For the past few months, as Russian attacks on Ukraine have intensified, EU regulations have prevented lifesaving body armor from reaching Ukrainian soldiers. Polish supporters of Ukraine have attempted to send flak vests and helmets to Ukrainian army units, but their efforts have been repeatedly stymied by over-broad and undiscerning EU governance. While seemingly an absurd tale, given the supposed European support of Ukraine, it effectively illustrates both the EU’s penchant for unworkable and convoluted regulation, as well as Europe’s broadly feeble response to Russia’s scheming.
Many Poles feel kinship with the Ukrainian people, and consider Russian expansion an existential threat to their own sovereignty. Frustrated by their government’s lack of action, they resorted to peaceful direct action, privately purchasing body armor and helmets for the Ukrainian armed forces. In many cases, this action mirrors that of Ukrainian NGOs like Wings of Phoenix, a private charity which has purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment for the Ukrainian armed forces. As a result of the wide EU bans on the transfer of warfighting gear, several shipments of vests have been confiscated by Polish border guards, and the group responsible for the shipments, Open Dialogue, has been placed under investigation by a Polish prosecutor.
EU arms regulations fail to distinguish or discriminate between weapons, objects capable of taking lives, and protective gear, body armor and helmets designed to stop bullets and shell fragments, which ultimately reduce harm. This is an unbelievably asinine regulatory failure, with real consequences for those involved in armed conflict. While warfare is quite obviously a dangerous pursuit, one would hope that all those unfortunate enough to find themselves on a battlefield would have access to lifesaving protective equipment. The likely lifespan of journalists, soldiers, and especially civilians caught in the crossfire, would all be improved with greater access to body armor, especially as Russia shells eastern Ukraine, as evidenced by US satellite photos released Sunday.
While a February agreement ought to have removed these restrictions, they appear to have remained in full effect, frustrating the efforts of those who wish to aid the newly birthed Ukrainian state. A personal safety exemption to the EU rules allows individuals to carry one set of protective equipment across the border, leading to bizarre cross-border processions of armored poles who, after making the crossing, immediately transfer their gear to Ukrainian compatriots before returning to Poland.
In the wake of the downing of MH17, European leaders have threatened Russia with everything from economic sanctions to human rights charges. In the face of continued European inaction, however, it is difficult to view these threats as anything but a bluff. With Germany dependent on Russian gas, and the UK on oligarchic capital, it makes little sense for either nation to take strong steps to hobble Russian imperialism. This further demonstrates the impossibility of effective concerted action by any supranational body made up of sovereign nations with varied and disparate interests.
As EU leaders publicly express outrage over the murder of their citizens by Russian mercenaries and pro-Russian separatists, their all-inclusive arms regulations and failure to enact meaningful sanctions effectually aid those responsible for the downing of MH17. One is forced to wonder whether, were Ukraine brought into the EU, such ironclad regulation would prevent Russian artillery shells from regularly crossing their eastern border at 1,500 meters a second.