Brussels Playbook: How the world changed — China’s play — Where they were last Feb 24
Presented by Novo Nordisk
By NICHOLAS VINOCUR
with ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH
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GOOD MORNING. This is Nick Vinocur, bringing you Playbook one year after President Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Against all odds, Kyiv is still standing and has taken back big chunks of its territory. But Ukrainian forces are engaged in a brutal slugfest with Russia in the southeast and in Bakhmut — where one U.S. volunteer said the life expectancy for front-line troops is four hours. Today, we’ll look back at a year of unthinkable changes while contemplating further big shifts at the outset of Year Two.
DRIVING THE DAY: 1 YEAR OF UKRAINIAN RESISTANCE
‘THINGS CHANGE, AND THEY CHANGE QUICKLY’: A year ago, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unthinkable to some EU leaders. Yet it was only the first of a series of unthinkable events — from Ukraine’s unexpectedly successful resistance in the face of Russia’s onslaught, to Germany’s Zeitenwende, to the underwater destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines and Europe’s (relative) unity in backing Kyiv.
As the war enters its second year, more unthinkable things are in order. Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes staring us in the face on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion …
CHINA’S GLOBAL POWER PLAY: Beijing is using the war to position itself as a new global peace-broker in a fairly naked challenge to the current U.S.-led security order. Who would have thought a year ago that China would pitch itself as the mediator in a European war — while quietly backing the aggressor?
**A message from Novo Nordisk: During this week in Playbook, we have covered how Novo Nordisk contributes to patients, health systems, and the economy in the EU. Regulatory reform is urgently needed to ensure that our sector can contribute even more in the decades to come – but divisive proposals would delay this for years.**
Yet here we are. Chinese President Xi Jinping takes to the stage today at the United Nations to detail Beijing’s plan for ending the war and restoring peace to the world. Never mind that Kyiv hasn’t seen the plan, or that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has his own “formula for peace” that he quite likes. Xi isn’t going to let the moment pass.
We’re here: For Sari Arho Havrén, adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, Beijing’s strategy is two-pronged: 1) Present China as the world’s new peacebroker against a “warmongering” United States; and 2) Shore up its “no limits” friendship with Moscow by discreetly ramping up support.
Balancing act: The Chinese “want to counter the U.S. as the global peacemaker, while arguing that Washington is adding fuel to the fire in Ukraine,” Havrén said. “At the same time, Beijing doesn’t want to see Russia ending up in catastrophic defeat. Beijing needs Russia — the main reason being to counter the United States, while keeping their mutual border stable.”
US intel surprise? But the U.S. may seek to ruin Xi’s moment. On Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance sees signs that Beijing might be looking to start arming Russia, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he’s considering releasing intelligence to support the claim.
What should you expect? Der Spiegel reported late Thursday that Beijing was in talks with Moscow to deliver 100 strike drones. Havrén said Russia needs “ammunition, gun barrels, equipment for defense and industrial plans to keep their industries going,” but cautioned that Beijing would be careful not to muddy its peace-making message.
Yet Beijing is also in a bind, said Camille Grand, former assistant secretary-general for defense investment at NATO. “The Chinese probably believed Putin when he said it was a matter of days or weeks [to subdue Ukraine]. Now they are in a Catch-22. If Russia loses badly, that doesn’t make their point. On the other hand, a never-ending conflict isn’t good for their economic interest.”
Another major shift: The U.S. is tripling down on its commitment to NATO. Grand, now a distinguished policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Washington had managed to lead the response to Russia’s invasion without turning the EU into a helpless bystander — to the contrary. “Our typical debate — NATO versus the EU — has been put to rest. We have a new joint declaration where we say both organizations are in the same boat.”
You wash, I’ll dry: “There is an emerging division of labor: NATO continues being a deterrent, and the EU plays a more structuring role in supporting Ukraine. Things change, and things change quite rapidly.”
NOW READ THIS: Our Stateside colleagues have this report on how American energy helped Europe best Putin.
EUROPE CONTEMPLATES UNTHINKABLE ON DEFENSE: Despite the EU’s budget commissioner ruling out using EU money to fund arms purchases, per Suzanne Lynch and Paola Tamma’s reporting, changes may be looming on Europe’s approach to defense.
Impossible is nothing: While the idea of ganging up to purchase weapons has long been verboten, the need to urgently supply Ukraine with mountains of ammunition could yet break the taboo. “We are doing many things that previously were unthinkable,” said Grand.
Lightning strikes twice? The former NATO official pointed to a proposal from Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to repeat the magic trick of the EU jointly purchasing COVID-19 vaccines as an argument that could sway leaders. “When this sort of idea pops up, the EU institutions, [EU top diplomat Josep] Borrell, the Commission, they are saying, ‘let’s look into it’ rather than saying it’s impossible,” he said.
WEEKEND LISTENING: Don’t miss this special edition of EU Confidential, POLITICO’s weekly podcast, where Suzanne speaks to political scientist Ivan Krastev, we report direct from Kyiv and hear how the conversation is turning to the issue of Russia’s war crime responsibility.
WHERE THEY WERE LAST FEBRUARY 24
‘OH MY GOD, IT’S REALLY HAPPENING’: POLITICO is out with this must-read definitive account of the days and hours leading up to the events of February 24, 2022. Suzanne Lynch, Lili Bayer and Jacopo Barigazzi spoke to some of the most senior figures involved in the events of a year ago — prime ministers, high-ranking EU and NATO officials, foreign ministers and diplomats — nearly 20 in total — to reflect on the war’s early days. Here are some of the highlights, as they recall a night seared in their memories …
European Council President Charles Michel: “I was woken up by Zelenskyy. He called me around 3 o’clock in the morning and informed me that the aggression had started, that it was a full-scale invasion, with hundreds of missiles already fired by Russia.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg: “The day before the invasion, on the 23rd, I was planning to be in Den Haag to give a speech. I canceled the visit to Den Haag to be in Brussels. And I remember that, when I went to bed, I was absolutely certain that I was going to be woken up late in the night, and that’s exactly what happened. I was told that they have started.”
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas: “I went to bed on the evening of the 23rd, and had told my Cabinet members to keep their phones on because we could have a government meeting during the night because the war is starting. I went to bed hoping that I was not right. Then I got the call.”
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Europe minister at the time: “I was woken by a phone call in the early hours of 24th and was told Russia was indeed invading Ukraine. I wasn’t surprised — only shocked at the colossal misstep I thought Putin was making. There really is a different mindset to preparing for something and that thing is actually happening. I took the call, listened and thought to myself ‘right, for a lot of people’s sakes, there is going to be a lot to do today and we must get it right.’”
REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: POLITICO’s Opinion Editor Jamie Dettmer was in Kyiv when Putin declared war. Read his first-hand account of the next few days. “My mind now fills with images of evacuating families who fled the crash and thump of ordnance, pulling over by the side of the road to get some rest from their hours-long, or even days-long, personal odysseys,” he writes. “They were trying to get to neighboring borders that seemed to only get further away with each passing kilometer.”
REFUGEE DIARIES: A year ago, POLITICO asked eight Ukrainian refugees to keep a digital diary as they adjusted to their new lives. Watch the latest instalment here.
DISPATCH FROM THE FRONT LINE: Yegor Firsov, a combat paramedic in Avdiivka who is a former member of his country’s parliament, has written a piece for POLITICO about how the past 12 months have changed him and his fellow soldiers.
MUST READ: POLITICO’s Veronika Melkozerova traveled to Bucha, the suburb to the northwest of Kyiv that has become synonymous with Russian war crimes, to interview Valentyn Didkovsky, the 64-year-old Ukrainian territorial defense force volunteer who blew up a fuel tanker, then called in artillery to finish off a Russian convoy in a defining early battle of the war. “Didkovsky saw the Russians from his two-story brick house on Vokzalna Street,” Veronika writes. “He was ready for them: A couple of days earlier, he’d persuaded his comrades near the Giraffe department store in Irpin to give him several grenades and an RPG-18 grenade launcher.”
WAR BY THE NUMBERS, IN PICTURES: Twelve months of conflict, in figures and charts, by Giovanna Coi and Arnau Busquets Guàrdia … and here’s a year of war in pictures, by Ivo Oliveira.
PUSH FOR NEW SANCTIONS
EU AMBASSADORS SEEK 11TH-HOUR SANCTIONS DEAL: After failing to finalize a sanctions package on Thursday, EU ambassadors are meeting this morning to keep their promise of reaching a deal on the 10th sanctions package against Moscow by the one-year anniversary of the war (today, obviously).
Almost there: Diplomats said agreement had been reached on all aspects of the package, except for one: synthetic rubber. What’s that, you might ask? It’s used for tyre production and is a big industry. In 2021, for example, Russia’s synthetic rubber exports were worth almost $2 billion, $700 million of which went to the EU. Some forms of rubber were sanctioned in previous packages, but a synthetic ban would cut off additional revenue streams.
Who’s holding things up? No, it’s not Hungary — it’s Poland. Warsaw objects to proposed restrictions on imports of synthetic rubber that it claims aren’t strong enough. The Commission suggested setting a quota limit at 560,000 metric tons, an EU diplomat said — but that’s even higher than current imports, the Polish official said. Trade data show that imports from Russia haven’t exceeded that quota in the last decade. “We are not blocking sanctions,” a Polish official said on condition of anonymity. “We just want to have sanctions that make sense.”
Not amused: While several EU diplomats expressed being surprised at synthetic rubber holding things up, others were showing impatience, with another EU diplomat calling Poland’s move “unsustainable.”
Context: The current package already excludes other controversial points, like a ban on Russian diamond imports, making it easier to sanction oligarchs’ family members and entourages, or sanctioning certain employees of state nuclear company Rosatom.
EU CITIZENS SUPPORT MEASURES TAKEN AGAINST RUSSIA: The new Eurobarometer survey shows that the majority of EU citizens (56 percent) are satisfied with the EU response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with 91 percent in favor of providing humanitarian support and 84 percent in favor of the bloc reducing its dependency on Russian sources of energy.
IN OTHER NEWS
RADIO FREE RUSSIA UPDATE: Commission Vice President Věra Jourová was in Amsterdam on Thursday promoting her “Radio Free Russia” project, after a stint in Riga. Amsterdam is now home to exiled journalists from the Moscow Times, TV Rain and Meduza, who continue to produce content for people in Russia, Laura Kayali writes in to report. The Radio Free Russia project is not about a radio station, Jourová said, but about “creating the conditions to make the voice of Russian independent media louder. Amplifying their reach, connecting the different hubs of Russian independent media which exist in the EU.”
Next stop: Prague. Derk Sauer — the founder of the Moscow Times, who’s been spearheading efforts to help dissident Russian journalists abroad — said in an interview in the Amsterdam media hub that they’re looking to build another one in Prague, with about 50 to 60 journalists from independent Russian outlets. “Everything is ready, now we need the money. Everything depends on financing,” he said. Jourová is aware of the money issue — she said she wants to “use a project of €3 million to connect hubs and create a structure that will support Russian independent journalists and attract more money.” She’ll soon go to Prague.
EUROJUST SETS UP NEW DATA CENTER TO PROBE RUSSIA’S CRIMES IN UKRAINE: The EU’s judicial cooperation agency announced Thursday the launch of a database to document Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. The new International Center for Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression will gather and analyze the evidence presented by prosecutors of EU member countries and some third nations.
QATARGATE LATEST — GIORGI OUT: Francesco Giorgi, the partner of former Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili and a former assistant at the European Parliament, has been conditionally freed from detention, Pieter Haeck and Camille Gijs report.
ICYMI — CLOCK TICKING FOR TIKTOK: The European Commission and Council of the EU have banned staff from using Chinese social media app TikTok over security concerns.
FRIDAY FEATURES: Paul Dallison’s latest Declassified humor column is titled: “Back to the future with 99 Red Balloons and Roald Dahl books.” And Ailbhe Rea asks “what’s the point of the House of Lords?” in this week’s Westminster Insider podcast.
**As part of the broader launch of Pro Tech UK, the hub policy professionals can plug into to follow the who’s, what’s and where’s of U.K. Tech policy, Pro Morning Tech UK is hitting inboxes starting February 27. Become one of our first recipients of the newsletter with four weeks’ free access. Get started here.**
— European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Tallinn, Estonia to mark the anniversaries of the Estonian Declaration of Independence and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Flag-hoisting ceremony at 6:30 a.m.; wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument to the War of Independence at 8 a.m.; joint press conference by von der Leyen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas at 9:50 a.m.; military parade at 11 a.m. Watch.
— G7 virtual leaders’ summit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to join by video.
— OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s 22nd Winter Meeting in Vienna continues; statement (video) by HRVP Josep Borrell at 2 p.m. Watch. Agenda.
— Josep Borrell in New York, USA; joint press statement with Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba at 3:45 p.m; statement by Borrell at the ministerial-level U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine at 6 p.m. Watch.
— Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis in Sofia, Bulgaria; joint press point with Ukraine’s Ambassador to Bulgaria Olesya Ilashchuk following their meeting with Ukrainian refugees and volunteers.
— Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius in Porto, Portugal; attends the opening ceremony of the circular economy event Portuguese Shoes Green Pact together with Portuguese Environment Minister Duarte Cordeiro; visits the forest of Vouzela where the LIFE Landscape Fire Project aims to improve fire monitoring.
— Commission VP Margrethe Vestager in Copenhagen, Denmark. Attends a ceremony in support of the Ukrainian people organized by the Danish parliament; meets with Minister for Climate and Energy of Denmark Lars Aagaar.
— Commissioner Thierry Breton receives First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economy of Ukraine Yulia Svyrydenko.
— German Chancellor Olaf Scholz leaves for an official visit India.
EVENTS IN BRUSSELS MARKING THE 1 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE RUSSIAN INVASION …
— Inauguration of Ukrainian Mural project “The Wall” at 11 a.m. at Rue Haute 290, near the entrance to the emergency room of CHU Saint-Pierre (more on that below).
— Ukrainian solidarity march at Esplanade Solidarność 1980 at 1 p.m.
— Art exhibition titled “Bucha: The atrocities of Russian aggression,” at the Ukrainian Civil Society Hub at Place du Luxembourg, from 1:15 p.m.
— Discussion with citizens dedicated to first anniversary of the invasion at Cercle Royal Gaulois Artistique and Literary at 3 p.m. Register here.
— Opening of exhibition of Ukrainian children’s drawings “Mriyu” or “I dream” at Berlaymont at 4 p.m. with the participation of Commission VP Dubravka Šuica.
— Prayer for an end to Russian aggression against Ukraine at Cathedralis Sancti Michaelis et Gudulae at 5 p.m.
— Grand-Place and Gallerie Royale Saint-Hubert light up in Ukrainian colors from 7 p.m.-9 p.m.
HAPPENING SATURDAY — PROTEST MARCH: Thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Brussels tomorrow to protest the Russian invasion and in solidarity with Ukraine. “We need a victory, not just peace, because peace is temporary,” said Marta Barandiy, chairwoman of the NGO Promote Ukraine, one of the co-organizers of the demonstration. “We expect around 8,000 to 10,000 participants, maybe even more,” she told Playbook’s Ketrin Jochecová. The march begins at Boulevard Roi Albert II 1 at 1 p.m. More here.
MORE ON ‘THE WALL’: In addition to diplomacy, Kyiv is drumming up support via art exhibits. To that end, a new mural wall called “Grow in Freedom” will be unveiled this morning in Brussels. It’s a collaboration of well-known Ukrainian street artists Sestry Feldman and a Belgian graphic designer Teresa Sdralevich. “Together, they created an artwork symbolizing freedom,” Daria Kravets of cultural agency Port., one of the co-organizers of the event, told Playbook. You can attend the opening at Rue Haute 290 today.
BIRTHDAYS: POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio; Former European Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete; Former Norwegian PM Erna Solberg; Katrine Camilleri, Maltese lawyer and director of the Jesuit Refugee Service; Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Knight Craft; Andy Powrie-Smith, executive director of communications at EFPIA. Estonia’s Independence Day.
CELEBRATING SATURDAY: Former MEP Béla Kovács; Daily Mail’s John Stevens; World Economic Forum’s Rebecca King; CNN’s Hadas Gold; Former Spanish PM José María Aznar; Simone Casadei Pastorino of Press Shift.
CELEBRATING SUNDAY: MEPs Irena Joveva, Petros Kokkalis and Evžen Tošenovský; SMEunited’s Luc Hendrickx; European Commission’s Thibaud Delourme; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Former Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu; David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program.
THANKS TO: Laura Kayali, Jakob Hanke Vela, Jacopo Barigazzi, and our producer Grace Stranger.
**A message from Novo Nordisk: Reform of the EU pharmaceutical regulatory framework is urgently needed, to secure the EU ‘s future as a base for medical innovation. European patients and health systems deserve the new medicines they need to prevent and treat the growing burden of chronic diseases. Targeted reform is achievable. But proposals that touch member states’ competence for health policy have a history of years of delays during the legislative process. As the EU grapples with multiple crises, the future of our sector, the European economy, and most importantly the health of Europe’s citizens, all depend on proposals for the pharmaceutical legislation that are rapidly achievable. Together, we can make medicines Europe’s future, not just its past.**
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