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22nd Feb 2024

EU arms shipments gather pace despite Russian threats

  • Dmitry Peskov (r) with Russian president Vladimir Putin at a press conference in 2015 (Photo: krem)
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A European arms-to-Ukraine programme is continuing to gather momentum, despite Russian president Vladimir Putin's threats of a nuclear response against what he calls Western interference in the war.

The EU has set aside €450m to buy lethal weapons for Ukraine, and that comes on top of pledged shipments of fighter jets, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft weapons from a growing list of member states.

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But the European push is prompting increasingly shrill condemnation from the Kremlin, even as it fans Western outrage by prosecuting a war with a growing number of Ukrainian civilian deaths and injuries.

Arming Ukraine was an "extremely dangerous and destabilising factor," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday (28 February).

"EU citizens and structures involved in supplying lethal weapons and fuel and lubricants to the armed forces of Ukraine will be responsible for any consequences of such actions," the Russian foreign ministry also warned Monday.

EU weapons are being delivered to Ukraine via neighbouring EU countries such as Poland — but not Hungary, because of fears of retaliation by Russia.

Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said Monday that, "such deliveries might become targets of hostile military action."

EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, declined to elaborate on arms shipments via Poland or Slovakia for similar reasons.

"After what has been said by the top brass in Russia, I don't want to provide any further details," Borrell told a news conference in Brussels.

Nato has sent extra troops to its eastern allies, and it has warned that an attack on any of them would trigger a mutual defence clause.

But some experts dismiss Putin's most threatening declarations — such as putting his nuclear forces on high alert — as little more than a bluff.

"Strategic forces are supposed to be on high alert, and no change of status is verifiable," said Pavel Baev, from the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

"What could make a difference is a decision to withdraw non-strategic warheads from centralised storages and to deploy them closer to delivery systems, for instance on combat ships," Baev said.

Even so, Putin's military campaign was "becoming more and more ruthless," particularly in terms of the threat to Ukrainian civilians, said Borrell.

The lead prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Karim Khan, said he was opening an investigation into events in Ukraine late on Monday, as reports emerged of Russian missile strikes and use of cluster bombs and vacuum bombs against civilian targets.

"If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, referring to the vacuum bomb - a munition that uses oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion.

Russia has also "launched 113 cruise missiles of Iskander and Kalibr types on peaceful cities, towns and villages of Ukraine," Ukraine's EU embassy said Tuesday morning.

The Russian onslaught went on unabated during ceasefire talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegates in Belarus, which broke up late on Monday with no outcome.

The civilian casualties have mounted despite Putin's personal promise to spare non-combatants in a phone call with French president Emmanuel Macron.

Amid the fighting, 26 of Putin's personal friends and oligarch supporters were added to a new EU asset-freeze and visa-ban list that entered into force on Monday.

The latest names included Putin's spokesman Peskov, cellist Sergei Roldugin, oil barons Igor Sechin and Nikolai Tokarev, banker Mikhail Fridman, and metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov.

The EU said Roldugin, a 71-year old who is god-father to Putin's daughter, was a key figure in hiding Putin's private assets around Europe, including by "shuffling at least $2bn through banks and offshore companies." Sechin had financed vineyards at Putin's private palace in Gelendzhik, on Russia's Black Sea coast, the EU added.

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