Thursday, April 25

As Putin threatens, despair and cover-up in Europe

As Western leaders gathered 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 not change their intentions to disrupt the current world. order.

Russia achieved its first major victory in Ukraine in almost a year, taking the ruined town of Avdiivka, at enormous human cost to both sides, with bodies littering the roads perhaps a warning of a new course in the conflict which has lasted for two years. war. The suspicious death of Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic prison has made it increasingly clear that Mr Putin will tolerate no dissent in the run-up to the election.

And the US discovery, revealed in recent days, that Mr Putin may have been considering placing a nuclear weapon in space – a bomb designed to wipe out the connective tissue of global communications if Mr Putin was pushed too far – was a powerful reminder. of its ability to respond with asymmetric weapons which remain an essential source of its power.

In Munich, the mood was both anxious and destabilized, as leaders faced confrontations they had not anticipated. Warnings about Mr. Putin’s possible next moves mix with Europe’s growing concerns about possible abandonment by the United States, the one power that has been at the heart of its defense strategy for 75 years.

Barely an hour went by at the Munich Security Conference without discussion turning to whether Congress could find a way to finance new weapons for Ukraine and , if so, how long the Ukrainians could hold out. And while Donald Trump’s name was rarely mentioned, the prospect of whether he would follow through on his threats to withdraw from NATO and let Russia “do what it wants” with allies it he considered insufficient weighed on a large part of the dialogue.

Yet European leaders also seemed to resent the slowness with which they had responded to new realities. European plans to rebuild their own forces for a new era of confrontation were going in the right direction, leader after leader insisted, but then added that it would take five years or more – time they might not have no need if Russia overwhelms Ukraine and Mr. Trump. undermines the alliance.

The gloominess of the mood stood 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 may be on the brink of collapse. a strategic defeat in Ukraine. There was talk of how many months it would take to push the Russians back to the borders that existed before their invasion on February 24, 2022. This optimism seemed premature at best, slightly illusory at worst.

Nikolai Denkov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, said that Europeans should learn three lessons from this cascade of unrest. The war in Ukraine was not just about the gray areas between Europe and Russia, he argued, but “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 forces in military efforts, not just economic ones, to strengthen their own deterrence, he said. And third, they had to separate Ukraine’s urgent needs for munitions and air defense from long-term strategic goals.

But given the imperialist rhetoric of Russian leaders, Mr. Denkov said that “long term in this case means three to five years and a maximum of 10 years – it is really urgent.”

U.S. officials got the familiar assurance that Washington’s leadership and commitment remained unchanged. But they could not outline a plan of action for Ukraine while Congress was still blocking funds for weapons purchases, and they struggled to explain how to achieve lasting peace after the war in Gaza.

At the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, the scene of the conference where Mr. Putin warned in 2007 that NATO’s eastward expansion posed a threat to Russia, Mr. Navalny’s widow made an emotional appearance Thursday hours after her husband’s death, reminding attendees that Mr. Putin would “wear the responsibility “.

But there has been little discussion about what the West might do – almost all available sanctions have been imposed, and it was unclear whether the United States and Europeans would be incentivized to seize the roughly $300 billion. dollars in assets that Russia had unwisely left abroad before the end of the war. invasion. When a senior US official was asked how the US would follow through on Mr Biden’s 2021 promise of “devastating consequences” for Russia if Mr Navalny died in prison – a statement made in the presence of Mr .Putin at a meeting in Geneva – the The official shrugged his shoulders.

Some participants found the commitments made by the leaders present uninspiring, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. “Kamala Harris empty, Scholz pasty, Zelensky tired,” she said of the US vice president, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Lots of talk, no concrete commitments.”

“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 did not see a strong display of European solidarity. » He and others noted that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, was not present.

Most striking in the discussions on Russia was the widespread recognition that Europe’s military modernization plans, first announced nearly two decades ago, were moving far too slowly to meet the threat. what Russia represents today.

“European defense used to be a possibility, but now it is a necessity,” said Claudio Graziano, a retired Italian general and former president of the European Union 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, have repeatedly cited recent intelligence findings that in three to five years Mr. Putin could attempt to test NATO’s credibility by attacking one of Russia’s border countries. , most likely a small Baltic nation.

But this warning does not seem to have led to a very urgent debate on how to prepare for this eventuality. The conference celebrated the fact that two-thirds of the alliance’s members have now reached the target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense – compared to just a handful of countries a decade ago. But a few acknowledged that this target was now well exceeded and immediately cited political obstacles to increased spending.

Even Mr. Stoltenberg warned that Europe remained dependent on the United States and its nuclear umbrella, and that other NATO countries would be unable to bridge the gap if the United States continued to withhold military aid. ‘Ukraine.

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

“We must do more” in Europe, Boris Pistorius, the German defense minister, said at the conference. But when asked whether his country’s military spending should be closer to 4 percent of German economic output, he was reluctant to commit, given this is the first year in decades that Berlin will devote the NATO target of 2% to the army.

“We could reach 3 percent, even 3.5 percent,” he finally said. “It depends on what’s happening in the world.” When his boss, Mr. Scholz, took the stage, he said that “Europeans must do much more for our security, now and in the future,” but he stayed away from details. He said he was “campaigning urgently” in other European capitals to increase military spending.

But the fundamental divide remained visible: When Europeans thought Russia would integrate into European institutions, they stopped planning and spending in anticipation of the possibility that they would be wrong. And when Russia’s attitude changed, it did not respond satisfactorily.

“It’s 30 years of underinvestment coming back,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, who called them “the lazy thirty” — the 30 lazy years of post-peace dividends. Cold War, in contrast to the 30 glorious years which followed. The Second World War.

Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, said Europe must strengthen its defenses “because what really provokes an aggressor is weakness.” Mr. Putin could then risk attacking a country like his to try to break up NATO. “But if we do more for our defense, it will have a deterrent effect. People around Putin would say you know, you can’t win. Don’t take this.

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

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