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Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a 'dark day,' European leaders say

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a ground war on the European continent for the first time since World War II. European leaders met through the day yesterday to come up with a new set of sanctions on Russia that they say are the harshest ever imposed. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Berlin. Rob, thanks for being here.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: It is inconceivable for so many Europeans, as you know, that this is happening on their doorstep. Give us a sense of what EU leaders are saying.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, European leaders have called Russia's attack a blatant violation of international law. Here in Germany, Olaf Scholz said it was a dark day for Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the scale of this attack something that Europeans thought were a thing of the past. Here's what he said.

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JENS STOLTENBERG: The Kremlin's aim is to re-establish its sphere of influence, rip up the global rules that have kept us all safe for decades and subvert the values that we hold dear. This is the new normal for our security.

SCHMITZ: And Rachel, Stoltenberg announced NATO would step up its readiness plans by beefing up forces on its eastern flank along Ukraine's borders. He also said NATO is activating powers that would give him more flexibility to use allied military resources.

MARTIN: So we hear Stoltenberg talking about a new normal in Europe. Many Europeans, though, were really skeptical that Vladimir Putin would actually do this, would actually go forward with an attack on Ukraine. Are you sensing some surprise?

SCHMITZ: Absolutely. You know, for weeks, many European defense experts publicly questioned the Biden administration's warnings that Russia was on the verge of an attack on Ukraine. Now this has been a - sort of a wake-up call for them. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany's former defense minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, wrote a candid tweet yesterday, saying she's angry with herself and her colleagues for what she called our historical failure. She said after Russia attacked Georgia more than a decade ago and then the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine in 2014, that Europe had not done anything to deter Vladimir Putin from doing this again. You sort of get the sense that European leaders are rethinking everything they've done when it comes to dealing with Putin. And of course, much of what Europe could have done is not only in the political and security realm, but also with economic ties and trade.

MARTIN: Right. So those economic ties to Russia - now in jeopardy, given that the EU has announced new economic sanctions on Russia last night, right?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and those still need to be finalized, but the EU essentially plans to freeze Russian assets in Europe and prevent Russian banks access to European financial markets. The sanctions will also target Russia's energy and transport sectors, attempting to stifle trade and manufacturing with export controls. Many of these have been coordinated with the U.S. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen claims these sanctions would cripple Russia's economy. Here's what she said.

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URSULA VON DER LEYEN: It is President Putin who will have to explain this to his citizens. I know that the Russian people do not want this war.

SCHMITZ: But I should note here that many EU members and observers say these sanctions don't go far enough. One action not taken was to remove Russia from the SWIFT financial network, a move experts say could hit Russia's GDP by 5% or more. Still, these threats from Europe are something, and the EU is Russia's largest trading partner, so Russia's markets tanked yesterday from this news.

MARTIN: But this goes two ways, right? It's not just going to hurt Russia's economy.

SCHMITZ: No, this won't be easy on Europe's economy. The EU's the largest investor in Russia and depends on Russia for 40% of its natural gas. Germany's halted the Nord Stream 2 gas line from Russia. That's a start. Germany's economy minister says that rough days are ahead, but that ultimately severing these economic ties is the right decision for the survival of European democracy, even if it leads to economic harm at home.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin with European reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Rob, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.