all-out economic and financial war against Russia”. This statement came under heavy criticism, notably by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who warned the French minister to be careful with his speech. Ultimately, Bruno Le Maire retracted his statement, explaining that “it was inappropriate and does not correspond to our de-escalation strategy.” Whether this retraction has any symbolic or tangible impact on France’s support of Ukraine remains to be seen. However, the decision of the French government to move its embassy from Kyiv to Lyiv, due to “the risks and threats Kyiv faces”, has left the French people living in the capital feeling abandoned.
Due to Germany’s strong dependence on Russian gas and Olaf Scholz’s hesitation to outwardly claim that Nord Stream 2 would be shut down in case of an incursion on Ukrainian territory, it was unclear whether Germany would impose strong sanctions and react swiftly following the invasion. Given the German government’s close ties and trade with Russia, this was a relatively agreeable conclusion. Recent actions by Scholz’s administration have blown expectations out of the water. Not only has Germany suspended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline after Russia acknowledged the ‘independence’ of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, but also supported curtailing Russian banks’ access to the SWIFT system.
Beyond these economic measures, Germany has provided Ukraine with military supplies. Initially sending 5000 helmets, a decision which was heavily mocked as this was the first and only support two days after the invasion began. Germany, however, placed itself at the helm of European support by sending 1000 anti-tank weapons and 500 stinger missiles to Ukraine. Breaking its tradition of banning the provision of military equipment to conflict zones upheld since World War II.
On the humanitarian side of things, Germany has joined many European countries in their unwavering support of Ukrainian refugees. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure on countries neighbouring Ukraine such as Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, Germany has welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the crisis with some of the first arriving on Saturday.
Similarly to Germany, the Italian stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become more strong and assertive in recent days. Italy’s PM Mario Draghi has announced that Italy will join its NATO and EU allies in imposing strict sanctions on Russia, including measures on the SWIFT global payment system – whilst maintaining contact with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
In this sense, Italy’s geopolitical position is one of the most delicate in the EU, as 45% of their energy comes from Russia gas imports. its imports from Russia make up about 45% of the country’s gas needs. Thus, there is a debate going on in Italy about the possible consequences of the present sanctions, and about how to enhance energy production. One controversial proposal has been Enel’s (Italy’s main energy producer) conversion of its old coal plants into gas production. This proposal has been gaining momentum after the Italian government announced an 8 billion euros plan in aid to shield consumers and companies from the rising energy prices.
All in all, after quite a long period of diplomatic silence on the matter, the Italian government’s stance on the matter seems firmly aligned with its allies. So firmly that even the leader of the far right party Lega, Matteo Salvini, has been posting videos condemning Russia’s actions and praising Zelenskyy’s stance. This is surprising as Salvini is known to be a good friend of Putin, so much so that his party signed an agreement to collaborate with Putin’s party in 2016. An agreement which was symbolised by Salvini’s trip to Moscow, along with a picture of him joyfully wearing a Vladimir Putin shirt. Regardless of persistent sympathies for Putin’s regime, Italy has taken a firm and unified stand against Russian aggression.
Spain’s reaction to the conflict in Ukraine has been rather slow, but the government has begun showing their support in favour of the Ukrainian government. The Spanish government first announced that all military support for Ukraine would be done under NATO and the European Peace Fund. And, the country’s PM announced that the government would send offensive military weaponry to the Ukrainian government. Although military support has been recent, the government has recently sent 20 tonnes of medical materials to Ukraine. The aid came after a request on February 15th by the Ukrainian government for European states to deliver basic sanitary equipment to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the country. On Sunday 27th, the Spanish government sent the requested medical materials to Poland, which will then be transported to Ukraine to support people left in vulnerable situations due to the start of the conflict.
While the government’s military plans have been recent and are still being developed, Spain has offered its support to the Ukrainian people. The government announced that Ukrainian university students and their professors will be able to continue their education in Spanish universities after they fled the conflict. Although no refugees have yet arrived in Spain, the country’s regions and municipalities are creating plans to provide accommodations for any refugees that may arrive in Spain. The Comunita Valenciana, a region in Spain, has announced plans to airlift 560 Ukrainian children from Chernobyl to ensure they do not live in a conflict zone. The regional government of Madrid has announced it will provide an entire hospital for Ukrainians needing health treatments, while the city of Madrid has created a fund to support incoming refugees. More developments are expected over the coming days regarding supporting refugees arriving in Spain.
Immediately following the invasion into Ukraine, President Biden released a statement condemning the “unprovoked and unjustified” advances made by Russia under Putin’s command. The US has been very outspoken about the severe violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Along with many EU countries, the US has been heavily involved in imposing ‘stick’ measures in the form of sanctions in an attempt to prevent a further incursion and induce costs on the explicit breaking of international law. However, Biden made it clear that US troops were not going to be deployed in Ukraine. Nevertheless, he insisted that the US would defend its NATO allies if “Putin decides to keep moving west.”
On the humanitarian side of things, USAID – an international aid agency, in collaboration with UN agencies has provided $25 million that went into critical relief supplies for people in need in an attempt to alleviate the suffering brought about by the war. Alongside this, there has been additional humanitarian on the ground assistance. Moreover, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki claimed that the US will be accepting refugees, whilst at the same time acknowledging that “most, if not the majority” of those fleeing would reside in neighbouring countries.
TAKEAWAYS FROM THE WESTERN RESPONSE
The Western response can be viewed as a more latent contribution, particularly in the area of humanitarian aid. As it is overshadowed, so to speak, by the direct refugee crisis on the borders of the Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, amongst others. Despite this, Western aid and reactions have been helpful by decreasing the burden placed on those countries resulting from the refugee crisis. Imposing costs in the form of sanctions to disincentivize the behaviour of Russia, has also shown great support to Ukraine. Although, the effectiveness of sanctions are questionable and the jury is still out on that specific issue. Now, that is a whole other discussion.
Edited by Macklin Miezejeski, artwork by Teresa Valle