Munich security conference: Russian victories shake global leaders’ faith in Ukraine war prospects

11:50 21.02.2024 •

Statespeople, diplomats, military brass and spies at a Munich defence conference this weekend fear war is tilting in Moscow’s favour, ‘The Financial Times’ recognized.

As global leaders convened at the Munich Security Conference, the once-optimistic outlook for Ukraine’s conflict against Russia has turned bleak. With Moscow gaining ground and Western support waning, urgency permeated discussions. Calls for tangible action reverberated, highlighting the critical need for weapons and ammunition to bolster Ukraine’s defence. Amidst geopolitical tensions and shifting alliances, the stark reality of Ukraine’s plight demands decisive responses, leaving no room for mere rhetoric.

Twelve months ago, delegates at the Munich Security Conference radiated optimism about the prospects for Ukraine, as the west vowed to back Kyiv in its war with Russia for “as long as it takes”. This year, with the conflict tilting in Moscow’s favour and faith in western support ebbing away, that optimism has flipped into unremitting gloom.

The three-day gathering in Munich that concluded on Sunday was marked by a recognition that Ukraine badly needed more weapons and ammunition, and that the rhetoric of solidarity must now be translated urgently into action.

This year’s gathering of political leaders, diplomats, military brass and spy chiefs in the Bavarian capital — a conference nicknamed the Davos of defence — was dominated by the war in Ukraine amid fears that Russia is gaining the upper hand.

It was announced that Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from the critical eastern city of Avdeevka, handing the Kremlin its first big battlefield win since its capture of Bakhmut last May.

But even before the conference opened, the outlook for Ukraine was deteriorating, as Republicans in Congress blocked a package of military aid to Kyiv, exacerbating a dire shortage of critical munitions that has hampered its ability to wage war.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato general secretary, welcomed European efforts to fill the void left by the delaying of US aid, but warned that the “magnitude and the military capabilities” of the US meant it would be impossible for them to fully plug the gap.

Zelenskyy used the public opportunity to plead: “For us, this package is vital. We do not currently look into alternatives because we are counting on the United States as our strategic partner,” he said at a news conference with Vice President Kamala Harris. There’s no Plan B if the lawmakers fail to greenlight the package, Harris confirmed. “There’s only Plan A.”

The run-up to Munich was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s shocking remarks this month, when he said Russia could do “what the hell it wants” to Nato countries that failed to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence.

“There is an elephant in the room in Munich and his name is Donald,” said Sigmar Gabriel, the former German foreign minister. “He must be laughing so much he can’t sleep.”

The mood this year contrasted starkly with the more upbeat 2023. “It was very self-congratulatory last year, with so much hope pinned on the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund.

This year, prospects are darkening as Russia reconstitutes its army and has shifted to a war economy. “We’re going to see Ukraine suffer from battlefield losses, we could see significant Russian gains, and the Ukrainians have no ammunition left,” Conley said.

Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of the Nato military committee, acknowledged that the west had been “overly optimistic about the war in 2023”, believing that “if we give the Ukrainians the ammunition and training they need, they’ll win”.

Now, he added, “we have to be careful not to be overly pessimistic in 2024”. “The sheer fact that Ukraine is still a sovereign state, and that the Ukrainians have taken back 50 per cent of what the Russians took in 2022 is remarkable,” he said.

“Russia has learnt a lot of lessons [and] it’s also producing more ammunition and equipment than we collectively can provide,” said Petr Pavel, the Czech president and a former general.

Some leaders’ speeches were marked by an undercurrent of rancour — a feeling that their countries were bending over backwards for Ukraine while others in Europe were not pulling their weight.

That was also the message of Grant Shapps, UK defence secretary, who said “we need all countries to step up”, and of Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor.

Germany had provided €28bn in aid to Ukraine, with a further €7bn in the pipeline this year. “I wish … similar decisions could be taken in other European capitals,” he said.

Germany is indeed the second-largest supplier of aid to Ukraine after the US. But Scholz, too, has been the target of criticism, for refusing to send Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine — a weapon system some people say could be a game-changer in the war.

Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a former US ambassador to Moscow, said there was a “real sense of frustration” among his Ukrainian friends.

“The free world says the right thing, but we’re not living up to the moment,” he said. “And the moment is dire.”

Conference in Munich ended by a drink-session to relieve nervous tension.
Photo: Bild

For months now, much of Europe has been watching U.S. politics with numb dread, seeing President Biden’s weakness at the polls and fearing a return to the years when Trump threatened the transatlantic relationship that left them prosperous and cozy under the U.S. military’s security blanket, writes ‘The Washington Post’.

With the largest European land war since World War II raging, Trump’s flirtation with Russia and loose talk on NATO now feel like less of a warning than an open invitation for invasion. Europe is worried and outraged — but not sure what to do next.

In Munich, the specter of Trump and Trumpism loomed over panels and dominated the behind-the-scenes chatter like never before.

European officials in Munich said they were paying closer attention than ever to granular polling numbers — not just matchups of Biden and Trump in swing states, but also sifting through data about the likely outcomes of House and Senate races to try to predict Congress’s inclinations.

What they see in the presidential race does not give them much hope, many of them said. One person asked with concern whether Biden’s health was likely to hold out until November. Another asked about the possibility of a contested Democratic convention. Most worried about the fate of U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) was the lone emissary for pro-Trump Republicans at the Munich Security Conference.

“The problem with Europe is that it does not provide enough of a deterrent on its own,” he said Sunday morning in Munich. “I think the American security blanket has allowed European security to atrophy.”

America does not need to pull out of NATO or abandon Europe, he said, but must “pivot” to Asia. And as it does, he argued, Europe must step up.

“I do not think that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to Europe,” Vance said Sunday. “And to the extent that he is,” he continued, it shows that “Europe has to take a more aggressive role in its own security.”

The senator told the crowd in Munich that he is open to working with Putin.

Those words will do little to reassure Europeans who fear that a second Trump presidency would spell the end of NATO. At a campaign rally this month, Trump said he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members that don’t spend enough on defense.

“We do have to hope for the best but must prepare for the worst,” said one European security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations between allies.


read more in our Telegram-channel