The EU has pledged to double a military aid program for Ukraine by training an extra 15,000 soldiers as part of a blizzard of announcements aimed at showing that it will “stand by Ukraine for the long-haul”.
Speaking at the start of a two-day trip to Kyiv, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, reiterated that the EU aimed to have a tenth package of sanctions against Russia in place by February 24, the first anniversary of the invasion ordered. by Vladimir Putin.
“We are making Putin pay for his atrocious war,” she told reporters, on a visit accompanied by 15 EU commissioners, the first time so many EU officials have visited a war zone. “Today Russia is paying a heavy price as our sanctions are eroding its economy, throwing it back by a generation.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said there was a joint task to curb the circumvention of sanctions, adding: “The more we do it, the closer we will be to defeat Russian aggression.”
With a promise to “keep on turning up the pressure”, Von der Leyen also reiterated that the EU would cap the price of Russian petroleum products, as part of a broader G7 plan to restrict oil revenues available to the Kremlin’s war machine. The G7 and the EU have already agreed a price cap on crude oil that came into force last December and according to Von der Leyen, costs Russia €160m (£142m) a day.
The EU’s 27 member states are yet to agree on the latest oil price cap. Discussions continue on a proposal to set the cap at $100 a barrel for premium petroleum products and $45 a barrel for discount ones. One diplomatic source said they were confident of an agreement by February 5, the agreed deadline.
Working with Ukrainian prosecutors, the EU also intends to set up an international center for the prosecution of the crime of aggression in Ukraine to be located in The Hague, Von der Leyen said. The purpose of this center is to collect and store evidence, for any future trial, whether it takes place via a special tribunal or some other way.
Separately the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, announced the intention of EU member states to train an additional 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers in 2023, doubling an existing 15,000 troop-training program launched last October. This €45m plan comes alongside a further €500m in EU-funded weapons for Ukraine announced on Thursday, taking the total assistance from the bloc under the European peace facility to €3.6bn.
On the eve of the EU visit to Kyiv, Ukraine said Russia was planning a major military offensive to mark the first anniversary of the war. In an interview on French TV Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, warned that Russia could call on half a million troops. Referring to Russia’s general mobilization of 300,000 conscripted soldiers in September last year, he said that numbers at the border suggest the true size could be closer to 500,000.
“We do not underestimate our enemy,” Reznikov said. “Officially, they announced 300,000, but when we see the troops at the borders, according to our assessments, it is much more.”
On Thursday two Russian missiles hit the eastern city of Kramatorsk, causing as yet unknown civilian casualties, local officials said. Two people were killed by Russian shelling in the southern Kherson region.
Those attacks came after a Russian missile strike on a residential building in Kramatorsk on Wednesday night killed at least three people and injured 20 others.
Von der Leyen and Borrell arrived in Kyiv under tight security on Thursday to meet Ukraine’s government, with 14 other EU commissioners.
The heavily symbolic visit was intended not only as a show of support, but encouragement as Ukraine bids to join the EU at unprecedented speed. Ukraine’s government has expressed hope of joining the EU within two years, but most member states think the process will take many years, if not decades.
Von der Leyen will remain in Kyiv on Friday for an EU-Ukraine summit, the first since the Russian invasion.
Among a blizzard of announcements, Von der Leyen said the EU would be supplying Ukraine with 35m LED lightbulbs, 2,400 generators on top of 3,000 already delivered and promised funding for solar panels to power the country’s public buildings. According to Brussels officials, the EU institutions and its 27 member states have given Ukraine support worth €50bn, plus €10bn for 8 million refugees who have fled to Europe.
The EU also wants to speed up Ukraine’s integration into its single market and help the country make the transition to green energy.
EU officials are working closely with Ukrainian counterparts on the bloc’s 10th package of sanctions against Russia, which are expected to include weapons and technology found on the battlefield that have been missed in previous rounds. With the Russian economy already under heavy sanctions, diplomats do not expect a major expansion of economic restrictions; lucrative sectors such as Russian diamond exports and nuclear industry are likely to remain untouched.
The EU is also studying the legally-fraught question of how it can use Russian assets to help pay for the rising cost of rebuilding Ukraine, estimated by the World Bank last September to be €349bn (£312bn). “Russia will also have to pay for the destruction it caused and will have to contribute to the reconstruction of Ukraine,” Von der Leyen said.
Taking part in the European Commission-Ukraine government talks were two of Von der Leyen’s three deputies, Margrethe Vestager, who leads on digital policy regulation, and Valdis Dombrovskis, who is in charge of trade policy, as well as leading officials on the rule of law, environment, justice, agriculture and financial regulation.
EU officials have sought to avoid any emulation of Zelenskiy’s military-style dress among the visiting delegation. Ahead of the meeting, commissioners were advised to wear “usual business attire …… avoiding green, khaki or too bright colors”, according to an internal memo seen by the Guardian.