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Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment for the EU, the bloc's commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic has told The National.
The EU will not remain an economic giant with a pacifist approach, as several countries are starting to shore up their military defences, Mr Lenarcic said in an exclusive interview during a visit to Dubai.
He said Russia's assault on its neighbour has shown the unity of the EU, as all member states speak with one voice on the future security strategy.
“The Russian aggression on Ukraine has triggered or accelerated the discussion within the European Union to strengthen the common European defence,” Mr Lenarcic said.
“The war has reminded us the world is a dangerous place where we have undemocratic, authoritarian regimes that don’t observe the international law.”
Mr Lenarcic was in the UAE this week to attend the 18th Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development conference and exhibition, from March 14 to March 16. This brought together key decision-makers from national government authorities, UN agencies, international organisations and leading NGOs.
During his visit, Mr Lenarcic met with Minister of State for International Co-operation Reem Al Hashimy.
Last week, the UAE sent, via Poland, an aircraft carrying 30 tonnes of emergency health aid and medical supplies to Ukraine, as part of its emergency relief efforts to assist civilians.
This came in response to the international humanitarian appeal to support displaced Ukrainians and refugees in neighbouring countries.
More than three million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion nearly three weeks ago.
Mr Putin has cited Ukraine’s ambitions to join Nato and the western defence alliance stationing troops in eastern Europe as his main justification for the war.
Preventing another war
Mr Lenarcic, a former director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights within the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe intergovernmental organisation, said the invasion of Ukraine has given Europe a sense of direction in its future policies to prevent another war in the region.
“Both the economic and defence policies are so important. The EU also focuses on green and digital transition, but it’s also important to have defence capabilities as the Russian aggression serves as the biggest reminder that one has to possess suitable deterrent capabilities,” the Slovenian diplomat said.
Several European countries, especially those bordering Ukraine, Russia or Moscow's ally Belarus, have sought to expand their military capabilities.
They increased mandatory military services and put their armed forces on high alert during the long Russian build-up to the war with the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops to the borders with Ukraine.
Officials in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Latvia have said repeatedly that they want to ensure their defences are enough to deter a Russian invasion.
They are hoping to secure sophisticated US defence equipment that includes anti-tank weapons and the Patriot air defence missile system.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has set up a fund of €100bn ($109.6) to strengthen the country’s armed forces.
He told the Bundestag, that the urgency of the Ukraine crisis had forced Germany's decision to invest in the military.
“Germany was one of the most reluctant countries to go into this direction, but it did decide to increase dramatically its military expenditure and to abandon its pacifist policy [adopted after the Second World War], because as long as you have aggressive autocratic regimes in the world, like we do in Europe, you need to invest in defence,” he said.
EU sanctions on Russia 'will have an impact'
Mr Lenarcic said EU sanctions on Russia are effective in the mid and long term.
“They will have an impact. The Russian currency has fallen dramatically, investments stopped with the withdrawal of hundreds of European companies from Russia and more will come as long as this aggression continues,” he said.
In recent days, Russia has escalated its bombardment of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and launched new assaults on the southern port city of Mariupol.
On Tuesday, the leaders of three EU countries — Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia — visited Kyiv in a bold show of support, despite the danger.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa described the visit as sending the message that Ukraine is a European country that deserves to be accepted into the EU one day.
In its assessment of the military advances by Russia, the Pentagon says that the Russians depend on long-range fire to hit civilian targets inside Kyiv with increasing frequency but that their ground forces were making little to no progress around the country.
“This is not just bilateral issue between Russia and Ukraine,” said Mr Lenarcic. “It's not only a European issue either. This is a global issue because what's at stake is whether the world will be based on some fundamental rules or it will be a jungle.”