After the EU’s seventh sanctions package against Russia, perhaps Ursula von der Leyen might rest. But in setting out the sixth battery of punitive measures on Wednesday, the European Commission president cemented her place at the vanguard of Western leaders denouncing the war in Ukraine, and demanding accountability for Moscow’s warmongers.
The sixth package includes some of the toughest penalties yet aimed at crippling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economy, as well as the cronies and propagandists who have enabled his ruinous dictatorship — including Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has defiled his station by effectively blessing the bloodshed in Ukraine.
The EU’s proposed new measures include a phased-in, all-out ban on Russian oil imports, with crude oil purchases to end within six months and refined oil purchases to end within a year. Some EU countries are seeking exceptions to the deadlines, but the long-term effect will be to stop purchases by European customers of Russia’s most lucrative commodity export.
In her speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, however, von der Leyen not only spoke with the technical authority about economic measures but also with the moral clarity that has at times eluded other EU leaders in recent months, like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who has grappled with his country’s reticence to engage in military conflicts, or French President Emmanuel Macron who was caught up in a re-election campaign and for months made cloying comments about hoping to engage with Putin.
At times, von der Leyen spoke with steely resolve. “First, we are listing high-ranking military officers and individuals who committed war crimes in Bucha and those who are responsible for the inhuman siege of the city of Mariupol,” she said. “This sends another important signal to all perpetrators of the Kremlin: We know who you are. We will hold you accountable. You are not getting away with this.”
At other times, she spoke with a focus on the sweep of history and the imperative to grasp the awful ramifications of the return of full-blown war to European soil.
Von der Leyen, a three-time former German minister and disciple of recently retired Chancellor Angela Merkel, opened her address looking ahead to next Monday’s Europe Day commemoration.
“It is the 72nd birthday of our Union,” she said. “And on this Europe Day will talk about of course the Union of the future — how we make it stronger, more resilient, closer to its people. But the answer to all of these questions, we cannot give alone in these days. The answer is also given in Ukraine.”
“It is given in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian first responders venture into the combat zone to help those wounded by Russian attacks,” von der Leyen continued. “It is given in the small town of Bucha, where survivors are coping with the atrocities committed against civilians by Russian soldiers. And it is given these days in Mariupol, where Ukrainians are resisting a Russian force, which greatly outnumbers them.”
“They are fighting to reaffirm basic ideas,” von der Leyen said. “That they are the master of their future — and not a foreign leader. That it is the international law that counts and not the right of might. And that Putin must pay a price — a high price for his brutal aggression. Thus, the future of our European Union is also written in Ukraine.”
Von der Leyen did not specifically mention Ukraine’s urgent application for EU membership, on which her Commission must soon deliver a formal “opinion.” But she made clear once again that she saw Ukraine as a future EU member in the long term. She proposed that the EU start working on a recovery package that would “eventually … pave the way for Ukraine’s future inside the European Union.”
Top officials in Kyiv, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are hoping that at the least the heads of state and government on the European Council will vote to bestow “candidate” status on Ukraine at their summit in Brussels in late June.
The Ukrainians recognize that an accession process would take many years, but the designation of candidate status is viewed as a crucially needed boost for national morale. That step, they say, would offer firm reassurance that the Western, democratic future that a majority of Ukrainians support is indeed worth soldiers dying for in large numbers.
In recent months, according to senior EU and U.S. diplomats, von der Leyen has seized a firm grip on the transatlantic dialogue on Russia and sanctions policy, becoming U.S. President Joe Biden’s primary interlocutor — the woman the White House calls when America wants to talk to the EU. And she and her team are given credit for navigating the typical pitfalls of EU discord over sanctions policy, successfully delivering round after round of punishing measures with relatively limited dissent.
Wednesday’s speech effectively marked the latest step in that effort, as von der Leyen rolled out the much-anticipated plan for oil sanctions, over which many capitals, including Berlin, had expressed serious apprehension, even as they acknowledged the urgent need to end the EU’s dependence on Russian energy and to cut off Putin’s crucial revenue streams.
The new sanctions package, which still requires unanimous approval from all 27 EU member countries, will also sever Sberbank, Russia’s largest consumer bank, from the SWIFT international payment system, as well as two other large banks.
“By that, we hit banks that are systemically critical to the Russian financial system and Putin’s ability to wage destruction,” von der Leyen said. “This will solidify the complete isolation of the Russian financial sector from the global system.”
In her speech, von der Leyen laid out ambitious plans for reconstruction and rebuilding in Ukraine, totaling hundreds of billions, for which she said the EU should bear “very special responsibility.” And she noted that Ukraine now needs some €5 billion per month in assistance, according to the International Monetary Fund, just to keep the country afloat while the war continues.
But it was von der Leyen’s rhetorical flourishes in denouncing Putin and the war that showed the Commission president had found solid leadership footing in a crisis that, however improbably, stands to overshadow the coronavirus pandemic when history books are written of her time in office.
“Putin wanted to wipe out Ukraine from the map,” von der Leyen said. “And he will clearly not succeed. On the contrary: Ukraine has risen in bravery and in unity. And it is his own country, Russia, that Putin is sinking.”