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“We should have listened to those who know Putin.”
It was a catchy admission by Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday during the European Commission President’s State of the Union address. The Russian EU hawks in Central and Eastern Europe were right all along. Their powerful neighbors to the west got it wrong.
But the remark left officials instantly scrambling to frame it around their favorite narrative.
For the most anti-Kremlin EU countries, it was a reminder not to ignore them anymore: the EU must hit Russia with more sanctions and increase its aid to Ukraine.
“I think this is a moment in European history where our region can make a historic contribution,” Lithuanian Ambassador to the EU Arnoldas Pranckevičius said.
But in several western EU capitals, it was seen more as a reflection on the past few years, not a prescription for the future.
“It’s a message about the past, and it’s a mea culpa for Germany, France, Italy and many others,” said a Western European diplomat.
The shared response reflects reality within the EU: after an initial wave of sanctions, progress has almost ceased on new measures regarding the war. There is a weak appetite for further sanctions, officials are still debating how to finalize a promised €9 billion aid package for Ukraine and new European arms donations have dwindled in recent months.
For some, Ukraine’s progress on the battlefield has even obviated the need for more sanctions against Russia, at least for now.
“For the future, if Russia had continued to win, we would have needed more sanctions,” the Western European diplomat said.
Look back – but look forward
In his speech, von der Leyen sought to strike a balance between praising the moral standing of Kremlin critics without calling for further sanctions.
“We should have listened to the voices within our Union – in Poland, in the Baltics and across Central and Eastern Europe,” von der Leyen said. “They’ve been telling us for years that Putin won’t stop.”
In the EU’s eastern flank, officials welcomed the Commission chief’s message, while insisting that rhetoric is not enough.
“We know our neighbour,” said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted in response. “It’s not about ‘we told you so,'” she added, “it’s about how we’re going to move forward. Without fear. The Kremlin won’t stop until it will not be repelled and justice will not have prevailed.
Andrzej Sadoś, Poland’s ambassador to the EU, praised von der Leyen’s “words of self-criticism”, but immediately pivoted to what comes next.
“For years we have said Putin will not stop and his intention is to constantly expand his empire,” the ambassador said in a text message.
But, he added, what is “more important now is to take further steps to counter Russia’s economic and political influence in the West and uproot the Russkiy Mir ideology that inspired today’s war.
On this list of additional steps: more military and humanitarian aid, a faster release of promised financial aid and additional sanctions against Russia.
“It is also necessary to maintain the high pace of [the] Ukraine’s EU accession process,” he added.
For some officials, the president’s comments underscore the need to listen to new EU members on Russia. Lithuania shares a border with Russia and earlier this year was able to completely wean itself off Russian energy – an important aspiration of the EU.
Pranckevičius, the Lithuanian ambassador, said his country could offer the EU an “inconvenient truth”, as well as “expertise” on “how to deal with Russia’s aggression and end our energy dependence on Russian fossil fuels”.
He expressed hope that officials could still “muscle the political will” for more Russian sanctions, even though von der Leyen did not offer any new sanctions on Wednesday. He also pointed to a firm promise made by von der Leyen during his speech: “Sanctions are here to stay.”
Other eastern officials implored European leaders to heed von der Leyen’s remarks.
“I hope this message will be more widely understood,” said a diplomat from an eastern EU state, before delivering a pointed criticism of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
At a time when Ukraine’s military is advancing and internal criticism is spreading in Russia, “some European leaders still think it’s a good idea to have an unexpected 90-minute phone call with Putin,” the diplomat added. , referring to a call between Scholz and Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
It’s not what everyone heard
But in Western Europe, von der Leyen’s message was interpreted differently – as a critique of past thinking rather than a shift in future policy.
“There’s definitely a certain mea culpa in there,” said a second Western European diplomat, while noting that “the focus was on the past.”
“But I hope the most important lesson will be that the Commission – and the European institutions in general – must listen to everyone, all Member States, and not just a few big ones.”
Speaking of new sanctions, an EU official was explicit about the nature of the problem in many Western capitals: “Reopening sanctions comes at a significant political cost. How divisive they might be,” he said. “And [the] the population will link the difficulties here to the sanctions (not true, but that’s the story on the other side).
Of course, that could always change. Everything depends on the evolution of the war.
“As the Russians pull back, more mass graves might come out,” said the top Western European diplomat, who saw von der Leyen’s remark as a hindsight.
If that happens, the diplomat noted, “certain steps will have to be taken.”
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