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Opinion The E.U. has exceeded expectations on Russia. It can do even more.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels on Feb. 23. (Pool/Reuters)

European Union officials denounced the brutal onslaught unleashed on Ukraine with a powerful statement: “We strongly condemn Russia’s unjustified attack on Ukraine. In these dark hours, our thoughts are with Ukraine and the innocent women, men and children as they face this unprovoked attack and fear for their lives. We will hold the Kremlin accountable.” On Thursday morning, E.U. leaders met to finalize sanctions that will far exceed those already announced.

The E.U. has been the object of derision for years. Britain left in a huff over complaints that its policies were stifling growth and national sovereignty. In the last Ukraine contretemps in 2014, a State Department official — who has since returned to State to serve in the Biden administration — was caught on tape using an expletive to describe the E.U.’s fecklessness. Even in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, the media ran with the narrative that U.S. and E.U. leaders were divided and lacked a coordinated plan.

In reality, the E.U. has shown remarkable resolve and effectiveness in responding to Russian aggression this time around. Both the United States and the E.U. worked for months to reach this point.

The Post reported earlier in the week: “While Russian tanks were rolling into eastern Ukraine, E.U. diplomats scurried between calls and meetings to hash out their response. They emerged Tuesday evening with agreement on an initial round of penalties, suggesting there would be more to come.” In addition to sanctions hitting Russian access to financial markets, The Post reports that the E.U. “will target people and entities linked to Russia’s latest moves, including 351 members of the State Duma, the lower house, who voted to recognize the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.”

What you need to know about the Russia-Ukraine crisis

Like the United States, the Europeans took further measures on Wednesday. The New York Times reported: “The E.U. list reached inside the concentric circles around Mr. Putin, even touching his inner sanctum, by imposing penalties on his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and the president’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino.” This followed Germany’s agreement to halt certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the U.S. decision to announce further sanctions on the pipeline company.

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Two Eastern European countries near Russia — Poland and Lithuania — went a step further, encouraging Ukraine’s membership in the E.U. in a joint statement with Ukraine: “We emphasize that, given the significant progress in the implementation of the Association Agreement and internal reforms, as well as the current security challenges, Ukraine deserves E.U. candidate status and Lithuania and Poland will support Ukraine in achieving this goal.”

Given that Ukraine’s desire for economic ties with the West were at the center of the conflict in 2014, it would be cosmic justice if the E.U. took in Ukraine now. The message would be clear: Whatever Putin intended to achieve, his invasion is having the opposite effect.

Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now with the Center for American Progress, thinks the E.U. has been underestimated. He points to the speech delivered by E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, during which she vowed to disengage from Russian energy supplies and pursue strategic energy independence. “Basically, [she] called the Russian’s bluff on cutting off gas,” Bergmann says.

The current crisis might prompt the E.U. to take its own defense more seriously. Bergmann explains, “The E.U. can mobilize massive amount of money — they just borrowed 800 billion euros for economic recovery, investing in digitization and the energy transition.” They can, for example, start purchasing “high-end equipment — air tankers, missile defense systems — that makes them dependent on the U.S. military.”

And there’s more it should do. As Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) tells me, “The two big things [the Europeans] should do are 1) break their dependence on Russian gas., which the E.U. is apparently going to announce a strategy for soon, and 2) make a real effort, at long last, to crack down on Russian kleptocrats and their dirty money.”

Veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller, who spared no criticism of the Biden administration’s exit from Afghanistan, emphasized that the positive E.U. response did not happen by accident. “In wake of the Afghan debacle, many said [the] U.S. would never lead again,” he tells me. “So far, Biden has done a masterful job of leading and maintaining both E.U. and NATO unity.”

Putin badly misjudged the West’s solidarity on his plans to obliterate an independent Ukraine. Indeed, if his goal was to create divisions and conflict, it’s had the opposite effect. If the E.U. takes this opportunity to secure non-Russian energy sources and contribute more to its own defense, it could live up to its most basic values: promoting democracy, peace and stability in Europe.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.