BRUSSELS – NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took center stage at a European Union summit, underscoring the importance the 27 EU leaders attach to protecting their eastern flank from Russian aggression and beefing up Ukraine’s defense capabilities.
In a statement issued early Friday after the meeting ended, the leaders reaffirmed their willingness “to provide sustainable military support to Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
Zelenskyy addressed the gathering by video link and Stoltenberg attended an early lunch for leaders. But the biggest seat at the table was reserved for something that’s not officially on the agenda: the fallout from the stunning weekend mutiny in Russia and the impact it has on the rule of President Vladimir Putin.
“The mutiny we saw at the weekend demonstrates that there are cracks and divisions within the Russian system. At the same time, it is important to underline that these are internal Russian matters,” said Stoltenberg.
Zelenskyy was blunter and countered those who claim that a hurt Putin would make him more unpredictable and dangerous.
“We are seeing their weakness, which we so badly need,” he said by video link. “The weaker Russia is, and the more its bosses fear mutinies and uprisings, the more they will fear to irritate us. Russia’s weakness will make it safe for others,” he said.
EU leaders certainly agreed Putin had suffered a blow.
President Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania, one of several EU nations bordering Russia, insisted it was all the more reason to take a robust posture toward Putin.
Some say "that a strong Putin is less dangerous than a weak Putin. I don’t agree with that. We have to move forward and be decisive, because now is a crucial moment of history,” Nauseda said.
“This showed deep cracks in Putin’s system. This mutiny of last weekend will also have aftershocks that we will see,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Officials from several member states and EU institutions said the chaos and instability created by the rebellion would not only force the EU to double down on its support for Ukraine with commitments for more ammunition but also to ensure fighting and violence does not spill over into the bloc itself.
“There is no room for hesitation," said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. “We must continue to increase the price of Russian aggression.”
In their statement, the leaders said they “stand ready to contribute, together with partners, to future security commitments to Ukraine, which will help Ukraine defend itself in the long term, deter acts of aggression and resist destabilization efforts.”
Most EU nations are also members of NATO, and at the July 11-12 alliance summit they will look to offer Ukraine more security guarantees, if stopping short of full NATO membership.
The EU and its member countries have already provided an estimated 75 billion euros ($82 billion) in aid to both beef up Ukraine's military stockpiles and to make sure the country's battered economy stays afloat.
The leaders looked closely at using Russia's frozen assets — estimated at some 200 billion euros ($217 billion) — for that purpose, and directed the commission and foreign policy unit to work on the best way to do that, in coordination with international partners willing to do the same.
Several countries fear the legal ground for that is still too shaky and the European Central Bank has warned that confiscating those assets or profits accrued from them could pose a serious risk to the reputation of the euro. Officials said that some countries want to impose an additional windfall levy on the money to use for Ukraine’s reconstruction.
“It’s like low hanging fruit,” Karins said of the frozen Russian assets. “We need to find a legal basis to utilize, mobilize these to help Russia pay for the damage Russia is causing.”
Lorne Cook contributed to this report