Ukraine war: EU shuts airspace to Russian airlines and will send arms

In one of the most significant shifts in European security policy in decades, Germany announced it was committing €100 billion ($113 billion) to a special armed forces fund and would keep its defence spending above two per cent of GDP from now on.

The announcement, which came hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert, underscored how Russia’s war on Ukraine was rewriting Europe’s post-Second World war security policy in ways that were unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

The German policy shift also came as Italy, France, Austria, Malta and Belgium joined other EU countries in closing their airspace to Russian aircraft, carving up the skies over Europe.

Anti-war protesters, meanwhile, took to the streets in Berlin, Rome, Prague, Istanbul and other cities — even Russian cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg — to demand an end to the war, the largest ground offensive on the continent since the Second World War.

Tens of thousands of people amassed yesterday in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, with some carrying posters with slogans such as “Hands off Ukraine,” “Tanks to Windmills” and “Putin, go to therapy and leave Ukraine and the world in peace.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement of new defence funding is significant for his country, which has come under criticism from the US and other Nato allies for not investing adequately in its defence budget. Nato member states committed to spending two per cent of their GDP on defence, but Germany has consistently spent much less.

“It’s clear we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” Scholz told a special session of the Bundestag in Berlin.

Scholz said the €100 billion fund was currently a one-time measure for 2022. It wasn’t immediately clear whether similar funding would be allocated in future years. But Scholz indicated Germany will exceed the two per cent of GDP threshold going forward, signalling an overall future increase in defence spending.

A day earlier, Germany announced another major shift in policy, saying it will send weapons and other supplies directly to Ukraine, including 500 Stinger missiles, which are used to shoot down helicopters and warplanes, and 1000 anti-tank weapons.

Israel, meanwhile, announced it was sending 100 tons of humanitarian aid — medical equipment and medicine, tents, sleeping bags and blankets — to help civilians caught up in the fighting in Ukraine.

Israel also offered itself as a potential mediator during a phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Putin, both the Kremlin and Israel said. Bennett spoke also on Friday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.

On the European front, EU interior and foreign ministers were holding emergency talks yesterday to respond to the crisis.

Interior ministers were debating how to cope with an influx of refugees, as well as managing security challenges on EU borders with Ukraine and humanitarian aid to the country. The UN refugee agency said as of yesterday more than 368,000 people had fled Ukraine and estimated that four million could flee if the fighting spreads.

Later yesterday EU foreign ministers were meeting via video conference to discuss sending more military aid to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he will urge the ministers to endorse “a package of emergency assistance for the Ukrainian armed forces, to support them in their heroic fight.”

To bolster its military training and support missions around the world, the 27-nation bloc has set up a European Peace Facility, a fund with a ceiling of around €5.7 billion ($6.4 billion). Some of the money can be used to train and equip partner countries, including lethal weapons.

Providing weapons to Ukraine that were bought with EU money would be unprecedented.
Borrell says the EU ministers will also weigh “further measures in support of Ukraine, against aggression by Russia.” The meeting is informal, so no binding decisions can be taken, but their recommendations could be enacted in the coming days.

As Greece sent more military aid and Italy weighed up its own contributions, Turkish officials termed Russia’s invasion a “war,” a categorisation that could lead Ankara to close down the Turkish straits to Russian warships, as Kyiv requested earlier this week. The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey the right to bar “belligerent states” from using the Dardanelles and the Bosporus during wartime but provides an exception for Black Sea vessels to return to port.

On the sanctions front, Japan joined the United States and European nations in cutting key Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial banking system. Japan will also freeze assets of Putin and other top Russian officials, while sending $100 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

Catholic and Orthodox religious leaders, meanwhile, prayed for peace, voiced solidarity with Ukrainians and denounced the Russian invasion.

At the Vatican, Ukrainian flags fluttered in St Peter’s Square as Pope Francis delivered his weekly Sunday blessing and appealed for global solidarity for “the suffering people of Ukraine”.

“Those who make war forget humanity,” Francis said, adding that such a mentality “relies on the diabolical and perverse logic of weapons, which is the farthest thing from God’s will”.

Francis refrained from citing Russia by name, in apparent deference to his hopes to keep the dialogue open with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Also Sunday, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople described Russia’s invasion as “beyond every sense of law and morality” and pleaded for an end to the war.

Patriarch Bartholomew is considered the spiritual leader and first among equals of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide. He granted the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which severed it in 2019 from the Russian church to which it had been tied since 1686. The Russian Orthodox Church severed relations with him as result. — AP

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