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EU toughens language on Russia in its defense plan

The more aggressive Russia gets in Ukraine, the more the EU has to change — and toughen — the blueprint for the bloc’s defense ambitions.

“The return of war in Europe, with unjustified and unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine, as well as major geopolitical shifts, are challenging our ability to promote our vision and defend our interests,” says the new executive summary draft of the document, called Strategic Compass and seen by POLITICO, which EU ambassadors discussed on Friday. Foreign and defense ministers will talk about it on Monday, and then later in the week EU leaders are expected to endorse it.

Work on the document started almost two years ago and the first draft was presented last November. Since then the Strategic Compass has grown from 28 to 42 pages and there have been four more revisions, mainly to strengthen the language on Russia, especially at the request of Poland and the Baltic states.

In the original version of the document, also seen by POLITICO, Russia wasn’t mentioned in the executive summary at all. There are now 19 references to the country in the entire document, up from six in November’s version. And language on “engaging Russia on some specific issues,” which was in the November draft, has disappeared altogether.  

The bloc now says it wants to go after “those responsible for … crimes” perpetrated in Ukraine, and that they “will be held accountable.” That’s similar to the language used by EU leaders in a joint declaration they adopted last week at a meeting in Versailles — where they promised that “those responsible will be held to account for their crimes.”

Also in line with that Versailles declaration, there’s now wording in the Strategic Compass on military expenditure, with leaders committing that “by mid-2022, in line with national prerogatives and consistent with our commitments, we will define objectives on increased and improved defence spending.” It says the “Commission will develop additional incentives to stimulate Member States’ collaborative investments in strategic defence capabilities.”

Language on the nuclear risk in the draft has also been beefed up and it now warns that “both Russia and China are expanding their nuclear arsenal and developing new weapon systems,” stressing how “the Russian leadership has used nuclear threats in the context of its invasion in Ukraine.”

A key decision that took place between the presentation of the first draft and the latest one was when the EU decided to provide some €500 million in arms and other aid to the Ukrainian military, a move the bloc described as a “watershed moment” in its history.

Diplomats say that the decision has shown once again the need to improve military mobility across the bloc. And this is reflected in the new draft, which says “Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has confirmed the urgent need to substantially enhance the military mobility of our armed forces within and beyond the Union.” It adds that “by the end of 2022, we will take new commitments with the aim to substantially enhance and invest in Military Mobility and will agree on an ambitious, revised Action Plan.”

The EU is also in the process of agreeing on a further €500 million in aid to the Ukrainian army. Both the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, and the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, prematurely announced that this had been already agreed but diplomats say the decision is expected to be finalized later next week, after the German Bundestag has discussed it.

The decision to increase the funds was due to the fact that the first €500 million is about to run out: “The total value of the request received so far … already exceeds the amount of the package of €500 million,” said a senior EU official on Friday.

The document has little update on China compared with previous EU communications. Most tellingly, it completely shies away from the most potentially destabilizing scenario in East Asia: that of China’s threat of “taking back” Taiwan by force if necessary.

In wording that is reminiscent of Germany’s by-and-large failed approach of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”), it describes Beijing by saying: “China’s development and integration into its region, and the world at large, will mark the rest of this century … We need to ensure that this happens in a way that will contribute to greater global security.”

Nevertheless, the EU’s document is critical of the way Beijing approaches Europe. “China gains advantages through our divisions, tends to limit access to its market and seeks to promote globally its own standards. It pursues its policies including through its growing presence at sea, in space and online.”

“There is also a growing reaction to its increasingly assertive regional behaviour,” it adds. 

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