As Russian President Vladimir Putin makes his last-ditch attempt to break European support for Ukraine, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv on Sept. 15, saying that the EU will always stand by Ukraine’s side.
“Putin has always tried to divide us wherever there might have been a crack,” von der Leyen told the Kyiv Independent. “But it is good to see that he’s never been successful.”
The current energy crisis and double-digit inflation in Europe won’t halt the union’s support for Ukraine, von der Leyen said. Europe will be prepared for winter even without Russian gas, she added.
According to the official, European institutions and EU members have provided over 19 billion euros to Ukraine since February.
On the day of her third visit to Kyiv since February, an additional 500 million euros from the EU went to Ukraine, while the European Parliament agreed to launch a new 5 billion euro support package.
“The bonds between the European Union and Ukraine today are stronger than ever,” said von der Leyen, who oversaw Ukraine receiving the long-awaited EU candidate status in June.
In her interview with the Kyiv Independent, von der Leyen talked about the Russian-orchestrated energy crisis, Putin’s attempts to sow discontent among allies, and why it is crucial to see Ukraine win this war.
When Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, many expected some EU member states to sit out the fight.
Despite having limited executive powers, the European Commission, led by von der Leyen, stepped up to lead the continent in response to the brutal invasion – financial aid and sanctions soon followed.
“This is not just about Ukraine, it's a clash of two worlds, two polar sets of values,” von der Leyen said, as she quoted the Kyiv Independent’s editorial on March 1. “How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system,” she said back then.
Now, as the all-out war continued for nearly seven months, it’s once again up to von der Leyen to gather European support for Ukraine in times of crisis.
“Our task is to convince everybody and to take everyone along,” she said. “This fight is very important for us.”
To halt European support for Ukraine, Russia shut down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September after months of decreasing gas supplies to Europe. As a result, Europe’s gas price increased threefold since February, reaching $336 megawatt-hour in late August, while oil prices peaked at $120 a barrel.
Von der Leyen said Europe was ready.
“We anticipated that Putin would shut down Nord Stream 1. So we worked hard to diversify away from Russia to other suppliers, reliable supplies like the United States or, for example, Norway,” she said.
“Speaking of the fossil fuels from Russia, indeed, we have sanctioned the coal, we are winding down oil, and Russia is down with the gas already dramatically,” she said. “At the beginning of the war, Russia was delivering 40% of all imported gas. This is now down to 9%, and this process will go on.”
Von der Leyen said energy globally is scarce, therefore, prices will remain high, yet the situation isn’t as bad as it seems.
“We have 85% filled gas storages,” she said. “And we ask people to save not only gas but also electricity. Everybody has to do their share.”
‘We should have listened more to Ukraine’
Answering the question of why Europe was blind in dealing with Russia in the past, von der Leyen said it’s “very hard” to assess. Personal connections with Russia may be one of the factors.
“I said in my (State of the Union) speech we should have listened more to the central and eastern European countries,” she said. “We should have listened more to Ukraine.”
“We also should have listened more to – or taken more seriously – what Putin was saying because he had exposed his views months before he started this war.”
In July 2021, the Kremlin published Putin’s article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” denying Ukraine the right to exist as a sovereign state. Many said that it was then that Putin had already decided to launch an all-out war.
Now, it’s time to overcome past mistakes, and Europe is strongly backing the Ukrainian cause – politically, militarily, and financially, said von der Leyen.
Ukraine’s budget deficit in 2023 may amount to around $38 billion, said Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. And Ukraine expects all partners to pitch in.
“It will be tough, (...) but it is, of course, doable,” said von der Leyen.
Ukraine is on track to complete the seven conditions put forward by the EU before accession talks could begin, said the European Commission president.
The conditions include judicial and anti-corruption reforms, implementing the anti-oligarchic law, establishing transparency of media ownership and equal media market conditions, and drawing legislation on national minorities per EU principles.
The Ukrainian government has stated that it expects to comply with the preconditions and begin accession talks in the spring of 2023.
“I observe now that the accession process is well on track,” said von der Leyen.
However, she adds that it’s necessary to show a certain track record. “This takes some time.”
Von der Leyen said that as Ukraine aims to join the EU, it’s crucial to build up the Ukrainian economy. “This is the backbone for success here,” she said.
‘Ukraine will win’
Von der Leyen’s visit to Kyiv came amid Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast, where within days, the Armed Forces liberated over 6,000 square kilometers and 150,000 people.
Now the primary focus is for Ukraine to prevail in its defensive war against Russia and to rebuild the country after Russia is defeated.
“I’m deeply convinced you will win this war,” said von der Leyen. “Of course, there will be many, many years of reconstruction. But that, too, we should do together.”
And according to von der Leyen, it’s only up to Ukraine to decide on what terms the war ends.
“There’s one clear rule: The conditions are defined by Ukraine. It’s your decision,” said von der Leyen.
“This is a very clear principle for the European Union and the heads of state, and government, because you are a sovereign country, and it’s your future.”