Charles Michel: ‘A defeat for Ukraine would have devastating effects for Europe and the world’

The president of the European Council warns that there is no other option but to continue supporting Kyiv: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to fall into fatigue’

Charles Michel
The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, during a press conference in Brussels, on February 1.JOHANNA GERON (REUTERS)
María R. Sahuquillo

European Council President Charles Michel is clear about what will happen if Russia wins the war in Ukraine. “A defeat for Ukraine cannot be an option. We all understand very well what the devastating consequences would be for Europe and for the values we represent. And for the world. That is why it is crucial to act,” he said on Wednesday in a conversation in Brussels with five European media outlets, including EL PAÍS.

As Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nears its second anniversary, Michel said that the EU must continue its efforts to support Kyiv. And even more, he said so now that the situation in the United States is “difficult,” with Washington’s support for Ukraine wavering. “There is no alternative but to continue supporting Ukraine. There is one Plan A — and only a Plan A — and that is support for Ukraine,” he said.

“Support for Ukraine is an investment in peace and stability,” he continued. “We must fight for Ukraine, Europe, the United States and the rest of the world. If not, we are sending a message to the rest of the world that it is okay for another country — even one that is on the U.N. Security Council and that is in possession of nuclear weapons — to invade another.”

“We need to stand up, and we need to explain again and again what’s at stake. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into fatigue or give up,” warned Michel, who said that Russia could exploit and feed this seed of fatigue to undermine the European spirit and the EU project ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.

On Saturday, the war that has shaken the European continent and the rest of the world will enter its third year. It is one of the most difficult moments for Ukraine: the counteroffensive has failed, the situation on the battle fronts is extremely complicated due to its lack of ammunition, material and troop rotation. Added to this is concern about the possible return of Republican Donald Trump to the White House and the delay of the EU framework for Ukraine’s future accession, which was due to be presented in March. On Tuesday, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that it will not be ready until the summer, after the European elections.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin — who has taken the opportunity to increase weapons production — is preparing a new spring offensive at various points on the front line, according to Western intelligence sources. The head of the Kremlin feels emboldened after achieving some progress (albeit timid) on the battlefield and because he has buried another of his enemies, Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, who died in a gloomy maximum security prison in the Arctic where he was serving a 19-year prison sentence for a case that the EU considers political persecution. Michel blamed the Kremlin for Navalny’s death, arguing it “is a brutal reminder of the nature of the regime.”

Meanwhile, Europeans are increasingly pessimistic about Ukraine’s chances of winning the war. Most believe that the conflict will end with some kind of agreement, according to a survey in 12 countries by the think tank ECFR. The survey also found that European citizens are skeptical about Europe’s ability to support Ukraine without the United States—a clear variable if Trump returns to the White House—and most believe that Washington’s policies must be imitated.

“The decisions we have made, the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, the €50 billion financial support package, are a call to our allies, especially the United States, to do what is necessary to support Ukraine with military and economic assistance. It is the top priority. And I truly hope that the United States understands that supporting Ukraine is also a formula against authoritarian regimes across the world that are trying to put into question a rules-based order.”

Although the EU has less and less margin to take historic steps, Michel argued that it does have the ability to provide political, military and financial support. “We are working to try to use frozen Russian assets, in whole or in part, to help Ukraine rebuild. It is a question of justice, of the rule of law, of responsibility and accountability, and I am sure that in the coming weeks we will be able to move forward,” said Michel. In addition to the G7, the EU agreed to freeze some €300 billion of Russian assets, but is debating how to use them. Last week, the EU took the first step of its action plan and agreed to set aside billions of euros of profits arising from the freezing of those assets.

On Wednesday, the EU approved its 13th sanction package against Russia in an effort to stifle the Kremlin’s war effort. For the first time, the list of those affected by the measures — which include freezing assets and a ban on entering the EU — include several Chinese companies and an Indian firm. The EU’s goal is to prevent Russia from receiving materials for civilian use that it uses to build weapons.

For the EU, Russia’s war against Ukraine — which exposed its dependence on cheap Russian gas — has been a loud wake-up call to increase its strategic autonomy and strengthen security and defense. “The European Union’s defense is needed. This is urgent. Whatever it takes, we need to act, and we need to be credible. We need to act to protect our values, to defend our interests, to respect the others, but also to be respected,” said Michel, in reference to the debate over how Europe can better protect itself from military threats.

The European Council president’s comments come amid concerns that a Trump-led U.S. government would take a step back from NATO.

“Around the European Council there was a certain understanding that NATO was like an umbrella to protect the security in Europe, while on the EU side, the responsibility should be more focused on the economic development and other purposes in line with our values. I feel that we face a new paradigm. we can observe that the mood, the mindset is totally different,” he said. “The objective for Member States should be to invest more and to invest better in defense, and to be less fragmented.”

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