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Wider Europe Briefing: Ukraine Could Get More Ammo From The EU; NATO Looks Back At A Difficult Year

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Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m drilling down on two major issues: Will EU leaders finally green-light more ammunition to Ukraine, and what’s included in the NATO secretary-general’s annual report?

Brief #1: EU Leaders Could Agree On Sending More Ammunition To Ukraine
What You Need To Know: European Union leaders will gather for another summit in Brussels on March 23-24. While the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stole the show with a surprise visit at their last meeting in February, this gathering is set to be a more low-key affair, focusing on how to kick-start the European economy. Of course, Ukraine will still feature a good deal, especially as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been invited to discuss the situation in the country.

The main issue right now remains how the EU can provide more ammunition to Kyiv. The bloc’s defense ministers discussed the issue when they met in Stockholm earlier this month, and EU foreign ministers are likely to agree on the main principles of a plan on March 20 before leaders can potentially sign off on it during the summit.

The idea is that Brussels will use the European Peace Facility (EPF) — an off-EU budget funding mechanism for military investment. Of the 8 billion euros ($8.5 billion) available in this pot, over 3 billion euros has already gone to EU member states for previous weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Now the suggestion is that another 1 billion euros will firstly go to reimburse EU member states so that they can immediately donate ammunition from their own stockpiles. After that, EU member states will pledge to jointly buy 1 billion euros worth of new ammunition with the hope that the increased supply on the market will bring down prices.

Deep Background: So far, there are two main obstacles that could prevent a quick agreement. The first is that some countries, led by France, want purchases only of European ammunition. Others would prefer to buy from further afield — countries such as South Korea — as current European stockpiles are being depleted and production capacity on the continent might not be ramped up immediately.

Another issue is that some countries worry that all the EPF money will be used up for Ukraine — and very quickly. The kitty of 8 billion euros was supposed to last until 2027, but with over 5 billion euros already spent or earmarked for Kyiv, those fears are for good reason. Ukraine is also likely to need a lot more ammunition going forward as there is little indication that the war will end soon.

According to an EU concept note on the issue, seen by RFE/RL, Russian forces have been firing between 20,000 to 50,000 artillery rounds per day in recent months. The corresponding figure from Ukraine is significantly lower: between 4,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds daily. The estimation is that the Ukrainian Army needs at least 357,000 rounds of all types of ammunition per month.

Drilling Down

Ammunition is not the only Ukraine-related issue that leaders will discuss. The draft summit conclusions, seen by RFE/RL and set to be adopted at the meeting, state that “Russia must immediately ensure the safe return of Ukrainians forcibly transferred or deported to Russia, in particular children.”
The EU has already sanctioned some Russian officials that Brussels deems as being instrumental in the “kidnapping” of Ukrainian children. According to EU officials familiar with the matter but who are not authorized to speak on the record, more people could be targeted soon, even though that might not be agreed on this week.
For now, more economic sanctions on Russia seem to be off the table, with the draft summit conclusions merely noting that “the European Union remains committed to maintaining and further increasing collective pressure on Russia.”
This won’t prevent some member states, notably in the east, from pushing for more concrete language on future sanctions packages targeting the Russian nuclear industry, diamond imports into the bloc, and further restrictive measures against Russian people and companies believed to be spreading pro-Kremlin war narratives.
There could be movement on another round of sanctions on Belarus, either in the run-up to or on the sidelines of the summit. A new set of restrictive measures against Minsk was proposed by the European Commission over a month ago, but it has been held up as Lithuania, backed by the other Baltic states, is unhappy about sanctions derogations proposed in the package for Belarusian fertilizers. Portugal is the main supporter of these derogations, arguing that Belarusian fertilizers are needed to contribute to food security, particularly in poorer countries worldwide.
It’s also possible that potential sanctions will be discussed against people or entities trying to destabilize Moldova. This is currently being explored by Brussels after a recent request from Chisinau. So far, the draft conclusions simply note that “the European Union will continue to provide all relevant support to the Republic of Moldova, including support to help strengthen the country’s resilience, security, stability, economy, and energy supply.”
Brief #2: NATO Secretary-General To Look Back On The Alliance’s Momentous, Difficult Year
What You Need To Know: On March 21 at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will present his annual report for 2022 — reviewing one of the most momentous years in the military alliance’s history.

In the report, which RFE/RL has seen excerpts of, he reflects on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, noting that “President Putin wants a different Europe. He sees democracy and freedom as a threat, and he seeks to control his neighbors. So even if the war in Ukraine ends tomorrow, our security environment has changed for the long-term. There is simply no going back.” He also adds that “Putin must not win. If he does, it will show that aggression works and that force is rewarded. This would be dangerous for our own security, and for the whole world.”

Just like the final declaration from the NATO Madrid summit in June 2022, the annual report notes that NATO “cannot consider Russia to be a partner.” The report adds, however, that “NATO remains willing to keep open channels of communication with Moscow to manage and mitigate risks, prevent escalation, and increase transparency.”

Easier said than done, perhaps, as NATO officials familiar with the issue but who are not authorized to speak on the record tell me that, in reality, there is very little interaction with Russia at the moment. The NATO-Russia Council, which is the formal avenue for talks between the alliance and Moscow, has not met since January 2022 and no new meeting is foreseen anytime soon. To complicate matters further, Russia suspended its mission to NATO and ordered the closure of the NATO office in Moscow already in 2021.

Deep Background: Much of the annual report focuses on the war in Ukraine and the implications it has had on the alliance. It notes that, last year, the 30 NATO allies spent roughly $120 billion on military, humanitarian, and financial assistance to Ukraine. The United States was the largest single contributor, even though the European countries and Canada together provided over half of the overall assistance.

Total NATO military spending in 2022 was estimated to exceed $1 trillion. With heightened military tensions in Europe, that sum is expected to rise significantly in the years to come. According to a poll that NATO conducted among citizens in its member countries, 74 percent think that defense spending should either be maintained at current levels or increased, compared to 70 percent in 2021. In the latest poll, just 12 percent of respondents think that less should be spent on defense.

Drilling Down

The annual report also notes some of the historic decisions taken by NATO last year. As a direct response to the Russian invasion, the alliance activated its defense plans, deploying the NATO Response Force, which includes 40,000 troops, in the eastern parts of the alliance for the very first time.
There was also the agreement to establish four new multinational battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, and to boost the four battlegroups already set up in the three Baltic states and Poland as a response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The report also notes the decision last June to invite Sweden and Finland to become NATO members at the Madrid summit, even though there is no indication when the Nordic pair can actually join. The parliamentary group of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party announced on March 17 that it would vote in favor of Finland’s accession ratification in a vote in parliament on March 27, but that it would decide on the Swedish ratification at a later, unspecified date.
Also on March 17, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Ankara would move ahead with the Finnish bid to join the alliance, even though no date for a vote in parliament was given. Erdogan also confirmed Turkey’s continued misgivings about Sweden, notably Ankara wanting Stockholm to extradite more of its Kurdish political opponents.
Sweden has also conceded that it will probably join later than Finland and that not much is likely to happen until after the Turkish elections in mid-May. The NATO secretary-general has, however, indicated that both countries should be members by NATO’s Vilnius summit in July.
At that summer gathering, one of the main issues will be how to deal with Ukraine’s aspirations to join the alliance. Kyiv officially applied for membership back in September 2022, and NATO has always said it maintains an open-door policy. In reality though, the door is pretty much shut, as there is no chance of Ukraine joining when the country is at war.
But there is a push, notably by eastern members of the alliance, to offer Ukraine something more at the upcoming summit in the Lithuanian capital — with ideas ranging from a more concrete partnership with NATO, postwar security guarantees, or some sort of road map detailing eventual membership. Something similar could also be in the works for another NATO aspirant, Georgia.
Looking Ahead
On March 21, the Europe ministers of the EU’s 27 member states will meet in Brussels for the monthly General Affairs Council (GAC) — a configuration that usually deals with internal issues in the bloc, such as the preparation for EU summits or rule of law issues. For this meeting, Olha Stefanishyna, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, will join for an informal lunch to update her EU colleagues on how Kyiv is meeting the seven requirements Brussels set out last year for Ukraine to start EU accession talks.

On the same day, the bloc’s 27 defense ministers will meet in Brussels with their counterparts from 45 other countries — many from the Western Balkans and the bloc’s Eastern neighborhood — for the first-ever Schuman Security and Defense Forum. It is named after Robert Schuman, a former French prime minister, president of the European Parliament, and considered to be one of the EU’s founding fathers. The idea behind the forum, which will take place every other year, is to bring together the EU’s closest partners to discuss common security and defense threats. While many might wonder whether Europe really needs yet another talking shop, it does signal that the EU is starting to take defense matters more seriously.

Source : Rferl

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