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The Brief – High level, high risk

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French President Emmanuel Macron has postponed for the third time his visit to Ukraine. We can only speculate that one possible reason was because of security issues.

Of all the possible risks for starting a direct military clash between Russia and the West, an attack on a Western leader on Ukrainian soil appears to be most likely.

Since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, 25 heads of state and/or government of EU countries have visited Ukraine (all countries except Cyprus and Malta), several of them more than once.

Top officials who have visited include US President Joe Biden (20 February 2023), two successive UK prime ministers, the president of Turkey, the prime ministers of Australia and Canada, and a few others, plus all NATO members except North Macedonia.

When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Kyiv, the capital was bombed by Russia. This also coincided with the visit of then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who was at the Kyiv train station when rockets hit nearby buildings.

More recently, when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Odesa together with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russian missiles landed at a close distance, reportedly targeting a warehouse containing sea drones.

Each visit by such high-level guests to Ukraine increases the risk that even inadvertently, one of them may become the victim of a Russian attack and the incident could result in a casus belli.

Macron has recently become the Western leader most determined to support Ukraine, ignoring “red lines”, and even admitting to the possibility of sending troops. This infuriated the Kremlin, with TV commentator Vladimir Solovyov quickly calling for nuclear strikes against France and other European cities.

A visit to Ukraine is likely to take Macron to Odesa, probably the highest-risk location. Odesa is widely believed to be Vladimir Putin’s next target, as the capture of Ukraine’s “southern capital” would allow him to reach two important goals.

The first, of course, is to turn Ukraine into a landlocked country, and the second is to create a territorial link with Transnistria, the Russian enclave inside Moldova. This would also represent a major threat to Moldova’s territorial integrity.

To deter Russia from any new adventure, Paris leads a NATO battle group of around 800 troops in Romania, including 500 French soldiers, along with those from the Netherlands and Belgium. Paris has also deployed a surface-to-air missile system in Romania.

France also has troops in the other high-risk location, the Baltics. It remains to be seen if their presence would act as a deterrent.

Macron’s upcoming visit to Ukraine is not a courtesy call, it illustrates a paradigm shift, with the French president taking the empty leadership seat, currently vacated by the US, in the drive to support Ukraine.

And it comes at a time when others, including Pope Francis, suggest Ukraine should raise the white flag and engage in peace talks with Moscow.

We can only speculate the Kremlin had tried to kill Zelenskyy (and his Greek guest) with the latest Odesa attack.

There have reportedly been many attempts by the Russian secret services to assassinate Zelenskyy. The best occasion for such a covert operation might be during a visit by foreign guests, especially if their agenda gets leaked.

We can only second-guess that Russia has no interest in firing at foreign leaders on Ukrainian soil as the consequences would be terrible. We can assume that Putin knows he could trigger nuclear war if he attempts to decapitate the West by killing one of its leaders.

But Putin’s Russia is a land of thugs even he cannot control. Rogue elements like those around Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov could decide to do something stupid, assuming they would please Putin.

The physical presence of Western leaders on Ukrainian soil is also symbolically important. Kyiv looks relatively safe. But who knows? High-level visits to Ukraine also carry high-level risks. The worst-case scenario should not be disregarded.

We have our doubts as to whether high-level visits are worth the risk as long as the situation in Ukraine remains as it is now. But that’s for the allied capitals to decide.

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The Roundup

Two years after Sweden applied to join NATO, its flag was raised at the military alliance’s headquarters on Monday, with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson saying “We have come home”.

The European Commission violated data protection rules in its use of Microsoft 365, leading to the imposition of corrective measures by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), the watchdog announced on Monday.

Germany’s conservative CDU/CSU is continuing to push to reverse the controversial phase-out of internal combustion engine cars by 2035, despite the demand being dropped from the European People’s Party election manifesto.

EU negotiators went back to the drawing board over the weekend to bulletproof the text of the bloc’s corporate due diligence law (CSDDD) in the hope of securing a final deal by Friday at the latest, Euractiv understands.

A ‘French-style’ bill on assisted dying will be presented to France’s Council of Ministers in April, President Emmanuel Macron confirmed in an interview on Sunday, underlining that it will function differently to similar laws in other EU countries.

The European liberals’ three-person lead candidate team will include the German defence policy expert Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann on behalf of ALDE, her party has announced.

The EU’s controversial green buildings law will be voted on in the European Parliament on Tuesday, but its adoption is far from guaranteed, given the opposition from German centre-right lawmakers.

Look out for…

European Parliament plenary Monday – Thursday.
High Representative Josep Borrell in New York, participates in meetings at United Nations on Tuesday.
Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) on Tuesday.

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor/Rajnish Singh]

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