Nine MEPs visited Ukraine’s capital Kiev and the southeast of the country, near the contact zone with the break-away pro-Russian “Peoples’ Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. All but one of them – the delegate from the ID Group – debriefed their fellow members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) on their ad-hoc mission to Ukraine on Thursday.
In the regional capital Mariupol, they came closest to the reality of a country that has been at an undeclared war with Russia for eight years, now facing the possibility of a large-scale invasion.
AFET chair David McAllister (DE, EPP) reported that the delegation was briefed on the military situation by representatives of the Ukrainian armed forces at Mariupol airport, closed for some years now due to the war.
McAllister was impressed by their professionalism, motivation and preparedness, and added that they reassured the visiting MEPs that despite the massive Russian build up across the border, the military situation remained under control so far.
“In Mariupol, we saw a port that is being suffocated.”
Nathalie Loiseau, SEDE chair
The port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov provided for another vivid impression of the situation there. It is “a big and modern infrastructure which is, for the most part, strikingly empty and unused, due to the war and ongoing tensions”, McAllister explained, adding that it was “quite sad to see a modern port where the ships were missing”.
His fellow delegation leader, the subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE) chair Nathalie Loiseau, cited the situation at Mariupol port as an example of the economic pressure Russia is exerting on Ukraine: “We saw a port that is being suffocated”.
As for what the EU can do to help, Loiseau suggested that Ukraine had a “clear list of equipment requirements” and expressed her frustration with some EU Member States “blocking armament exports”.
Many responding MEPs singled out Germany for not only is not exporting any weapons – infamously sending 5000 helmets to Ukraine last week instead – but also denied UK military planes taking weapons there the use of German airspace.
Michael Gahler (DE, EPP), Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Ukraine, who was also part of the delegation, and whose national party is now in opposition, apologised on behalf of his country and expressed his hope that government policy will change.
Drawing a parallel to the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany in Ukraine during World War II, Gahler explained: “Let there be no doubt - if Russia were to invade, the Ukrainians will resist. Everywhere. And there will be a situation like in the Second World War where rebels will be hunted down, we would see mass shootings, the horror will repeat itself.”
Let there be no doubt - if Russia were to invade, the Ukrainians will resist. Everywhere. And there will be a situation like in WWII where rebels will be hunted down, we would see mass shootings, the horror will repeat itself.”
Michael Gahler, MEP
He concluded that “as a German I would like to say, I want to actively contribute to help avoid such a situation”.
But Gahler also drew the attention of his fellow legislators to what he described as a lack of political unity inside Ukraine, warning that the country could not afford “to play domestic games at this stage”.
His remarks were taken up by his fellow countrywoman, the Green/EFA Group’s delegation member Viola von Cramon, who is an expert on and a frequent visitor of the country.
“It is absolutely inappropriate, even in the current situation, to use selective justice to prosecute opposition politicians like the former president [Petro Poroshenko], and many others. We would have thought that these were methods that belong to the past. Ukraine must not return to [former president Victor] Yanukovic style political justice.”
She called on the EU’s co-legislators who will now be deciding about the new macro-financial assistance package to Ukraine of € 1.2bn proposed by the Commission earlier this week to attach a “strong conditionality” with regards to delivering promised reforms and upholding the rule of law.
Von Cramon also expressed her concern that, while it was reasonable to avoid panic, the government did not seem to have made significant preparations for a worst-case scenario. Her concerns were echoed by fellow delegation member Radosław Sikorski (PL, EPP), who argued that “the government could be preparing the population for a possible aggression, and they don’t seem to be doing that”.
He added “that’s concerning because President Putin seems pretty determined. National defence can’t just be left to the army, it must be a national effort”.
The Ukrainian government could be preparing the population for a possible aggression, and they don’t seem to be doing that. That’s concerning because President Putin seems pretty determined."
Other MEPs focused on the positive sides. The Renew Group’s ad-hoc delegation member Petras Auštrevičius (LT), commented on the development since 2014:
“Ukraine is a different country now, with a different determination, different level of professionalism, they now speak a language we can understand when it comes to political and economic reforms. This is our joint achievement, and it has been achieved during a war.”
A number of parliamentary initiatives were suggested by the committee chairs, including hearings with members of the Ukrainian government and a strengthened cooperation with the Ukrainian parliament.
MEPs seem to understand that the crisis is going to be on the agenda at this month’s Strasbourg plenary session.
For Isabel Santos (PT, S&D), a necessary and timely occasion: “We need to answer the questions asked by our citizens about Europe’s security, about what we are going to do.”
She concluded that “at the debate next plenary we need to be very clear and specific about what our answers, our action, and our position (on Russia and Ukraine) will be”.