New Zealander Peeni Henare has just travelled 17,000 kilometres. He made the journey from Wellington to Kyiv where he met his Ukrainian counterpart, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov. As the Belgian singer-songwriter Julos Beaucarne once had it, “the couriers await”. And they are still waiting. They have been waiting for more than 270 days. Ludivine Dedonder, Henare’s and Reznikov’s Belgian counterpart, has still not managed the 2000 kilometres between Brussels and the Ukrainian capital.
This might seem like a minor issue, but it is a revealing indicator of Belgian policy towards Ukraine. Ambivalent and ambiguous. For the minister Dedonder, “we must continue to support Ukraine” but we must not “deprive our personnel of the equipment they need” 1. It is a strange argument.
Belgium could draw on its large stocks of decommissioned equipment – or equipment in the process of being decommissioned – that is needed by Ukraine. This is the case for hundreds of troop-transport trucks that are awaiting replacement. Clearly the Belgian army does not see it this way. Colonel Tom Laermans, director of the army’s sales department, is unperturbed, and continues to sell off decommissioned equipment in small tranches. At this very moment, for example, he has put up for sale 10 Volvo 6×4 trucks, apparently in relatively good condition. 2 Yet we know from well-informed sources in Kyiv that the Ukrainian authorities are interested in such trucks, both for direct use and as a spare-parts reserve. The minister could have the sale cancelled and send the ten trucks to Ukraine. Or she could ask Mr Laermans for a complete list of the decommissioned equipment that is due to be sold in the next few months and, on the basis of the Ukrainian needs, have convoys underway immediately.
If her concern is not to deprive the Belgian army of equipment that it considers indispensable, she could buy back dozens of Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles – the ones that the Belgian Defence sold a few years ago – from OIP, a specialist upgrader of military equipment based in Tournai and Oudenaarde. In our opinion, now is not the time to worry about the profit margins of this company, given the urgent needs of Ukraine. The key question here is whether OIP’s refurbishment 3meets the requirements of the Ukrainians and whether a price equivalent to 25% of that of a new vehicle of this type is reasonable. Such a step would in no way hinder any subsequent Belgian initiative to open up to European competition a sector which, by definition, falls outside the realm of “defence secrets”.
Belgium could supply enormous quantities of arms to Ukraine without “de-equipping” 4 the Belgian army. Meanwhile, the political argument that “the protection of our territory and NATO territory has never been so sensitive” 5 is totally fallacious. According to figures provided by the British intelligence services, for example, the Russian army’s conventional capabilities have been halved since the start of its offensive on 24 February. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, says no different when he states that “in reality, by ensuring that Russia, that President Putin, does not win in Ukraine, we are also increasing our own security and strengthening the Alliance by proving that we do not allow this kind of behaviour near our own borders. So the use of these stockpiles actually contributes to increasing our own security and reducing the risk of any aggressive action by Russia against NATO Allies.” 6
Moreover, while it is essential to modernise the Belgian army, this is not a new issue. Already in 2006, the defence ministers of the NATO member states committed themselves to devote 2% of their respective countries’ GDP 7 to defence spending. In 2014, at the Wales Summit, the heads of state and government of the NATO member countries, including Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, solemnly committed themselves to achieving the 2% objective by 2024. 8
Minister Dedonder’s argument that “comparing what [Belgium] is doing with, for example, [what] Latvia [is doing], on the Russian border, is unfair” 9 is neither intellectually nor politically sound. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including Latvia, have been warning the rest of the European Union for 20 years about the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the security of the whole of Europe. With the exception of a few isolated and largely ostracised figures, old Europe, including Belgium, preferred to open an unlimited line of trust to the Kremlin.
But this remark by Minister Dedonder goes beyond that. It suggests that the security of some – in this case the Latvians – can be dissociated from the security of other NATO members. It implies that the European Union, of which Ukraine will soon be a member, is not a “whole” in which the security of some is also the security of all the others.
But this minimalist approach towards Ukraine is of course not limited to the defence minister alone. It is also the position of the prime minister and the Belgian government as a whole (as well as practically the entire opposition).
It may be dispiriting in a country where, for better or for worse, compromise is possible on almost everything, but there is unfortunately no room for compromise in Ukraine. Unless, of course, one is willing to accept a world in which possession of nuclear weapons is a licence to seize the land of neighbouring countries and the citizens who live there, a world in which war crimes and crimes against humanity go unpunished, a world in which the free choice of whether or not to belong to an alliance is ignored.
Ukraine can and must win this war. It is up to all democratic countries to do everything possible to ensure that this victory comes as quickly as possible. It is obviously in the interest of the Ukrainians, who are paying a high price, which “is measured in lives and blood every day”, to quote Stoltenberg. But it is also in our own interest, on another scale – that of the money we are investing in the Ukrainian victory.
If the questions posed by Alexander De Croo to the UN General Assembly last September were to be answered today – “every country will one day be asked: What did you do to stop this? What did you do to protect the Ukrainian people? Did you look the other way, or did you act?” 10 – that answer would certainly not be to Belgium’s credit. Will the Belgian government change its ways 11 and work urgently to prepare the conditions that might allow Alexander De Croo, Ludivine Dedonder and Hadja Lahbib to travel to Kyiv with dignity?
- Ludivine Dedonder: “We must continue to support Ukraine, but I will not deprive our personnel of the equipment they need”, La Libre, 18 November 2022 ↩
- https://www.mil.be/media/ygkbx5dg/procédure-ab.pdf ↩
- According to the minister, “This equipment had been resold for between €15,000 and €20,000 each because it was at the end of its useful life. Steps were taken to upgrade the vehicles, but the company asked us for between €475,000 and €500,000 per vehicle […]”, La Libre, op. cit. ↩
- Ludivine Dedonder, op. cit. ↩
- Ludivine Dedonder, op. cit. ↩
- “Stoltenberg: We already talking to defense industry to ramp up production to further help Ukraine, replenish our own stocks”, ITTA Info, 9 September 2022 ↩
- “Funding NATO”, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_67655.htm ↩
- “Funding NATO”, op. cit. ↩
- Ludivine Dedonder, op. cit. ↩
- Speech by Prime Minister Alexander De Croo at the United Nations, 23 September 2022 ↩
- “When the opportunity arises [to go to Kyiv], we will not say no” in “Is Belgium doing too little to help the Ukrainians?”, Gerald Papy, Le Vif, 14 November 2022 ↩