While Putin threatens, desperation and coverage in Europe


As Western leaders met in Munich over the past three days, President Vladimir V. Putin had a message for them: Nothing they have done so far – sanctions, convictions, attempts at containment – would alter their intentions to disrupt the real world. order.

Russia made its first major advance into Ukraine in almost a year, taking the ruined city of Avdiivka, at enormous human cost to both sides; The bodies strewn along the roads are a warning, perhaps, of a new direction in the two-year war. war. The suspicious death of Aleksei A. Navalny in a remote Arctic prison made it increasingly clear that Putin will not tolerate dissent as the election approaches.

And the American discovery, revealed in recent days, that Putin may be planning to place a nuclear weapon in space — a bomb designed to erase the connective tissue of global communications if Putin is pushed too hard — was a powerful reminder. of his ability to counterattack his adversaries with asymmetric weapons that remain a key source of his power.

In Munich, the atmosphere was both anxious and unbridled, as leaders faced confrontations they had not anticipated. Warnings about Putin’s possible next moves mixed with Europe’s growing concerns that it could soon be abandoned by the United States, the only power that has been at the center of its defense strategy for 75 years.

Barely an hour passed at the Munich Security Conference in which the conversation did not turn to the question of whether Congress would fail to find a way to finance new weapons for Ukraine and, if so, how long the Ukrainians could hold out. And although Donald Trump’s name is rarely mentioned, the prospect of whether he will make good on his threats to withdraw from NATO and let Russia “do what it wants” with allies it deemed insufficient loomed over much of the dialogue.

However, European leaders also seemed to feel how slow they had been to react to the new realities. European plans to rebuild their own forces for a new era of confrontation were moving in the right direction, leader after leader insisted, but then added that it would take five years or more; time they may not have if Russia overwhelms Ukraine and Trump. undermines the alliance.

The harshness of the environment was in stark contrast to that of just a year ago, when many of the same participants – intelligence chiefs and diplomats, oligarchs and analysts – thought Russia could be on the brink of strategic defeat in Ukraine. There was talk of how many months it might take to get the Russians back to the borders that existed before their invasion on February 24, 2022. Now that optimism seemed premature at best and slightly delusional at worst.

Nikolai Denkov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, said Europeans should draw three lessons from the cascade of problems. The war in Ukraine was not just about gray areas between Europe and Russia, he argued, but also about “whether the democratic world we value can be defeated, and this is now well understood in Europe.”

Second, European nations have realized that they must combine their forces in military efforts, not just economic ones, to develop their own deterrence, he said. And third, they needed to separate Ukraine’s urgent munitions and air defense needs from longer-term strategic objectives.

But given the imperialist rhetoric of Russian leaders, Denkov said, “in this case, a long term means three to five and a maximum of 10 years; “It’s really urgent.”

American officials sought familiar assurance that Washington’s leadership and commitment remained unchanged. But they failed to outline an action plan for Ukraine when Congress was still withholding weapons funds, and they struggled to explain how they would achieve sustainable peace after the war in Gaza.

At the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the setting for the conference where Putin warned in 2007 While NATO’s eastern expansion was a threat to Russia, Navalny’s widow made an emotional appearance Friday hours after her husband’s death, reminding attendees that Putin would “take responsibility” for it.

But there was little discussion about what the West might do: Almost all available sanctions have been imposed, and it was unclear whether the United States and the Europeans would be prompted to confiscate the roughly $300 billion in assets that Russia recklessly left behind. foreigner before the war. invasion. When a senior U.S. official was asked how the United States would fulfill Biden’s 2021 promise of “devastating consequences” for Russia if Navalny died in prison (a statement made in Putin’s presence at a meeting in Geneva), the official Shrugged.

Some attendees found the commitments made by the leaders who attended boring, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs. “Kamala Harris empty, Scholz soft, Zelensky tired,” she said of the American vice president, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “Many words, no concrete commitment.”

“I feel disappointed and somewhat disappointed” by the debate here, said Steven E. Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany. “There was a lack of urgency and a lack of clarity about the way forward, and I didn’t see a strong show of European solidarity.” He and others noted that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, did not attend.

Most striking in the Russia talks was the widespread recognition that Europe’s military modernization plans, first announced nearly two decades ago, were moving too slowly to keep up with the threat Russia now poses.

“European defense was a possibility before, but now it is a necessity,” said Claudio Graziano, a retired Italian general and former president of the European Union’s Military Committee. But saying the right words is not the same as doing what they demand.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, along with a number of defense and intelligence officials, repeatedly referred to recent intelligence conclusions that in three to five years Putin could try to test NATO’s credibility by attacking to one of the countries on the borders of Russia. , most likely a small Baltic nation.

But the warning didn’t seem to spark much urgent discussion about how to prepare for that possibility. The conference celebrated the fact that two-thirds of the alliance’s members have now met the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, up from just a handful of nations 10 years ago. But some acknowledged that goal is now very outdated and immediately spoke about political barriers to spending more.

Even Stoltenberg warned that Europe remained dependent on the United States and its nuclear umbrella, and that other NATO countries would not be able to close the gap if the United States continued to withhold military aid to Ukraine.

But the prospect of less American commitment to NATO, as the United States turned to other challenges from China or in the Middle East, was focusing minds.

“We have to achieve more” in Europe, Boris Pistorius, German Defense Minister, said at the conference. But when asked whether his country’s military spending should approach 4 percent of German economic output, he was reluctant to commit, given that this is the first year in decades that Berlin will spend NATO’s target of 2 percent in the army.

“We could reach 3 percent or even 3.5 percent,” he finally said. “It depends on what’s going on in the world.” When his boss, Scholz, took the stage, he said that “Europeans need to do much more for our security, now and in the future,” but steered clear of details. He said he was “urgently campaigning” in other European capitals to boost military spending.

But the fundamental disconnect was still on display: When Europeans thought Russia would join European institutions, they stopped planning and spending because they might be wrong. And when Russia’s attitude changed, they did not react enough.

“It’s 30 years of underinvestment coming home,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, who called it “les trente paresseuses”: the lazy 30 years of post-Cold War peace dividends, in contrast to the 30 glorious years that followed. Second World War.

Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, said Europe must strengthen its defenses “because what really provokes an aggressor is weakness.” Putin could then risk attacking a country like his in an attempt to fracture NATO. “But if we do more for our defense, he will act as a deterrent. People around Putin would say that he is unwinnable. “Don’t talk about this.”

What was important for Europeans to remember was that this hot war in Ukraine was close and could spread quickly, Kallas said. “So if you think you’re far, you’re not far. “It can go very, very fast.”

Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of beleaguered Ukraine, was more forceful. “I think our friends and partners took too long to wake up their own defense industries,” he said. “And we will pay with our lives throughout 2024 to give their defense industries time to ramp up production.”

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