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Von der Leyen: On Ukraine, EU is hopeful but ‘prepared for the worst’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that Europe was “hoping for the best” but “prepared for the worst,” as Russia remains poised for an attack on Ukraine.

“This is a crisis that has been created by Moscow,” von der Leyen told MEPs in the Strasbourg hemicycle. “We are hoping for the best, but we are prepared for the worst.”

Von der Leyen spoke a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his military had decided to “partially pull back” some of the 100,000-plus troops amassed on Ukraine’s border. She called Putin’s move “signs of hope” in the conflict with Ukraine, but urged the EU to “stay vigilant.”

Western allies remain concerned about the Kremlin’s intentions. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said there is no concrete evidence Russia is pulling back its most threatening heavy weaponry. And in an address Tuesday night, U.S. President Joe Biden also warned that a Russian strike on Ukraine “remains very much a possibility” and America stands ready to act “decisively.”

“Should the Kremlin choose violence against Ukraine, our response will be strong and united,” von der Leyen said, adding that the EU had prepared for a “robust and comprehensive” package of sanctions against Russia.

She added that Ukraine has become “a sovereign, more free, more strong country” than at the time of its Maidan Revolution in 2014. “The idea that the Kremlin should decide what Ukrainians can or can not desire, we simply can not accept and the idea of sphere of influence are ghosts of the last century,” von der Leyen said.

European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed von der Leyen’s points in their plenary speeches.

“We urge Russia to take concrete and tangible steps towards de-escalation … because this is the condition for the sincere political dialogue,” Michel said. “We cannot eternally attempt diplomacy on one side while the other side is amassing troops.”

Both Michel and Borrell expressed concern at the vote in Russia’s parliament urging Putin to recognize the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine, a move that is seen as threatening diplomatic efforts to avoid a broader war between the two countries.

Borrell described the vote in the Duma as very “worrisome.” “We don’t know what Putin is going to do,” Borrell added. “We are ready to continue negotiations, talks, in order to look for diplomatic solutions to the worst crisis Europe is living through since the end of the Cold War.”

Later Wednesday, MEPs are set to approve an emergency €1.2 billion financial package to help Ukraine’s economy and cover its external financing needs in 2022.

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