The EU has announced it will ban the Russian state-backed channels RT and Sputnik in an unprecedented move against the Kremlin media machine.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said: “Russia Today and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries, will no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union. So we are developing tools to ban their toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe.”
The move, which was not trailed or widely discussed, came as part of a package of tougher sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s government and the regime of the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, which Von der Leyen described as “complicit in this vicious attack against Ukraine”.
European foreign policy taboos have been smashed in just a few days, after Russia invaded its neighbour, provoking fears of the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
For the first time in its history, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a country under attack, Von der Leyen said. EU foreign ministers are expected to approve the use of funds from the European Peace Facility to finance lethal and non-lethal aid to Ukraine at a meeting on Sunday evening. While a handful of countries may hold back, because of policies against sending weapons into a conflict zone, the plan is expected to pass.
Ministers are also set to agree to ban Russian airlines from EU skies, after more than a dozen countries took the decision unilaterally. “Our airspace will be closed to every Russian plane – and that includes the private jets of oligarchs,” Von der Leyen said.
In a historic announcement to parliament, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said a fund of €100bn (£85bn) would be set up immediately to boost the strength of the country’s armed forces, as he also announced a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years.
Scholz admitted that the urgency of the Ukraine crisis had forced Germany’s decision to invest in the military, telling the emergency session of the Bundestag: “It is clear that we must invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and democracy.”
He called it “Germany’s historical responsibility” to ensure that Vladimir Putin “does not turn the clocks back”.
Long-term defence spending was to be increased year on year by more than 2% of GDP, he said. It is currently about 1.5% with Germany having been under growing pressure from its Nato allies, in particular the US, to increase the amount for years. The existence of the special fund should be anchored in Germany’s constitution, Scholz said, in order to ensure it remained a guarantee beyond the life of the current parliament.
Germany has long been criticised by its allies for its resistance to increasing its defence spending. This position has been reinforced by a strong pacifist sentiment among the electorate linked to Germany’s Nazi past. In recent weeks, the country was also criticised for having not offered enough material support, in particular refusing to deliver lethal weapons to assist Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.
The move came after the government made the surprise announcement on Saturday that it would be sending weapons and other supplies to Ukraine, including 1,000 anti-tank weapons, 500 surface-to-air Stinger missiles and thousands of gallons of petrol. The decision marks a historical break with Germany’s postwar pledge not to export weapons to conflict zones.
A turning point came on Saturday evening with the government’s surprise announcement on weapons to Ukraine. It has also lifted certain restrictions on German-manufactured weapons being sent to conflict zones from third countries, such as Estonia and the Netherlands.
The announcement to parliament was greeted with relief and surprise, with Scholz receiving a standing ovation on Sunday morning, even as some MPs, mainly from the Left party as well as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), voiced their disapproval.
As expected the EU is also broadening economic sanctions against Belarus, imposed in 2020 after Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters who contested his claimed election victory, seen as fraudulent by all independent observers.
The Belarusian opposition has criticised the EU for loopholes in its sanctions regime that allowed Lukashenko to continue to benefit from export earnings. Von der Leyen insisted the new measures would “stop their exports of products from mineral fuels to tobacco, wood and timber, cement, iron and steel”.
The EU’s promise to cut some Russian banks out of Swift, however, was not expected to be finalised on Sunday.
The move against RT and Sputnik was the biggest surprise from the commission. The culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, this week wrote to Ofcom asking it to look at whether RT should be allowed to broadcast “harmful disinformation” in the UK. Some argued against a ban, warning it could lead to Moscow closing down the BBC in Russia. The Guardian