Belgium’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine
As in other European countries, the Russian attack on Ukraine provoked a lot of emotions in Belgium.
The Belgian Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, immediately condemned the aggression as “one of the darkest moments since the Second World War”. On February 24, the day Russian tanks rolled into their neighbouring country, De Croo (from the Dutch-speaking liberal party ‘Open VLD’), addressed the federal parliament: “What is at stake today is nothing less than peace and security in Europe […] Together with our allies we will take all steps to increase deterrence and defence. We will only turn this around by forming a close bloc with our European partners and NATO allies. In the coming days and months, we must hold on firmly to each other in the West. And we must use this unity to stop the great injustice being done to Ukraine”.
Sophie Wilmès, the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs (from the French-speaking liberal party ‘Mouvement Réformateur’), was also quick to “strongly” condemn Russia's “reckless” and “unprovoked” attack on Ukraine.
From the very first moment it was clear that Belgium wanted the European Union and NATO to react in unity. Its own response would – as usual – be firmly embedded in the official decisions these two bodies were going to make. It is striking that the Belgian ministers didn’t mention the United Nations, the only truly international body created to ensure peace in the world, nor the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
No room for nuance
Belgian officials all stressed the unprovoked nature of the Russian attack. The narrative of an aggressive Russia – personified by its evil president that was always out to invade the West – was very dominant. The lack of historical and geopolitical context was conspicuous in its absence. The provocative role of NATO was completely left out of the picture. Certainly in the period leading up to the invasion, this was also the only discourse in the Belgian mainstream press. Today it is still very much the dominant narrative although the media have now made some room for experts that analyse the war and its causes more thoroughly.
The peace organisation Vrede vzw, along with a few other groups in the small Belgian peace movement, is one of the voices that has always stressed the importance of context – for instance by framing the Russian security interests and pointing out polarizing actions and policy decisions. In this case, this has yielded Vrede vzw the accusation of being pro-Putin.
This is not new. When Vrede vzw opposed the NATO bombings in former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, we were accused of being pro-Serbian; when we opposed the war in Afghanistan in 2001, we were supposedly for the Taliban and sympathetic to murderous terrorists; and when we resisted the 2003 invasion of Iraq, we were "Saddam lovers".
For some it is apparently very difficult to comprehend that a peace movement takes a consistent stance against militarisation, military intervention and polarizing policy actions that can lead to war, regardless of the source. It is therefore logical that Vrede vzw immediately, strongly and unequivocally condemns Russia's military aggression against Ukraine.
Pointing out the responsibilities of the side to which 'we belong' and on which we can therefore have an impact, does not equal justifying or sympathizing with, let alone condoning the actions of the 'other side'. It is however vital to understand all the different aspects of a conflict to be able to solve it in a lasting way.
The tendency in this case to leave absolutely no room for any nuance also landed the Belgian political left in hot water. In the Flemish regional parliament (of the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), the PVDA-PTB abstained from supporting a resolution that condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Dutch-speaking press headlined, “PVDA refuses to condemn the Russian invasion”, and on social media the party was vilified and accused of ‘gauchism’. Even the young president of the centre-left social democratic party Vooruit tweeted, “The whole parliament condemns. PVDA doesn’t. The masks are falling off. This is shocking. Antisocial. Anti-democratic”.
In reality, PVDA-PTB immediately condemned “both the Russian unilateral recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk, and the military incursion” as “flagrant violations of the Ukrainian sovereignty, of the United Nations Charter and of international law”. The party explained that it didn’t support the resolution in the Flemish parliament because it couldn’t fully agree with the view of its authors which it deemed to be very one-sided, in particular the claim that the European Union and NATO had used all possible diplomatic initiatives to de-escalate the situation. There is no mention at all in the resolution of Western actions – such as the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance and the arming of the Ukrainian regime despite and contrary to the Minsk peace agreements – that contributed to an escalation of the security situation and paved the way for war.
PVDA-PTB analysed the situation similarly in the federal parliament. Prime Minister De Croo didn’t shun any platitudes when he reacted with, “Putin obviously has allies [here]”.
On February 26 the Belgian peace movement organised the first of several actions against the war in Ukraine in the capital of the country, Brussels. The key demands were for Russia to leave Ukraine, an immediate ceasefire, military de-escalation and diplomacy, no arms supplies to any of the warring parties, and a new European security architecture based on the principle of common security as embodied by the OSCE. The organisers also recalled NATO’s responsibility in escalating the situation. PTB-PVDA was the only political party that supported the action.
Vrede vzw is particularly concerned about the potential of this war to turn into a nuclear conflict. The consistent call for military de-escalation and not to deliver arms to any of the warring parties is however a position that encounters a lot of opposition.
After convening the National Security Council on the evening of February 24, Prime Minister De Croo, Minister of Foreign Affairs Wilmès, and Minister of Defence Ludivine Dedonder (from the French-speaking social democratic party ‘Parti Socialiste’) made it very clear that the country wasn’t planning on sending any weapons to Ukraine, despite the pleas of President Zelensky. There would also be no question of sending Belgian troops.
Only a day later the Minister of Defence announced that Belgium was sending 300 troops to Romania. “We are sending them at NATO’s request, and they will be part of the protection we are setting up on the eastern flank of NATO’s territory”, clarified Prime Minister De Croo. Belgium also quickly made a U-turn as far as the supply of weapons was concerned.
Two days after the National Security Council had concluded not to send arms, De Croo announced on Twitter that Belgium was delivering 2,000 machine guns that were being decommissioned by the Belgian army and 3,800 tons of fuel to the Ukraine. A bit later Belgium added another 3,000 machine guns and 200 anti-tank weapons. The machine guns are of the type FNC, manufactured by FN Herstal, the largest manufacturer of military small arms in Europe which is owned by the regional government of Wallonia. Except for the PVDA-PTB, again none of the Belgian political parties opposed sending arms to Ukraine.
After several smaller actions, the peace movement organised a national demonstration under the slogan ‘Europe for Peace and Solidarity’ on Sunday the 27th of March. The platform text called for Russia to retreat from Ukraine, for a common European security and an urgent peace diplomacy, and opposed increased military spending and the presence of nuclear weapons in Belgium and Europe. The text was signed by 66 civil society organisations (youth, women’s rights, climate and other social movements) and the main Belgian unions. Yet only a rather disappointing 5,000 people showed up for the demo.
That is not because the people in Belgium are indifferent to the war in Ukraine. On the contrary, the indignation at Russia’s military aggression and the solidarity with those affected by it are remarkable. The blue and yellow stripes of the Ukrainian flag popped up everywhere.
Solidarity actions for the Ukrainian people immediately sprung up all over the country. Individuals and organised citizens (in youth movements, sport and hobby clubs, schools and universities etc.) set up fundraising events or collected goods (food, clothes, toys, etc.) to send to the Ukrainian borders.
Thousands of Belgian families also opened up their own homes to house Ukrainians on the run from war. In their search for shelter for these refugees, the local authorities of Belgian cities seemed to be able to offer solutions that were not possible during the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015-2016. They found room in hotels, rest homes, monasteries, holiday villages and empty buildings for example. Some cities also built temporary refugee villages.
The solidarity and hospitality are heart-warming. However, it also painfully exposes the huge difference in attitudes of Belgian – and by extension European – citizens towards refugees from the Middle East and Africa. One cannot help but wonder whether inherent racism – unconsciously identifying more with white population groups – plays a part (aggravated by Islamophobia).
And this is institutionalised. All Ukrainian refugees enjoy a special status in Europe, which means they do not have to follow a lengthy asylum procedure but automatically receive a temporary residence permit. It is a slap in the face for the many Syrians, Afghans, Africans, etc. who are also fleeing war and have spent years entangled in procedures in a bid to be recognised. Some of their countries (Afghanistan, Syria, Libya) were even partly destroyed by NATO bombings. The European NATO member states should therefore feel morally obliged to receive refugees from these war zones.
Rising military budget
By the end of March, the website of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the country had donated, through various agencies, more than 9 million euros in humanitarian aid to a ravaged Ukraine.
However, this figure pales a bit in comparison with the extra budget for Belgian Defence that was announced after the Extraordinary Summit of the NATO Heads of State and Government on March the 24th in Brussels.
In concrete terms, an amount of 1 billion euros was allocated for the current legislature (until 2024).
This amount adds to a military investment plan, the Star Plan, of at least 10 billion euros by 2030 that was only just approved by the De Croo administration at the end of January in the middle of the heightened tensions around Ukraine. Four-hundred and fifty million euros of the planned extra billion will be injected into Defence this year, which is an increase of 10% of the budget for 2022. The following years, 2023 and 2024, would see an extra budget increase of 275 million euros each year.
The war in Ukraine is being exploited to insidiously bring national defence spending closer to NATO's target of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) for member states. The Star Plan was already supposed to increase the Belgian Defence budget to 1.54% of GDP by 2030. The extra financial injection just granted could bring the Defence budget to 1.6% of GDP by 2030.
While defence budget increases have until recently been a lot more difficult to implement and defend due to the high social and economic needs caused by the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes militarisation almost a matter of course and the increases in military spending pass uncontested. The arms industry is on cloud nine.
Vrede vzw feels there is an urgent need to break out of the prevailing mindset of militarisation. The high socio-economic needs pushed into the background by the war are not going away in the meantime. On the contrary, these needs increase (higher energy bills, inflation, more unemployment, etc) and needs are added with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. The one billion euros that have just been allocated to Defence would, for example, enormously and immediately help a dignified reception of Ukrainian refugees, as well as refugees from other wars.
About the author
Soetkin Van Muylem works as researcher and editor at the Belgian peace organisation Vrede vzw. He holds a master's degree in History and a master's degree in Conflict and Development from the University of Gent.