‘Oh my God, it’s really happening’ – POLITICO

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Kaja Kallas had been dreading the decision.

“I woke at 5 o’clock,” the Estonian prime minister recalled not too long ago. The cellphone was ringing. Her Lithuanian counterpart was on the road. 


“Oh my God, it’s really taking place,” got here the ominous phrases, in keeping with Kallas. One other name got here in. This time it was the Latvian prime minister. 

It was February 24, 2022. Warfare had begun on the European continent. 

The evening earlier than, Kallas had informed her Cupboard members to maintain their telephones on in a single day in anticipation of simply this second: Russia was blitzing Ukraine in an try to decapitate the federal government and seize the nation. For these in Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, the place reminiscences of Soviet occupation linger, the primary photos of conflict tapped right into a nationwide terror. 

“I went to mattress hoping that I used to be not proper,” Kallas stated.

Throughout Europe, related wakeup calls have been rolling in. Russian tanks have been barreling into Ukraine and missiles have been piercing the early morning sky. In current weeks, POLITICO spoke with prime ministers, high-ranking EU and NATO officers, international ministers and diplomats — practically 20 in whole — to replicate on the conflict’s early days because it reaches its ruinous one-year mark on Friday. All described the same foreboding that morning, a way that the world had irrevocably modified.

Inside a yr, the Russian invasion would profoundly reshape Europe, upending conventional international coverage presumptions, cleaving it from Russian vitality and reawakening long-dormant arguments about extending the EU eastward.

However for these centrally concerned within the conflict’s buildup, the occasions of February 24 are nonetheless seared of their reminiscences. 

In an interview with POLITICO, Charles Michel — head of the European Council, the EU physique comprising all 27 nationwide leaders — recalled how he acquired a name immediately from Kyiv because the assaults started. 

“I used to be woken up by Zelenskyy,” Michel recounted. It was round 3 a.m. The Ukrainian president informed Michel: “The aggression had began and that it was a full-scale invasion.” 

Michel hit the telephones, talking to prime ministers throughout the EU all through the evening.

Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell converse to the press on February 24, 2022 | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP through Getty Photographs

By 5 a.m., EU international coverage chief Josep Borrell was in his workplace. Three hours later, he was standing subsequent to European Fee President Ursula von der Leyen because the duo made the EU’s first main public assertion in regards to the dawning conflict. Von der Leyen then convened the 27 commissioners overseeing EU coverage for an emergency assembly. 


Elsewhere in Brussels, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg was on the cellphone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Protection Secretary Lloyd Austin, who have been six hours behind in Washington, D.C. He then raced over to NATO headquarters, the place he urgently gathered the army alliance’s decision-making physique. 

The temper that morning, Stoltenberg recalled in a current dialog with reporters, was “severe” however “measured and well-organized.”

In Ukraine, missiles had begun raining down in Kyiv, Odesa and Mariupol. Volodymyr Zelenskyy took to social media, confirming in a video that conflict had begun. He urged Ukrainians to remain calm. 

These video updates would quickly change into a daily function of Zelenskyy’s wartime management. However this primary one was particularly jarring — a message from a president whose life, whose nation, was now in danger. 

It might be one of many final instances the Ukrainian president, wearing a dove-gray go well with jacket and crisp white shirt, appeared in civilian garments.

Europe’s Twenty first-century Munich second

February 24, 2022 is an indelible reminiscence for individuals who lived via it. For a lot of, nevertheless, it felt inevitable. 

5 days earlier than the invasion, Zelenskyy traveled to the Munich Safety Convention, an annual powwow of protection and safety specialists frequented by senior politicians. 

It was right here that the Ukrainian chief made one closing, determined plea for extra weapons and extra sanctions, hitting out at Germany for promising helmets and chiding NATO international locations for not doing sufficient. 

“What are you ready for?” he implored within the extremely charged ambiance within the Bayerischer Hof resort. “We don’t want sanctions after bombardment occurs, after we have now no borders, no financial system. Why would we’d like these sanctions then?”

GettyImages 12386159975 days earlier than the invasion, Zelenskyy traveled to the Munich Safety Convention, the place he made one closing, determined plea for extra weapons and extra sanctions | Pool photograph by Ronald Wittek/Getty Photographs

The symbolism was rife — Munich, a metropolis ceaselessly related to appeasement following Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated try to swap land for peace with Adolf Hitler in 1938, was now the setting for Zelenskyy’s final enchantment to the West.

Zelenskyy, by no means lacking a second, seized the historic analogy. 

“Has our world utterly forgotten the errors of the twentieth century?” he requested. “The place does appeasement coverage often result in?”

However his requires extra arms have been ignored, whilst international locations started ordering their residents to evacuate and airways started canceling flights in and in another country. 

Just a few days later, Zelenskyy’s warnings have been coming true. On February 22, Vladimir Putin inched nearer to conflict, recognizing the self-proclaimed Donetsk Folks’s Republic and Luhansk Folks’s Republic in jap Ukraine. It was a decisive second for the Russian president, paving the way in which for his all-out assault lower than 48 hours later.  

The EU responded the following day — its first main motion in opposition to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine because the escalation of tensions in 2021. Officers unveiled the primary in what can be 9 sanction packages in opposition to Russia (and counting). 

In an equally important transfer, a reluctant Germany lastly pulled the plug on Nord Stream 2, the but unopened gasoline pipeline linking Russia to northern Germany — the choice, made after months of strain, presaged how the Russian invasion would quickly upend the way in which Europeans powered their lives and heated their properties.

Summit showdown

Because it occurred, EU leaders have been already scheduled to satisfy in Brussels on February 24, the day the invasion started. Charles Michel had summoned the leaders earlier that week to take care of the escalating disaster, and to log off on the sanctions.  

All through the afternoon, Brussels was abuzz — TV cameras from around the globe had descended on the European quarter. Helicopters circled above.

All of a sudden, the common European Council assembly of EU leaders, usually a discussion board for technical doc drafting as a lot as political decision-making, had change into massively consequential. With conflict unfolding, the world was trying on the EU to reply — and lead.

GettyImages 1238740592European leaders gathered in Brussels following the invasion | Pool photograph by Olivier Hoslet/AFP through Getty Photographs

The assembly was scheduled to start at 8 p.m. As leaders have been gathering, information got here that Russia had seized the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Moldova had declared a state of emergency and hundreds of individuals have been pouring out of Ukraine. Later that evening, Zelenskyy introduced a common mobilization: each man between the ages of 18 and 60 was being asked to struggle.

Many leaders have been sporting facemasks, a reminder that one other disaster, which now appeared to pale compared, was nonetheless ever-present.

Simply earlier than becoming a member of colleagues on the Europa constructing in Brussels, Emmanuel Macron phoned Putin — the French president’s newest effort to mediate with the Russian chief. Macron had visited Moscow on February 7 however left empty-handed after 5 hours of discussions. He later stated he made the decision at Zelenskyy’s request, to ask Putin to cease the conflict.

“It didn’t produce any outcomes,” Macron stated of the decision. “The Russian president has chosen conflict.”

Arriving on the summit, Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš captured the gravity of the second. “Europe is experiencing the largest army invasion because the Second World Warfare,” he stated. “Our response needs to be united.”

However contained in the room, divisions have been on full show. How far, leaders questioned, may Europe go in sanctioning Russia, given the potential financial blowback? Nations dug in alongside fault strains that will change into acquainted within the succeeding months. 

The realities of conflict quickly pierced the tutorial debates. Zelenskyy’s crew had arrange a video hyperlink as missile strikes encircled the capital metropolis, eager to get the president speaking to his EU counterparts.

One individual current within the room recalled the percolating nervousness because the video feed beamed via — the picture out of focus, the digicam shaky. Then the image sharpened and Zelenskyy appeared, wearing a khaki shirt and looking out deathly pale. His environment have been faceless, an unknown room someplace in Kyiv. 

“Everybody was silent, the ambiance was utterly tense,” stated the official who requested anonymity to talk freely.  

Zelenskyy, shaken and completely targeted, informed leaders that they could not see him once more — the Kremlin wished him lifeless.

“In case you, EU leaders and leaders of the free world, don’t really assist Ukraine immediately, tomorrow the conflict may also knock at your door,” he warned, invoking an argument he would return to time and again: that this wasn’t simply Ukraine’s conflict — it was Europe’s conflict. 

GettyImages 1238719428Black smoke rises from a army airport in Chuguyev close to Kharkiv on February 24, 2022 | Aris Messinis/AFP through Getty Photographs

Inside hours, EU leaders had signed off on their second package deal of pre-prepared sanctions hitting Russia. However a fractious debate had already begun about what ought to come subsequent. 

The Baltic nations and Poland wished extra — extra penalties, extra financial punishments. Others have been holding again. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi aired their reluctance about expelling Russian banks from the worldwide SWIFT cost system. It was wanted to pay for Russian gasoline, in spite of everything. 

How rapidly that will change. 

Sanctions weren’t the one urgent matter. There was a humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe’s doorstep. The EU needed to each get support right into a conflict zone and put together for a mass exodus of individuals fleeing it. 

Janez Lenarčič, the EU’s disaster administration commissioner, landed in Paris on the day of the invasion, getting back from Niger. Officers began planning to get ambulances, mills and drugs into Ukraine — finally comprising 85,000 tons of support. 

“Essentially the most complicated, greatest and longest-ever operation” of its sort for the EU, he stated. 

By that weekend, there was additionally a plan for the refugees escaping Russian bombs. At a uncommon Sunday assembly, ministers agreed to welcome and distribute the escaping Ukrainians — a feat that has lengthy eluded the EU for different migrants. Days later, they might grant Ukrainians the moment proper to reside and work within the EU — one other first in a rare time. Selections that usually took years have been now flying via in hours.

Looming over the whole lot have been Ukraine’s repeated — and more and more dire — entreaties for extra weapons. Europe’s army investments had lapsed in current many years, and World Warfare II nonetheless solid a darkish shadow over international locations like Germany, the place the thought of sending arms to a warzone nonetheless felt verboten.

There have been additionally quiet doubts (to not point out intelligence assessments). Would Ukraine even have its personal authorities subsequent week? Why threat conflict with Russia if it was days away from toppling Kyiv?

“What we didn’t know at that time was that the Ukrainian resistance can be so profitable,” a senior NATO diplomat informed POLITICO on situation of anonymity. “We have been pondering there can be a change of regime [in Kyiv], what will we do?” 

That, too, was all about to vary. 

GettyImages 1238728882German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed Germany on the evening of Russia’s invasion | Pool photograph by Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Photographs

By the weekend, Germany had sloughed off its reluctance, slowly warming to its function as a key army participant. The EU, too, dipped its toe into historic waters that weekend, agreeing to assist reimburse international locations sending weapons to Ukraine — one other startling first for a self-proclaimed peace challenge.

“I keep in mind, saying, ‘OK, now we go for it,’” stated Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the EU’s diplomatic arm. 

Sarcastically, the EU would refund international locations utilizing the so-called European Peace Facility — a little-known fund that was all of the sudden the EU’s important automobile to help deadly arms going to a warzone. 

Over at NATO, the alliance activated its defense plans and despatched further forces to the alliance’s jap flank. The mission had two tracks, Stoltenberg recounted — “to help Ukraine, but in addition forestall escalation past Ukraine.” 

Treading that advantageous line would change into the defining balancing act over the approaching yr for the Western allies as they blew via one taboo after one other.

Who knew what, when

As these dramatic, heady early days fade into historical past, Europeans at the moment are grappling with what the conflict means — for his or her id, for his or her sense of safety and for the European Union that binds them collectively. 

The invasion has rattled the core tenets underlying the European challenge, stated Ivan Krastev, a outstanding political scientist who has lengthy studied Europe’s place on the earth.

“For various causes, many Europeans believed that this can be a post-war Continent,” he stated. 

Submit-World Warfare II Europe was constructed on the idea that open financial insurance policies, commerce between neighbors and delicate army energy would protect peace. 

“For the Europeans to just accept the opportunity of the conflict was principally to just accept the boundaries of our personal mannequin,” Krastev argued. 

GettyImages 1239190279Ukrainian refugees collect and relaxation upon their arrival on the important railway station in Berlin | Odd Andersen/AFP through Getty Photographs

The disbelief has bred self-reflection: Has the conflict completely modified the EU? Will a era that had confined reminiscences of World Warfare II and the Chilly Warfare to the previous view the following battle in another way?

And, maybe most acutely, did Europe miss the indicators? 

“The beginning of that conflict has modified our lives, that’s for certain,” stated Romanian Overseas Minister Bogdan Aurescu. It wasn’t, nevertheless, surprising, he argued. “We’re very attentive to what occurs in our area,” he stated. “The indicators have been fairly clear.”

Aurescu pointed again to April 2021 because the second he knew: “It was fairly clear that Russia was making ready an aggression in opposition to Ukraine.”

Not everybody in Europe shared that evaluation, although — to the diploma that U.S. officers grew to become anxious. They began a private and non-private marketing campaign in 2021 to warn Europe of an imminent invasion as Russia massed its troops on the Ukrainian border. 

In November 2021, von der Leyen made her first journey to the White Home. She sat down with Joe Biden within the Oval Workplace, surrounded by a coterie of nationwide safety and intelligence officers. Biden had simply acquired a briefing earlier than the gathering on the Russia battalion buildup and wished to sound the alarm. 

“The president was very involved,” stated one European official, talking on the situation of anonymity to debate delicate conversations. “This was a time when nobody in Europe was paying any consideration, even the intelligence providers.”

However others disputed the narrative that Europe was unprepared as America sounded the alarm. 

“It’s a query of perspective. You’ll be able to see the identical info, however come to a distinct conclusion,” stated one senior EU official concerned in discussions within the runup to the conflict, whereas conceding that the U.S. and U.Ok. — each members of the 5 Eyes intelligence alliance — did have higher info.

Even when these sounding the alarm proved proper, stated Pierre Vimont, a former secretary-general of the EU’s diplomatic wing and Macron’s Russia envoy till the conflict broke out, it was laborious to know upfront what, precisely, to plan for. 

“What kind of army operation wouldn’t it be?” he recalled individuals debating. A restricted operation within the east? A full occupation? A surgical strike on Kyiv?

Right here’s the place most landed: Russia’s onslaught was horrifying — its brutality staggering. However the indicators had been there. One thing was going to occur.

“We knew that the invasion goes to occur, and we had shared intelligence,” Stoltenberg harassed. “In fact, till the planes are flying and the battle tanks are rolling, and the troopers are marching, you may at all times change your plans. However the extra we approached the twenty fourth of February final yr, the extra apparent it was.”

Then on the day, he recounted, it was a matter of dutifully enacting the plan: “We have been ready, we knew precisely what to do.”

“Chances are you’ll be shocked by this invasion,” he added, “however you can’t be shocked.” 

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