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By JAKOB HANKE VELA
with ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH
EU FOREIGN MINISTERS are in Brussels today for a meeting ahead of what is shaping up to be another tense week that may decide the future of war and peace in Europe. They are planning a joint statement that will again seek to portray EU unity and to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. One key question will be how they define “invasion.”
What’s the sanctions trigger? EU leaders agreed in December to impose “massive consequences” and “severe costs” on Russia if it again attacks Ukraine, but they failed to specify what exactly would qualify as an attack that triggers the sanctions.
US President Joe Biden last week underscored these concerns when he said a “minor incursion” by Russia could lead to allies “having to fight about what to do and not do.” Even though Biden later clarified that any Russian forces crossing the border would qualify as an invasion, officials maintained that allies were preparing degrees of sanctions depending on the severity of the attack.
COUP WARNING: The Kremlin is scheming to install a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, Britain said Saturday in a public communiqué. According to the U.K.’s Foreign Office, Moscow’s preferred Ukrainian leader is a former Ukrainian MP, Yevhen Murayev. U.S. officials backed the claims, while Murayev and the Kremlin denied them.
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Plot in a nutshell: Moscow’s plan could allow the Kremlin to send troops into Ukraine and claim it was helping a new government rather than invading a free country, Western analysts said. Ukraine is in a state of high anxiety as some 130,000 Russian troops surround the country from three sides, with disinformation from Russian-backed media seeking to undermine the country’s current pro-Western government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year warned of a Russian coup.
West starts evacuations from Ukraine: The U.S. State Department said Sunday night that it had ordered family members of U.S. personnel in Ukraine to leave the country, and allowed non-essential staff to depart as well, while keeping the embassy open for now. Other countries such as Germany are reportedly also preparing for evacuations.
NATO starts drills in Mediterranean: U.S. aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman is under NATO command for major naval drills from today through February 4.
GERMANY IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has come under increased pressure after a series of remarks from politicians and military officials have thrown into doubt Berlin’s determination to help deter a Russian attack.
Choosing sanctions: In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung published Sunday, Scholz again did not reject the idea of halting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — but seemed to warn against a total cut in trade with Russia, following reports Germany opposed ejecting Russia from the SWIFT international payments system. Indeed, Berlin needs to retain a channel to transfer money to Russia to maintain gas imports through existing pipelines — amid record-high energy prices. “Prudence dictates that we choose measures that will have the greatest effect on those who violate the principles we have established together,” Scholz said. “At the same time, we must consider the consequences for ourselves.”
Navy commander ‘quits’ over controversial comments: The commander of Germany’s navy, Kay-Achim Schönbach, resigned Saturday after publicly contradicting Berlin during a panel discussion, in which he said it was “nonsense” to believe Russia would launch an invasion just to integrate “a small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil” and that “it is easy to give [Russian President Vladimir Putin] the respect he demands, and probably also deserves.” Schönbach added he was a “very radical Roman Catholic Christian,” who would want a Christian country like Russia on his side against China, even if Putin himself was an atheist. Details here.
Weapons block: Meanwhile, Berlin has also effectively blocked Estonia — a fellow NATO ally and EU member — from sending weapons to Ukraine. That’s notable, as the U.S., Britain, Poland and others have given the green light to the export licenses required for such transfers. While Berlin has not officially rejected Tallinn’s request, it has so far refused to issue a permit for the shipments of German-origin howitzers that it sold to Finland, which later re-sold them to Estonia. A spokesperson for Germany’s defense ministry said Berlin was still “coordinating” internally and with Finland.
How to comment without commenting: Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks cheekily quote-tweeted with a “No comment” in response to former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ tweet of a Wall Street Journal article on the topic.
Failure of joint EU arms exports policy summed up: “The issue is being seen by Western security specialists and Ukraine as a test of Berlin’s arms-transfer policy during a mounting crisis in Europe and points to the difficulties the U.S. and its European allies are facing in forging a common response to Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and demands,” the WSJ writes. Indeed, EU countries want to cooperate more on defense production and procurement via their upcoming Strategic Compass, but disagreement over whom they would share those weapons with is one of the big hurdles they face.
Kyiv’s take: Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba called on his “German partners to stop undermining unity with such words and actions and encouraging Vladimir Putin to launch a new attack on Ukraine.”
US COUNTER-PROPOSAL THIS WEEK: Washington will send a written response to Moscow this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday. Officials from both sides would “meet again after Russia has had an opportunity to look at this paper,” Blinken told reporters.
What to expect: Blinken on Friday again ruled out accepting Russia’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine would never be allowed to join NATO. But the U.S. has opened the door to compromises on military drills, weapons and possibly missile stations — which could de-escalate the situation, if Russia was really interested in security guarantees rather than re-establishing Soviet-style spheres of influence.
Best case/worst case: In the best-case scenario, Washington’s counter-proposals will lead to serious negotiations on new arms treaties. In the worst case, Putin will use them as a pretext to attack Ukraine again.
PUTIN MAKES NATO GREAT AGAIN: For all the Western — and especially French — talk about whether NATO is still relevant, Putin’s threats are highlighting the vital importance of the alliance for the security of many European countries.
… and brings other countries closer: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will today meet the foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden, Pekka Haavisto and Ann Linde. Both countries have over the past weeks seen an increase in public support for NATO membership.
Call for more troops: Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, meanwhile, issued an indirect call in the FT this morning for more U.S. troops in the region, telling the paper: “If you are bullied at school, the bully doesn’t bully you if you have strong and big friends, and it’s the same with deterrence … The biggest deterrence to Russia is an American flag.”
OPINION — KYIV SHOULD FORGET NATO AND FOCUS ON THE EU, argues Henrik Larsen, who previously served as a political adviser for the EU in Ukraine, in this opinion piece for POLITICO.
WHO SEES POSSIBLE ‘END OF PANDEMIC’ IN EUROPE: While it’s too early to speak of COVID being endemic, the end of the pandemic in Europe is “plausible” in the months to come, the WHO’s Europe chief Hans Kluge said Sunday. “It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Hans Kluge told AFP, adding that the Omicron variant could infect 60 percent of people in the Europe region by March.
Sooner for EU: Note that the WHO’s “Europe region” includes 53 countries and swathes of central Asia. According to the WHO, Omicron represented 15 percent of cases in that region last week, but the strain is already dominant in the EU. Experts therefore argue the Omicron wave will peak in February in most of Western Europe, while countries such as the U.K. and Spain already may have passed that point.
Expect the unexpected: But despite the good news, it’s too soon to assume the worst is over, Kluge said. “There is a lot of talk about endemic but endemic means … that it is possible to predict what’s going to happen. This virus has surprised [us] more than once so we have to be very careful.”
IN OTHER NEWS
MORE TROUBLE FOR BORIS JOHNSON: There are growing calls for an investigation into allegations a Muslim Conservative MP, Nusrat Ghani, was told she had lost her job because of her faith. POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson has the details.
Who still backs him? The U.K. prime minister has taken a bruising in the polls and is being berated by members his own party over a myriad of scandals. POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald has pulled together a list of the MPs, ministers and possible Johnson successors who have expressed their backing for the PM (sort of).
BREXIT TODAY: U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will meet her Commission counterpart Maroš Šefčovič in Brussels today for another round of talks on rules governing the trade of goods between Northern Ireland, Britain and the EU.
GERMANY KEEPS DOOR OPEN TO LAWSUIT ON TAXONOMY: The German government has voiced strong opposition and legal concerns over the proposed inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU’s list of green investments, while also demanding looser criteria for allowing gas as a transition fuel. POLITICO Energy and Climate and Financial Services Pros can read more here.
ITALIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION BEGINS TODAY — BERLUSCONI IS OUT: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has abandoned his bid to be elected as Italy’s next head of state, despite claiming to have enough votes to win and amid reports he has been admitted to hospital. The vote should be concluded before February 3. More here by POLITICO’s Pietro Lombardi.
BEIJING’S DUTCH UNI INFLUENCE CAMPAIGN: The Free University of Amsterdam’s decision to sever a Chinese funding stream has reignited political debate in the Netherlands about the methods Beijing is using to try to steer human rights discussions in Europe. Lukas Kotkamp has the story for POLITICO.
SPAIN DISCUSSES PLAN TO LEGALIZE WATER-GUZZLING FARMS AROUND DOÑANA PARK: The region of Andalusia is planning to legalize 1,460 hectares of illegal strawberry farms that suck water out of one of Spain’s most iconic natural reserves. Doñana, a protected wetlands in Andalusia, is a refuge for endangered plants and animals — and it’s under threat from illegal water use, NGOs such as WWF have warned. The Court of Justice of the EU last year condemned Madrid for inaction to prevent illegal water drilling.
**NEW PRODUCT LAUNCH. Sign up (in one click) to receive POLITICO’s France Election Playbook, starting March 7. A pop up election Playbook building on our must-read Playbook Paris and bringing readers up to speed on the news that matters about the French election in English in an essential midday read.**
— Foreign Affairs Council, starts at 9:30 am.
— U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in Brussels for meetings with EU Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič.
— Šefčovič also receives Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Spain’s José Manuel Albares.
— Council President Charles Michel speaks with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (8 a.m.) and Australia’s PM Scott Morrison (9 a.m.). In the afternoon, he meets with President of the European Economic and Social Committee Christa Schweng (3 p.m.) and President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer (4:30 p.m.).
— NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg meets foreign ministers of Finland and Sweden, Pekka Haavisto and Ann Linde, with a press conference at 5:20 p.m. … NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană meets with Moldova’s Deputy Prime Minister Nicu Popescu.
— European Parliament’s committees begin elections for their chairs and vice chairs for the rest of the legislative term.
— Election for a new president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) begins at 11 a.m., with the new president due to give a press conference at 2:30 pm. Here are the candidates.
— Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski meets Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw.
— Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders holds videoconference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
— Values and Transparency Commissioner Vĕra Jourová meets with Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský.
— Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is in Prague, delivers keynote speech at the International Conference “EU Antitrust: Hot Topics and Next Steps,” organized by the law faculty of the Charles University.
COVID DEMONSTRATION TURNS VIOLENT: Protests in Brussels against coronavirus restrictions spiraled into violence on Sunday as demonstrators attacked police officers, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Some 50,000 people took part in the protests, according to first estimates by the police. More here from Pietro Lombardi.
EEAS targeted: A group of protestors vandalized the entrance of the European External Action Service headquarters at the Schuman roundabout. (Here’s a video of the attack — note that while the footage itself has been verified, despite the poster’s claim, we don’t know if the vandals were extreme left, extreme right or simply extremely dumb).
EU target of conspiracies: Social media posts showed anti-vaxxers from across the bloc claiming they were traveling to Brussels to protest alleged — and non-existent — plans for an EU-wide vaccine mandate. Still, it’s unclear whether the EEAS building was attacked because it was flying the EU flag or just because it was on the protest route.
NEW JOB: Kroll, a consultancy which investigates incidents of corruption and money laundering, has hired John Gatt-Rutter, formerly the EU’s representative in Palestine. The company also added former Executive Secretary-General of the Financial Action Task Force David Lewis to its ranks.
BIRTHDAYS: MEP Evelyn Regner; Former European Commissioner Violeta Bulc; Former MEP Neoklis Sylikiotis; Renew Europe’s Daniel Tanahatoe; Maria Elena Boschi, member of the Italian chamber of deputies and POLITICO 28 alum; Moon Jae-in, president of South Korea.
MANY THANKS TO: Hans von der Burchard and our producer Grace Stranger.
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