BRUSSELS — Ukraine’s European allies face questions of tactical and political significance as bloody battles in the east of the country unfold and tip in favor of Russia.
On the tactical front, NATO allies, and particularly those in close proximity to Ukraine, face the challenge of having drawn on their own supplies to support the war effort, leaving them with arsenals exhausted.
And on the political level, the question of whether the European Union will take the step to grant Ukraine candidate status for the bloc will have to be answered before the end of the month.
The realities on the battlefield, as Ukrainian officials estimate that Russia could fully encircle the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk in the Donbass region within the next two to three days, will likely influence both the decision on how to replenish arsenals and to send ammunition as well as the decision to offer hope to Ukraine by granting it EU candidate status, even if technically it is not ready for it.
“There was always a sense that as the center of gravity shifted south and east there would be potential for greater Russian gains based on greater mass and their existing territorial acquisitions,” Ian said. Lesser, a former State Department official who heads the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund.
“But it raises more serious, longer-term questions about the nature of the conflict, Ukraine’s goals, and Western goals versus those,” he added.
He said accelerating the supply of longer-range weapons according to Ukrainian calls, as well as the training required for Ukrainian troops to operate them, would help the country maintain the front.
But several EU member countries are worried that they have sent too much ammunition to Ukraine and are behind in replenishing their arsenals. The essentially free-trade bloc, for which foreign policy and defense are not integrated, is mobilizing for supplies.
EU officials said the bloc would try to tap into a €9 billion ($9.5 billion) funding pot to jointly procure military hardware, flexing a nascent muscle and trying to appease fears that military support from Ukraine will dangerously weaken defense capabilities elsewhere in Europe.
But the more strategic question of whether to grant Ukraine candidate status later this month is also a pressing one for the country’s European allies.
During a visit to Kyiv on Saturday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said her administration would advise on whether the European Union should grant candidate status to Ukraine by the end of the week. However, the decision is ultimately a political one that EU leaders will be called upon to make at their June 23-24 summit in Brussels.
After gaining candidate status, it takes most countries at least a decade of reforms and negotiations to become full members of the EU. If Ukraine does get the green light later this month, its road will likely be long and difficult given its dire situation and pre-war corruption and governance problems.
It would still send a powerful message, experts say.
“Regardless of the territorial reality on the ground, having this prospect of deepening Euro-Atlantic integration for Ukraine is very meaningful,” Lesser said. “And, to the extent that this favors a growing perspective of an increasingly Westernized Ukraine versus a Russia drifting toward an Asian imperial posture, the political contrast between these two actors will become more stark.”