Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.
I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: a deep dive into the decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine and what it means for the West, and why Hungary is trying to remove Russian oligarchs from the EU sanctions list.
Brief #1: What The Momentous Decision On The Leopards Means For The West
What You Need To Know: The decision last week by Germany -- not only to allow other countries to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine but also to provide Kyiv with its own Leopards -- is significant, not only for the Ukrainian war effort, but also for the credibility of organizations such as the European Union and NATO.
According to various EU officials I spoke to on the issue, it was highly significant that almost directly after the German announcement, the United States said it would be providing Ukraine with around 30 of its M1 Abrams tanks.
Washington not only continues to be the main security provider for Europe, but the United States is key in helping solve the political impasses that bedevil the European Union's position on Ukraine.
The promises of tanks send a clear message of unity to Ukraine and to the world. The cracks that have appeared in the Western alliance, for now, appear to have been papered over.
Deep Background: High-level discussions about the Leopards started in earnest at the summit of the Lublin Triangle in Lviv on January 11, in which the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine came together.
Polish President Andrzej Duda vowed to send the Polish Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but what followed was days of back-and-forth between Warsaw and Berlin: the former pushing and admonishing the latter, often publicly; the latter noting that no official request had been sent and that Poland hadn't built up an alliance of other countries with the tanks (notably Finland, Spain, and Norway) to present a credible case.
Officials in Brussels and elsewhere that I have spoken to on the condition of anonymity say Warsaw knew very well that Germany would be reluctant to sign off on sending the tanks. The Poles also knew, however, that pressure could change their minds. The German ruling coalition was divided between the junior partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party, which wanted to export the tanks, and the more skeptical Social Democrats under Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
My sources also noted Berlin had dragged its feet before over the past year, only to eventually come around on issues such as banning Russian banks from using SWIFT, which facilitates global money transfers, as well as sanctioning Russian media companies and energy concerns. Parliamentary elections are coming in the fall, and Berlin-bashing is popular among many Poles.
- The outcry about Germany's stubbornness was evident both at the meeting of Western defense ministers at the Ramstein air base on January 20 and when EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels three days later. On both occasions German officials made it clear they were unhappy about the public criticism Berlin had received.
- This likely prompted both U.S. Defense Minister Lloyd Austin and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who visited Berlin on January 24, to sing the praises of Germany's efforts on Ukraine so far, notably highlighting contributions such as the Patriot surface-to-air missile system.
- Pressure from their European peers and the British decision to send its own Challenger 2 tanks probably wasn't enough to persuade the Germans. According to Scholz, it was the United States promising its tanks that sealed the deal.
- While some U.S. officials repeatedly said that sending M1 Abrams made little sense, due to both long supply chains and considerable fuel consumption, several diplomats I spoke to praised Scholz for his role in getting Washington onboard.
- Berlin still has plenty of historical baggage about using tanks in a European war. Moreover, Germany is reluctant to go it alone on any military matter.
- The back-and-forth over the tanks puts to bed the idea of "European strategic autonomy," a popular expression in French politics. For now, the notion that Europe should be able to act alone militarily without help from the United States is pretty much dead and buried.
- February looks like it could be a significant month. There are reports that U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Europe, making several stops. One of those could be a summit to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a meeting slated for February 22 in Istanbul. A NATO defense ministerial will also take place a week before that. And there are likely to be more announcements about weapons for Ukraine, potentially even the Western fighter jets that Kyiv so desperately wants. The next big debate among Ukraine's Western allies won't be about tanks but about planes.
Brief #2: Horse-Trading And The Hungarian Veto
What You Need To Know: When RFE/RL last week broke the story that Hungary once again wants to remove people from the European Union's ever-growing Russia sanctions list, few, if any, in Brussels were surprised.
Budapest tried to remove three people when the sanctions were up for extension the last time in September 2022 but quickly backed down after intense pressure from the other EU member states.
This time around, Hungary is trying to delist the same trio, plus an additional six people -- all oligarchs or family members of oligarchs.
The sanctions, which now cover nearly 1,300 people and 170 entities, will need to be rolled over by March 15, so there's still time to find a solution.
Because of the EU's unanimity rule, all member states need to give the green light for the sanctions to be approved. That usually means horse-trading, where dissenting countries try to extract concessions in exchange for their vote.
Late last year, for example, Hungary connected the approval of the bloc's 18 billion euros ($19.6 billion) financial assistance to Ukraine to the loosening up of rules that would allow more EU money to flow to Budapest.
Hungary got what it wanted, despite the bloc's concerns about the country's backsliding on democracy. The horse-trading will be a recurring theme, as every six months the measures come up for extension.
Deep Background: Hungary has played the "veto card" to perfection in recent years. It has secured opt-outs from the EU's oil embargo on Russia, removed Russian Patriarch Kirill from being sanctioned, and watered down the bloc's arms embargo on Belarus.
But Hungary is not the only one. Cyprus managed to remove strict language from a ban on Russians buying property in the EU. Germany successfully pushed for longer phase-out periods on buying Russian coal, while others in the EU's south managed to lobby against the blacklisting of Russian-owned ships.
This will only continue, as there's no chance of the unanimity rule changing any time soon. Bureaucrats and diplomats have been debating for years the question of whether foreign policy decisions in the EU should move from unanimity to some sort of qualified majority voting.
The EU already does this in the fields of transport, energy, and humanitarian aid, to name a few. Some countries have also pushed to change the sanctions rollover from six months to 12 in order to avoid the constant "hijacking."
Yet, to enact those changes, you need unanimity. The uncomfortable truth is that many countries would be loath to give up such a powerful tool -- their veto -- and, as they see it, surrender their national sovereignty in a very sensitive and important field.
- The question everyone is asking when it comes to Hungary's latest move is: Why these particular individuals? There are no known financial links between any of the nine people and Hungary. Not a single EU official I spoke to about this has any clue, either.
- When asked at the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels last week, the Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, didn't go into any specific detail about why any of the nine should be delisted. He simply noted there is an ongoing revision of the list and it was important not to include people if there was no reason for it, legal or otherwise.
- According to several diplomats who are not authorized to speak on the record, the legal service of the EU's council of ministers has informed member states on several occasions that there are solid legal grounds for all the current listings, which seemingly contradicts the Hungarian position.
- Some of the oligarchs Budapest wants to remove have also tried to be delisted by taking their case to the European Court of Justice. So far, the Luxembourg-based court has dismissed their requests.
- Why is Hungary doing this now? Of course, Budapest might just be trying to curry favor with Moscow. Some observers have noted the sanctions renewal in March falls around the same time that Hungary might be due some frozen EU funds.
- Budapest is also playing to a domestic audience. Earlier this month the Hungarian government published the results of a monthlong consultation in which 97 percent of respondents rejected several aspects of the EU's sanctions policies, especially measures concerning energy. The so-called consultation has been criticized in Brussels. Only 1.4 million of Hungary's 8.2 million registered voters took part in the process, which was also criticized by many for asking "misleading" questions.
- That said, Hungary has given its consent to all 10 EU sanctions packages on Russia since the February invasion of Ukraine. Last week, it also gave its thumbs-up to the six-month rollover of all the bloc's economic sanctions on Russia, without making any fuss at all.
Ukraine continues to dominate the headlines. With the Leopard issue out of the way, the EU-Ukraine summit on February 2-3 is likely to be a much more upbeat affair. Another Ukraine-related event worth looking out for is the address by Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine's presidential administration, to the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs on January 31.
Another one to watch is NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg's visit to both Japan and South Korea on January 29-February 1. Stoltenberg first traveled to both countries in 2017, but this journey comes amid increased Western scrutiny over China's role in East Asia and its potential influence on Russia.
For the first time ever, both Japan and South Korea attended a NATO summit last year as observers. And it was at that Madrid gathering that NATO, also for the first time, listed China as one of its strategic priorities, noting that Beijing challenges the alliance's "interests, security, and values."
That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
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