EU funds weapons for Ukraine in steely policy shift

Ireland opts out of spending on weapons, but agrees funds for non-lethal assistance

The European Union has hardened its response towards Russia, announcing a €450 million fund for weapons for the Ukrainian army while working to isolate Moscow internationally.

The move was announced on Sunday night as horror at the invasion of Ukraine forges unity and resolve among the 27 member states.

In a significant policy shift, the EU agreed to jointly buy lethal weaponry to send to a conflict for the first time. The bloc also imposed an EU-wide ban on Russian aircraft from its airspace, announced further sanctions on Russian elites and moved against Russian state media outlets.

"For the first time ever, the European Union will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack. This is a watershed moment," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

“Our airspace will be closed to every Russian plane – and that includes the private jets of oligarchs.”

She said the subsidiaries of state-owned Russian media RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik should be banned in the EU, so they could no longer “spread their lies to justify Putin’s war”.

It adds to a move jointly announced by EU countries together with the United States, United Kingdom and Canada to shut out Russia's central bank from transactions and exclude key Russian banks for the Swift payments system, on top of waves of fresh sanctions last week.

“We hope to isolate Russia, to make it an international pariah,” an EU official said, vowing to go “institution by institution” to have Russia kicked out.

Non-lethal assistance

Under Ireland's long-standing policy, no Irish funds will be spent on weapons. Ireland is to contribute to an associated but firewalled €50 million fund for non-lethal assistance, including personal protective equipment and medical kits.

Arms funded by the EU cash are expected to include air defence systems, anti-tank missiles, munitions and ammunition, and will start arriving soon in Poland, which will co-ordinate its collection at the Ukrainian border.

The move was a response to an appeal made by Ukraine's foreign affairs minister, Dmytro Kuleba, to EU foreign ministers when they met in Brussels on Friday.

The development echoes events in Germany, where the government announced a rapid increase in military spending, the latest in several sharp U-turns overturning long-held policies in response to the invasion. "If our world is different, then our politics must be different too," foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said.

While Ireland would not send weapons itself, it would not oppose other EU states from doing so, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee told journalists.

“We’re not going to prevent any other member state from providing that funding or from sending any types of weaponry,” Ms McEntee said. “We have a very long-standing position of not sending weapons, and that position hasn’t changed.”

Nato aid

The funds will come from the budget of the European Peace Facility, a new EU programme agreed last year for security and defence.

Nato also announced that its members were increasing military aid to Ukraine, including EU members Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

This includes “anti-tank weapons, hundreds of air-defence missiles and thousands of small arms and ammunition”, a Nato statement read.

“Self-defence is a right enshrined in the UN Charter, and allies are helping Ukraine uphold that right,” said Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

The move by Germany to send weapons to Ukraine was a major reversal of years of policy not to send weapons to conflict zones, and came after a previous decision to freeze the opening of the landmark Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Russia.

Horror at the invasion throughout Europe has brought tens of thousands of protesters on the streets over the weekend and galvanised public pressure on governments to do more, with signs of a sea change under way as politicians once friendly towards the regime of Vladimir Putin walked back their positions.