Brussels and Moscow are engaged in a symbolic arms race

The two performances could not have been more different. While EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen opened the door wide for Ukraine in Brussels on Friday, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin spoke in St. Petersburg. Von der Leyen invited Ukraine to join the EU’s “peace project”. At the International Economic Forum in Brussels, Putin slammed “bureaucratic elites” and accused the West of being responsible for the current inflationary shock – a shock that Putin’s war in Ukraine undoubtedly contributed to.

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While Ukrainian troops in the east of the country are increasingly under pressure from Russian advances, the developments in Brussels are of great importance for both Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hopes the EU’s candidate status will be a powerful symbol of European support for his country. President Putin fears precisely this prospect for Kyiv – he has long hated Ukraine for the fact that it is oriented towards the EU.

In this scenario, it would be a step that should not be underestimated if the EU states were to grant candidate status to Ukraine at their summit at the end of next week. It was right that Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis clearly spoke out in favor of starting the Ukrainian accession process during their visit to Kyiv. If all 27 EU member states agree at the summit, it would be the start of a journey for Ukraine to root out corruption, curb the influence of oligarchs and establish a functioning judicial system.

Precisely because of these abuses, the granting of candidate status to Ukraine is by no means a done deal. Despite the initiative of the EU quartet in Kyiv, there are concerns about a hasty procedure in Vienna, Lisbon and The Hague, among others. There, it is feared that the start of the accession process could automatically set in motion Ukraine’s full membership of the EU.

Fight against corruption as a condition

Von der Leyen tried to refute such criticism on Friday. Your authority recommends that the member states give Ukraine the much-discussed status. However, according to the guidelines of the EU Commission, Kyiv can only take further steps towards the EU if the government, in addition to fighting corruption and oligarchic rule, also takes more action against money laundering, ensures the independence of the media and guarantees the protection of minorities.

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However, those in the EU who are reluctant to grant candidate status to Ukraine are right in that Russia’s war created the geopolitical need for it. Today, Ukraine would hardly be able to overtake the two EU aspirants Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo if the country hadn’t been engulfed in war by Putin.

Seen in this way, it would of course also be a European demonstration of power with a high symbolic effect if Ukraine were given candidate status. The Europeans would show Putin that they are not impressed by his war of aggression.

Xi Jinping as Putin’s key witness

But as a precaution, he made it clear on Friday that he wouldn’t let himself be impressed the other way around either. He, too, has strengthened his troops on the abyss between West and East – at least virtually – and had Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, whose country is dependent on Russian grain supplies, and China’s head of state Xi Jinping, who is supposed to stabilize Russia’s economy again, join in.

Who has the staying power economically – this is also a question that will have a say in the outcome of the war apart from the military.

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