US President Joe Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin this week in a bid to de-escalate tensions as troves of troops, tanks and weapons were seen heading to Ukraine’s eastern border. It came after both the EU and UK pledged “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s government amid concerns of a military invasion into Europe. But the Commission’s President rejected an official invitation extended by Mr Zelenskiy for the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence in August.
Ms von der Leyen failed to respond to the Ukrainian leader personally, in what was said to be a breach of her own protocols.
Instead, her cabinet chief Bjorn Seibert responded to the invitation saying the President has a “particularly heavy agenda” in August.
Mr Seibert signed the reply with his own name, instead of signing it on behalf of Ms von der Leyen.
He wrote: “Regrettably, the President is unable to give a positive response to your invitation due to a particularly heavy agenda on the days in question.
“Thank you in advance for your understanding.”
He added: “President von der Leyen has asked me to pass on her best wishes for a successful summit and her congratulations to you and the people of Ukraine on this important anniversary.”
Clearing the matter up, Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer admitted yesterday: “Of course, the letter should have been naturally signed by her.”
But he confusingly insisted the reply did not arrive “through the usual channels” to Ukrainian officials, before reiterating that Ms von der Leyen would write a response herself.
He said that the Commission’s position is unlikely to change, after being pressed over whether Ms von der Leyen should be attending the ceremony to show support for Kiev at a time when European leaders have expressed worries about Russia.
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He added: “I can assure you that the President — whether she is free to go to the event or not — will make sure that the Commission will be represented during those events, at the appropriate level.”
Mr Zelenskiy invited Ms von der Leyen for a commemoration of Ukraine’s 1991 separation from the Soviet Union.
The visit would have also coincided with the first-ever “Crimean Platform” summit, a gathering aimed at garnering international backing for Ukrainian sovereignty over the peninsula Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.
Over the past few weeks, Moscow has been amassing troops and heavy weapons at the Ukrainian border, triggering alarm bells in Kiev and across the globe that history could repeat itself.
Speaking in Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia was “openly threatening Ukraine with war and destruction of our statehood”.
But unlike in 2014, he added, “Russia won’t be able to catch anyone by surprise anymore”.
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the new Russian build-up “unjustified and deeply concerning” and said it was “the largest massing of Russian troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea”.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu accused NATO of “threatening” actions and said Russia had responded by sending two armies and three formations of airborne troops to its western borders, to conduct exercises.
Mr Mamer added yesterday that the EU’s backing of Ukraine is “extremely clear”.
He said: “The Commission and the EU are of course side-by-side with Ukraine.”
He also made clear that Ms von der Leyen “hopes to reiterate her support to Ukraine” at a meeting with Mr Zelenzky “when it can be organised”.
Mr Zelensky has urged NATO to speed up Ukrainian membership after visiting the conflict zone last week.
He said NATO was “the only way to end the war in Donbass” and that the membership action plan would be “a real signal for Russia”.