Zelenskyy says profits from Russian assets should fund weapons for Kyiv

Appeal to EU leaders came hours before Moscow launched huge attack on Ukraine's energy infrastructure

A Ukrainian soldier taking part in a training exercise in northern England last year. PA
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Russia launched its biggest aerial attack of the Ukraine war overnight, targeting Ukrainian energy infrastructure with more than 150 missiles and drones.

This onslaught came hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had on Thursday addressed a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, urging them to use billions of euros in profits from frozen Russian financial assets to buy weapons for Kyiv.

Energy facilities were attacked in locations including the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, in the south-east, Vinnytsia, in west-central Ukraine, the western city of Khmelnytskyi and Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine.

Moscow launched about 90 missiles and 60 Iranian Shahed drones in the attack, Mr Zelenskyy said on Friday.

“There were more than 60 Shaheds and almost 90 missiles of various types overnight,” he said.

“The world sees the targets of Russian terrorists as clearly as possible: power plants and energy supply lines, a hydroelectric dam, ordinary residential buildings – even a trolleybus.”

Ukraine's air force said it downed 92 of 151 missiles and drones launched.

This week, the European Commission proposed transferring 90 per cent of profits from the frozen Russian assets to an EU-run fund used to finance arms for Kyiv.

The assets consist of Russian central bank securities and cash, and the commission estimates the profits could be worth between €2.5 billion ($2.73 billion) and €3 billion a year.

“Russia must feel the real cost of war and the need for a just peace,” Mr Zelenskyy told the EU leaders by video link, backing a proposal he said was “only fair”.

He said it was “humiliating for Europe” that Ukraine did not have enough artillery in its fight against Russia, which invaded its neighbour in February 2022.

Late on Thursday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she had told EU leaders “that if we are swift now in concluding the proposal, we could disburse the first billion on the 1st of July”.

Russia said on Thursday its artillery shell production had soared over the past year. On Wednesday, it described the EU plan as banditry and theft.

The idea of using the proceeds of frozen Russian assets to benefit Ukraine has broad support among EU governments, diplomats say.

But using the money to buy weapons is more problematic for some countries.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, among others, backed the plan as they arrived at the summit.

“These [profits] should first of all be used to buy those weapons and ammunition that Ukraine needs to defend itself,” Mr Scholz said, expressing optimism about the chances of EU leaders uniting on the subject.

The proposal raises questions for others, particularly neutral or militarily non-aligned countries such as Malta, Austria and Ireland.

“For us neutrals, it must be ensured that money, for which we give our approval, is not spent on weapons and ammunition,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said.

Attention will also focus on the reaction of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who congratulated Mr Putin on a re-election that many western governments condemned as unfair and undemocratic.

No final decision on the assets is expected at the summit, but leaders will indicate how the EU should proceed with the proposal.

“We must make sure that this is, from a legal point of view, extremely well thought through,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Luc Frieden said.

Some western banks are lobbying against the proposal, fearing it could lead to costly litigation, industry sources said.

The bloc's 27 national leaders will also debate how Europe can do more to defend itself and boost its arms industry, reflecting fears that Russia will not stop at Ukraine and that the US may not be such a staunch protector of Europe in future.

“Now that we are facing the biggest security threat since the Second World War, it is high time we take radical and concrete steps to be defence-ready and put the EU's economy on a war footing,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council.

At the two-day summit, the EU leaders will also discuss the war in Gaza, the prospect of opening membership talks with Bosnia and farmers' protests.

They are also expected to consider how greater defence spending should be financed.

French President Emmanuel Macron and others have embraced a proposal by Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas for European defence bonds.

But other countries, including fiscally cautious Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden, are sceptical.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte repeated his opposition to this as he arrived at the summit.

Such borrowing was urgently needed, Ms Kallas told Reuters.

“The crisis is right now, here. We have to invest in defence now,” she said. “We don't have the time to wait.”

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:52 PM