Europe Didn't Want to Believe Russia Would Actually Invade Ukraine, Top EU Diplomat Says

A Pion artillery system of the Russian military fires at a target in Ukraine.
In this handout photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service released on Sunday, June 5, 2022. A Pion artillery system of the Russian military fires at a target in an undisclosed location in Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

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In the days and weeks leading up to Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, the White House repeatedly warned that conflict was imminent. 

But despite these warnings from the U.S. that war was on the horizon, Europe didn't want to believe that Russia would actually attack its eastern European neighbor, the European Union's top diplomat revealed on Tuesday.   

"Some things have happened in the past that we knew they could happen, but some of them have been a surprise," said Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign and security policy chief, during a speech at the bloc's ambassadors conference in Brussels.  

"We did not believe that the war was coming. I have to recognise that here, in Brussels. The Americans were telling us, 'They will attack, they will attack,' and we were quite reluctant to believe it," Borrell said.

"I remember very well when [U.S. Secretary of State Antony] Blinken phoned me and told me, 'Well, it is going to happen this weekend.' And certainly, two days later, at 5 o'clock in the morning, [Russia] started bombing Kyiv," he recalled.

In January 2021, as Russia gathered tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine, U.S. officials — including President Joe Biden — cautioned that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ready to initiate widespread conflict at any moment.  

By mid-February, the White House said the risk of an immediate invasion was extremely high, and the U.S. even told Ukraine on February 23 that a major assault was likely about to start — citing intelligence. The next day, Russian forces invaded, with Russian leadership under the impression that Russian President Vladimir Putin's troops would achieve a quick and decisive victory.

Borrell also said on Tuesday that Europe didn't anticipate how well Ukraine would defend itself against the invading Russian forces. 

"We did not believe that this was going to happen, and we didn't foresee that Ukraine was ready to resist as fiercely and as successfully as they are doing," Borrell said, while also crediting European arms deliveries and military support with aiding Kyiv's fight.

Borrell's remarks echo those of Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who said last month that the EU was wrong to ignore countries that warned Putin was a threat. Russia's neighbors have made similar comments about how they were right in their warnings.    

"One lesson from this war is we should have listened to those who know Putin," von der Leyen said. 

Now, after more than seven months of conflict, Ukrainian forces have managed to stage counteroffensives along the war's eastern and southern fronts, liberating thousands of square miles of territory from under Russian occupation since early September. Bogged down by these military setbacks, Putin's troops have recently begun used suicide drones, as well as missiles, to strike civilian areas far from the front lines, spreading terror and fear.

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