As Foreign Minister, no date is more deeply engrained in my memory than the 24th of February 2022. Having dreaded the news for days, on that morning it became terribly true: Russia had invaded Ukraine – in blatant violation of our peaceful order in Europe.
That day changed the world.
For six months now, people in Ukraine have been facing matters of life and death on a daily basis; the survival of their families and their homeland has been at stake.
For six months now, Russia has wielded reduced natural gas and grain deliveries as a weapon and in the process exploited the poorest people in the world.
For six months now, Moscow has explicitly pursued a policy whereby it wants to split the world into spheres of influence and divide our societies by spreading targeted disinformation.
We must face the facts: this Russia will for the foreseeable future remain a threat to peace and security in Europe.
This may be tough to swallow. I, too, would like nothing more than for this war to finally be over. For people to no longer die in missile strikes at train stations, for Ukrainian children to no longer have to restart school thousands of kilometres from their home country. And for it to be possible for them to finally hug their fathers back home.
That wish is what motivates me, day after day. But this wish alone will not bring peace to Ukraine.
Ever since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, many thought Putin would stop sooner or later – a hope that ultimately proved to be futile. For thousands of Ukrainian women and men, pinning their hopes on this has cost them their lives, along with those of many young Russian soldiers who are fighting in this war against their will. We owe it to these victims to take action.
What we are witnessing is the collision of two worldviews. On the one side are the countries that believe in a rules-based international order. On the other side, there are aggressive authoritarian regimes that oppress their own people and want to oppress others with imperialist tools.
Finland and Sweden never intended to become part of NATO. Now they are joining our Alliance because they are worried about Putin’s Russia.
What signal would we have sent to authoritarian states had we imposed no sanctions, and provided no weapons – had we accepted a regime invading its neighbour? Then no small country would have been safe again, ever!
That is why I, along with my French counterpart, am campaigning in the EU for a strategic realignment of Europe’s policy on Russia, in four areas:
First, we will keep up our support for Ukraine. We will permanently stand up to Russia’s aggression. And we will continue to make it clear that anyone who violates the rules on such a massive scale will be internationally isolated.
Sanctions are not an end in themselves, but they do underline that brutality and violating the rules will have consequences. You cannot invade Ukraine in the winter and then the next summer expect to send your football team to the European championships in England, as if nothing had happened – that simply will not work.
Through our sanctions, we are in the long run not only limiting Moscow’s economic power, but also curtailing its military capabilities.
Second, we will strengthen Europe’s ability to defend itself. By investing in modern technology and equipment, better coordinating our European defence industries and strengthening the European pillar of NATO.
Moreover, Putin is taking aim at our social harmony. That is why our society must become more resilient, on all levels. We are standing up to Russian armies of trolls when they try to undermine our elections, and we are protecting our companies when they are attacked by hackers, with enhanced coordination between our secret services and through collective cyber defence.
Already now, we’re feeling the pressure of having been too vulnerable: our fellow citizens are paying a bitter price with their gas bills for having been too dependent for many years. That is why we are working on ending our dependence on Russian gas and fossil fuels as soon as possible. The best way of protecting ourselves against Russia’s power plays with coal, gas and oil is to provide targeted support to those who fear they will no longer be able to heat their homes come next winter. At the same time, every cent we invest in solar cells, wind farms and green hydrogen systems is an investment in our security.
Third, we must invest in our partnerships in a more concerted way than ever before. Our message is that we hear you. We stand with you.
For this, we must take a more strategic policy approach, above all with regard to our eastern neighbourhood. For too long, we have dashed the hopes of, for example, people in the Balkans. Eastern Europe is not Russia’s backyard. It is in our own best interest for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia to proceed down the road to EU membership.
And beyond Europe, too, Putin is attempting to enlarge his sphere of influence. For this, Putin’s propaganda machine has taken close aim at the countries of the Global South. He has sent groups of mercenaries to Mali, where they flagrantly violate human rights. He willingly accepts that his grain war has brought the threat of starvation to countless men, women and children in the Horn of Africa; at the same time, he is spreading the false message that this is due to the sanctions – whereas in fact no sanctions have been imposed on grain.
We in the EU are calling out these lies by speaking with a single, loud and honest voice – and by working to increase food security in the countries of the Global South. Compared to the EU, Russia’s support in Africa, for example, is minimal. What we have on offer are reliable partnerships and fair investments – rather than military dependency and oppressive contracts.
Of course, we must also recognise that some countries have for decades been dependent on Russia, for example in Central Asia. For them, too, we should have an open ear and propose alternatives. Otherwise, our calls for other nations to join us in opposing Russia’s illegal actions will ring hollow.
Fourth, we will not abandon Russia’s civil society to the chokehold of the regime. That is why we want to use channels through which young people in Russia can still get access to objective information. Platforms such as TikTok or Telegram may be even more effective in this regard than the Petersburg dialogue, which involves the use of state structures in Russia.
We are continuing to promote networking among Russia’s diaspora and to support independent NGOs. We are providing targeted scholarships and work permits, and we are supporting Russian-language journalists’ independent reporting on Russia. We should take a differentiated view with regard to granting visas as well, rather than completely stopping to issue them – especially for victims of governmental repression.
All of this will not change Putin’s worldview. But when international norms are violated in the most egregious way, such as with the attack on Ukraine, the EU must take a stand.
With these measures, we are protecting the victims of Russian aggression – and we are protecting ourselves: we are enhancing the EU’s long-term capabilities to defend itself against Russia, and we are investing in our partnerships around the world.
On the 24th of February, Russia’s war changed our world. There is no way back. But there is a clear way forward, and we must decisively, prudently and in a spirit of solidarity proceed down this path.