The president of the European Commission has urged member states to supply Ukraine with weapons systems “quickly” and suggested that a next round of EU sanctions could target Russia’s powerful Sberbank and include an embargo on Russian oil.
“It applies to all member states: those who can should deliver quickly, because only that way Ukraine can survive in its acute defensive battle against Russia,” Ursula von der Leyen told Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Several European nations appear to be vacillating over the export of heavy weapons such as tanks or fighter jets, amid concerns that such a move could formally escalate the war in Ukraine into a direct conflict between Russia and Nato member states.
Von der Leyen urged European leaders not to delay decisions over category differences.
“I don’t distinguish between heavy and light weapons,” she said. “Ukraine has to get whatever it needs to defend itself and what it can handle.”
In his nightly video address to the nation on Saturday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reiterated that Ukraine needed more material support from the west to have a chance at saving the besieged city of Mariupol.
“Either our partners give Ukraine all of the necessary heavy weapons, the planes, and, without exaggeration, immediately, so we can reduce the pressure of the occupiers on Mariupol and break the blockade,” he said, “or we do so through negotiations, in which the role of our partners should be decisive.”
The Czech Republic earlier this month became the first Nato country to ship tanks to Ukraine since the start of the war on 24 February. Slovakia followed suit with a delivery of a S-300 air defence system, and the US announced last Wednesday it would supply Ukraine with helicopters, howitzers and other hardware.
Other states, like Germany, have stalled on the question of heavy weapons, variably arguing they could not do so without diminishing their Nato commitments in other regions or that there needed to be a joint position among members of the western alliance first.
In a formal diplomatic note sent to Washington last week, Moscow warned that Nato shipments of “most sensitive” weapons systems could bring “unpredictable consequences”.
In her interview with Bild am Sonntag, Von der Leyen said the citizens of European should mentally prepare themselves for a long military conflict in Ukraine.
“We have to do everything to make it end as soon as possible,” the German politician said. “And at the same time we have to prepare for the fact that the war could at worst go on for months, maybe years.”
On the EU’s sixth sanctions package, which is currently being prepared in Brussels, Von der Leyen said: “We are continuing to look at the banking sector, especially Sberbank, which alone makes up 37% of the Russian banking sector. And of course we are dealing with energy questions.”
The EU has so far spared Sberbank because it, along with Gazprombank, is one of the main channels for payments for Russian oil and gas.
The commission president said reducing Putin’s financial gains had to be a priority. “Oil is being traded globally,” she said. “What must not happen is that Putin is getting even higher returns on other markets for deliveries that would otherwise go to the EU. Therefore we are currently developing clever mechanisms so that the next level of sanctions can also include oil.”
Von der Leyen said economic sanctions were having a devastating impact on Russia’s economy, with the country’s GDP forecast to shrink by 11%. “Russia’s national bankruptcy is only a matter of time,” she said. “With this war Putin is also destroying his own country and the future of his population.”