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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Foto: Ukraine Presidency / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went to great lengths to show his delight at receiving his distinguished visitor from Brussels, rushing to the train station to welcome European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Arms outstretched, kisses on the left and right cheeks. Von der Leyen, wearing a yellow and blue ribbon on her lapel, gave a short speech. "This train is a legend," she said, describing the transportation that has brought the European Union leader to Kyiv six times since the start of Russia's war of aggression – more trips than those taken by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock combined.

Last weekend's visit was important for Ukraine, which finds itself in an increasingly difficult position. There has been little progress on the front, and only a massive increase in Western military aid could help. But it doesn't appear that such aid will be forthcoming, particularly with new war in the Middle East taking much of the West's attention away from Ukraine. Indeed, it is even possible the United States will start reducing its support, and the European Union wouldn't likely be able to make up for that shortfall.

Russia's invasion had only begun a few hours earlier when the leaders of the EU member state governments held their first crisis summit in February 2022. Zelenskyy was connected to the meeting by video - a "serious and dignified" appearance, according to European Council President Charles Michel at the time.

Since then, Zelenskyy has become a master at using the media to further his political aims. He has repeatedly put Western governments under moral pressure to supply Ukraine with more weapons, ammunition and money for the defensive campaign against Russia. Shocking images of destroyed cities and civilians who had been killed helped give his message emphasis.

Over time, Zelenskyy gradually succeeded in obtaining heavy artillery, modern air defense systems, Leopard 2 tanks and even F-16 fighter jets – all weapons systems whose delivery to Ukraine had previously seemed unfathomable.

Is Washington Turning Its Back?

Since October 7, though, attention has shifted away from Ukraine. Following the murder of more than 1,400 Israelis in the Hamas terror attack, the West has been looking to the Middle East, where Israel's counterattack on the Gaza Strip threatens to trigger a wider conflagration.

This trend has been particularly pronounced in the United States. President Joe Biden has requested a further $106 billion from Congress for Israel, Ukraine and the Pacific Rim. But the Republicans are standing in the way. Mike Johnson, the new speaker of the House, has agreed to wave through $14 billion for Israel, but hasn't released even a single cent for Ukraine, deciding to use Kyiv as political leverage. And in the Senate, the Republicans only want to release the money for Kyiv if the U.S. government tightens its rules for asylum-seekers.

For Ukraine, the end to U.S. aid would be no less than a disaster. After around 600 days of war, the Ukrainian army is suffering from huge shortages. At the very top of Kyiv's list of priorities are weapons for air defense – from portable devices such as Stinger missiles to state-of-the-art missile defense systems like Europe's Iris-T. Artillery and electronic warfare equipment to defend against Russian drones are also urgently needed in this war of attrition.

The German government is proud to be the largest provider of military aid to Kyiv after the U.S. But that aid won't be enough to deliver a win for Ukraine in the war. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has emphasized repeatedly, it may not even be enough to ensure that Ukraine doesn't lose.

Although the EU has pledged by far the largest sums of money to Ukraine, amounting to around 77 billion euros by the end of July, when it comes to purely military assistance, the U.S. is indispensable. Washington has already supplied Ukraine with around 42 billion euros worth of armaments, more than all EU member states combined. The EU, so far, has committed around 25 billion euros in military aid, with most of it coming from Germany.

All experts agree that it would be impossible for the Europeans to compensate for the loss of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. "This shows, once again, how much we depend on the U.S. militarily," says Green Party politician Anton Hofreiter, chairman of the European Union Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament. "More financial aid for Ukraine would be easier for the EU to provide than more military aid."

Politicians and military officials don't believe that Germany is in a position to expand its military aid to Ukraine. They say there's nothing left to give from the German armed forces' sparse stocks. Germany's defense industry needs to produce faster.

Hunting for a Strategy

German government sources say that Berlin's aid for Ukraine will continue despite the new developments. "We need a fundamental strategy as to what other military means and systems we and other European partners can use to support Ukraine even more effectively," says Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag's Defense Committee. This applies, she says, "irrespective of the political situation in the United States." Marcus Faber, a defense expert with the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), also believes that Germany, as the largest economy in Europe, should be doing more to help – "to motivate the invading troops to go back home," he says.

That's easier said than done, of course. The Defense Ministry in Berlin has promised additional purchases for Kyiv. But around 5.2 billion euros is still lacking for Germany's 2024 aid budget for Ukraine – money that is needed for things like air defense, tanks and repairs, for example. According to DER SPIEGEL sources, the German government will have to get creative when it comes to plugging that hole.

The aid budget for Ukraine is to be increased by 6 billion euros. Four billion is set to be tapped from unused reserves earmarked for refugees as well as Germany's greater scope for new borrowing due to the economic situation. The other 2 billion is set to be spent as a commitment appropriation and will thus only have an impact in the next financial year. That would give the German government breathing room for further arms deliveries, at least for the time being.

According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, the German government has also obtained assurances from the new Slovakian government that it will be able to continue operating the repair center for large military equipment that has been set up there, despite declarations by Prime Minister Robert Fico that his country would not deliver "one shot of ammunition" to Ukraine.

But what happens if the budget situation in Germany deteriorates – or Donald Trump becomes president again in the U.S.? Nobody in Berlin is particularly eager to speculate on such questions these days.

At the EU level, no significant increase in spending for Ukraine is in sight. The European Commission recently proposed that 50 billion euros be included in the EU budget for the years 2024 to 2027 in order to stabilize aid for Kyiv. But while the sum itself isn't controversial, there is dissent over the details.

According to the Commission's proposal, around two-thirds of the 50 billion would be comprised of loans to Ukraine, with the remainder provided as a gift. But most EU states are currently having troubles with their own budgets right now, and some would prefer to reduce the share of gifts in order to make the aid packages an easier sell domestically. "In 20 years' time, none of today's decision-makers will still be in office to explain to people that the loans will not be repaid," grumbles one insider.

War weariness is also spreading within the EU, a development that Zelenskyy himself recently lamented in an interview. "The scariest thing is that part of the world got used to the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian president told Time magazine. "Exhaustion with the war rolls along like a wave. You see it in the United States, in Europe."

A recent survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund in the U.S., Canada and 12 European countries revealed that skepticism is particularly widespread in Germany. Nowhere were the responses to Ukraine more negative than in the country.

On average, 69 percent of all respondents said they favored financial aid, compared to 57 percent in Germany. Clear majorities in all countries supported Ukraine's accession to NATO, but only 45 percent of Germans do. On average across all countries, 63 percent said they favor EU membership for Ukraine, compared to 49 percent in Germany.

But Ukraine skeptics in Germany don't need to worry too much about Ukraine joining the EU anytime soon. That's a long way off – as was shown in Brussels this week – if it ever takes place at all.

Warm Words, Cold Reality

In Kyiv over the weekend, von der Leyen still sought to spread good vibes. Ukraine, she told members of the Ukrainian parliament, has achieved "excellent progress" on the path to EU membership. "Much greater than anyone expected from a country at war."

On Wednesday, however, the difference between warm words and the cold reality of the EU accession process became apparent.

The Commission issued its recommendation that the EU member states approve the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine. And it is considered likely in Brussels that the heads of state and government will follow suit at the next EU summit in mid-December. But it's not much more than a symbol. Von der Leyen also said that the first round of talks should first be held after Ukraine has fulfilled all the conditions, such as improved anti-corruption measures and greater protection for minorities in the country.

This exposed the EU's dilemma. Ukraine's accession is "a geopolitical necessity," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week. "We can no longer afford any gray areas in Europe."

That's one side.

On the other, the EU must ensure compliance with the accession criteria – a clear consensus among EU member states, particularly since countries such as Hungary and Poland began drifting towards autocracy, with the EU almost powerless to do anything about it. "The criteria required for formal membership must be met," says Katarina Barley, vice president of the European Parliament and Germany's former justice minister. "We cannot turn a blind eye here."

To become an EU member state, a country must have stable institutions that safeguard democracy and rule of law. It must have a functioning economy, also in order to be able to withstand the competitive pressure within the EU internal market.

Most importantly, Ukraine must adopt all of the binding common rights and obligations that are part of the EU acquis into their national law. They have to be able to comply with all EU legislation, but also with its international treaties and agreements with other states and organizations. That process alone takes years or decades to complete. To make matters worse, the accession process is susceptible to tiffs between individual countries and the candidate and attempts at political blackmail. This is because each step – from the start of negotiations to the opening of the individual chapters to the final decision on admission – must be decided unanimously by all EU countries.

A Fight Over Money Could Be Next

Diplomats already fear now that Hungary could move to torpedo the opening of accession negotiations at the December summit. Budapest has been making noises about a lack of protections for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, but so far it hasn't provided any official justification for those concerns. Critics suspect that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is actually trying to free up billions in EU funding that has been blocked due to violations of the rule of law.

The dispute over money could also act as a brake at a later date as well – like when it dawns on other member states what Ukraine's accession would mean for the EU budget and its subsidies. Taken together, the bloc's cohesion funds, which are intended to even out differences between poorer and richer member states, and agricultural subsidies account for around two-thirds of the EU budget. They would be massively affected by the accession of Ukraine, a country that is heavily dependent on agriculture.

According to recent calculations by the Center for European Policy Studies, if Ukraine became a member of the EU today, it would receive a net 18 to 19 billion euros from the EU budget each year. By comparison: Poland, which is by far the largest net recipient of EU funds in absolute terms, received just under 12 billion euros net in 2022.

According to DER SPIEGEL sources, the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel also offers similar conclusions in an as-yet-unpublished study. According to the report, Ukraine would be entitled to around 85 billion euros in agricultural funds alone from the EU's seven-year financial framework. A recently leaked internal EU calculation even arrived at the total of 96.5 billion euros. Agricultural subsidies are based primarily on the amount of land cultivated, and Ukraine would have around one-fifth of the EU's total agricultural land.

War Remains the Biggest Obstacle

Bruegel economist Zsolt Darvas emphasizes that Ukraine's accession would be a great economic gain for the EU. It would mean "an enormous boost for the internal market with massive business opportunities for EU companies, similar to those following the 2004 enlargement." In addition, millions of Ukrainian refugees, who would likely remain in the EU, could "alleviate the massive labor shortage."

Before that can happen, though, the biggest obstacle to Ukraine's accession must first be removed: the war with Russia. It is unclear how an end to that war will be defined. When the Russians are completely expelled from Ukraine's territory? If there's a peace treaty? Or will it suffice if the weapons have been silent long enough?

These issues are also explosive for the EU because it has a mutual assistance clause similar to NATO's: In the event of an armed attack on a member state, "the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power," Article 42 of the Treaty on the European Union states says. Unlike the NATO defense alliance, though, the EU's promise of support is toothless, given that it is not backed by military power.

"Ukraine's accession to NATO should happen in parallel to its accession to the EU," demands German Green Party politician Hofreiter. But to a degree even greater than for EU membership, it is only conceivable that Ukraine could join NATO once the war with Russia has ended. And who knows what will be left of Ukraine by then?