Ukraine braces for an expected Russian onslaught
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Good morning. It’s set to be a busy week in Europe. The EU’s leaders will gather on Thursday for a thorny summit devoted to migration and the bloc’s approach to subsidies, state aid, and the green economy. On the latter, France and Germany’s economy ministers will travel to Washington to ask US officials to stop luring European businesses across the Atlantic. And Moldova’s government is in Brussels to lobby for greater EU support (particularly in border management and internal security issues, as its prime minister told me over the weekend.)
Today: it may also be a pivotal week for Ukraine as the country scrambles to get troops and weapons prepared for an expected Russian offensive. I explain why that’s provoking anxiety around Europe. And our Warsaw correspondent previews the latest push by the Polish government to unlock billions in frozen EU cash.
Hold the line
The last time EU leaders gathered for a summit, in December, many were upbeat about Ukraine’s advances into territory previously occupied by Russian forces, and the positive impact that western weapons were having on the war’s course. The vibe will be strikingly different this Thursday.
Context: In the 12th month of Moscow’s invasion, Ukrainian officials have sounded clear warnings of an imminent Russian offensive in the east and south of the country. The fresh push from Vladimir Putin’s forces would take place before modern western tanks and other recently-pledged weaponry arrives.
“They are really serious,” said one EU official briefed by Ukrainian defence figures on the intelligence. “This is a big, serious concern of our military staff.”
Russia’s grinding assault on Bakhmut this winter, underscoring that the Kremlin is prepared to keep throwing troops into battle to gain incremental victories, is a grim harbinger of what may be coming.
To add to the nervousness, Ukraine’s leadership said late last night that it will change its defence minister this week following a corruption scandal inside the ministry.
Capitals calling for more weapons supplies are targeting this week’s summit to make a fresh demand of other countries, cognisant that headline announcements such as sending tanks or talk of fighter jets won’t help the troops tasked with holding the line over the coming weeks.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign and security chief, has in recent days referred to the time and focus taken up by the debate over sending tanks to Kyiv (which won’t arrive until March at the earliest), suggesting those weeks could have been better spent lining up more urgently-required supplies.
For EU leaders and their defence ministries, the message is clear: this conflict is far from over and continued support is critical. Oh, and get the tanks moving soonest.
Chart du jour: Black market
Last year’s scorching summer cut Europe’s olive production by a third, part of a market squeeze that has seen the wholesale price of extra virgin olive oil roughly double since 2021, hitting wallets (and salads) across top markets including Spain, Italy and Greece.
Show me the money
Facing a tough re-election campaign this autumn, the Polish government is still hoping to unlock billions of euros of pandemic recovery funds frozen by Brussels over concerns about judiciary independence, writes Raphael Minder.
Much of the struggle has taken place within Warsaw, where the government is yet to get approval from parliament, as well as from the country’s president, for a judiciary reform that prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki believes will alleviate Brussels’ objections.
The issue has highlighted tensions with the governing coalition led by the Law and Justice party. The hardline conservative United Poland party of justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro is opposed to making any further concessions to Brussels, which will force Law and Justice to rely on opposition support to get the draft bill approved.
The justice committee of the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, will review the latest amendments today. If all goes well, it should go to another vote later this week.
But other institutions are also voicing concerns, notably the OSCE, which last week dismissed the idea that the bill would make a significant improvement to Poland’s rule of law.
A report from the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights stated that “the proposed amendments do not address the root causes by leaving unchanged the fundamental systemic deficiencies of the legislation undermining the independence of the judiciary and of individual judges”.
The OSCE has no direct role in resolving this Brussels-Warsaw feud and the bill could still undergo further tinkering. But the negative assessment sets the stage for another difficult round of talks in Brussels, whenever the Polish government finally manages to complete a reform that was initially expected in December.
What to watch today
EU affairs ministers meet in Brussels for a General Affairs Council meeting featuring discussions on relations with the UK. Arrivals from 0830.
Moldova prime minister Natalia Gavrilița in Brussels, to meet senior European commissioners.
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Mikheil Saakashvili: Former president’s deteriorating health in jail is casting an indelible pall over Georgia’s once-vaunted EU ambitions.
Hydrocarbon hypocrisy: US gas producers say long-term climate goals are deterring EU buyers from signing up for gas supplies that they need today.
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