Ukraine’s allies are gaming out a world in which the US retreats

NATO members now talk privately about a Russian attack on one of them as a danger that demands an urgent response, as they grow to doubt that the US will maintain its traditional role of protecting Europe as part of the alliance.
Last Updated 19 February 2024, 03:35 IST

NATO members now talk privately about a Russian attack on one of them as a danger that demands an urgent response, as they grow to doubt that the US will maintain its traditional role of protecting Europe as part of the alliance.

On Friday President Joe Biden did his best to rule out the word ‘panic,’ but in tip-toeing around it did more than anyone else to describe Europe’s mood.

“My God,” the president told reporters at the White House, condemning Congress for taking a “two-week vacation” without acting on the package for aid to Ukraine, which has been opposed by Republicans.

“This is bizarre, and it’s just reinforcing all the concern, and almost— I won’t say panic, but real concern about the US being a reliable ally.”

Whatever you call it, his European allies’ mounting alarm springs from the realization that they’re at a moment in which Russia has been emboldened by its battlefield successes, the US may scale back support for their region and they themselves have done too little to prepare.

That pessimism dominated conversations this weekend at the Munich Security Conference, where leaders and defense officials gather to take stock of the world’s biggest geopolitical threats.

Senior defense officials in attendance voiced concern about the US’s failure to deliver billions of dollars of funding for Ukraine, and said they were planning for scenarios in which this very public deterioration in support could encourage Russia to make a direct attack on a NATO ally.

Compared to the resolve of previous gatherings, the prevailing sentiment in Munich this year was uncertainty, according to one official, who like others interviewed for this article asked not to be named when discussing private conversations.

“I can’t predict if and when an attack on NATO territory might occur,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told Bloomberg in an interview. “But it could happen in five to eight years.”

The Ukrainian city of Avdiivka fell on the second day of the proceedings in Munich, handing Moscow its most significant battlefield victory in nearly a year. Only the afternoon before Russia had announced the death of opposition activist Alexey Navalny, underscoring the futility of domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly repressive regime.

As Ukraine runs out of military supplies, the backdrop to the discussions was that a $60 billion aid package for Kyiv remains held up in Congress. That was a very public emblem of the prospect of wavering US commitment to Ukraine that dominated conversations behind the scenes.

Ukraine’s army is already having to ration its artillery as ammunition promised by its allies fall short. Bloomberg reported last month that Kyiv finds itself outgunned three-to-one on the battlefield.

JD Vance, a Republican senator from Ohio, who is an opponent of Ukraine aid and a close ally of Donald Trump, voiced a sentiment held by many in his party when he said his country needs to pivot the focus of its foreign policy to Asia, leaving it with fewer resources to lavish on its friends across the Atlantic.

“The problem with Europe is it doesn’t provide enough of a deterrence on its own because it hasn’t taken enough of an initiative,” Vance said on a panel in Munich. “The American security blanket has allowed European security to atrophy.”

Attempts to unlock emergency US aid have been stuck in a partisan deadlock for months, leaving Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to issue increasingly urgent appeals on Congress.

Biden said he called Zelenskiy on Saturday to let him know he’s “confident we’re going to get that money.” The US president blamed lawmakers’ failure to approve emergency aid to Ukraine for the fall of Avdiivka, and has warned that more Ukrainian cities might be lost if the funding isn’t passed.

“We’re hoping that US congressmen understand the gravity of the vote that’s lying ahead of them,” Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins said in an interview. Referring to €50 billion euros ($53.9 billion) in aid for Ukraine recently agreed by the European Union, he said: “we came through and now the ball is in the US’s court.”

France and Germany on Friday signed long-term security accords with Ukraine— an arrangement unprecedented for both countries.

“As Europeans, the only element of pressure we have in our hands is to set an example and that’s what we’ve done,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

Even though Germany has only just met the NATO-wide 2 per cent-of-GDP target for defense spending, Pistorius, the country’s defense minister, floated an increase in military spending to as much as 3.5 per cent of GDP.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, in her speech on the opening day of the Munich gathering, issued a denunciation of Trump’s views without ever mentioning him by name, as long lines of attendees waiting to see her address were barred due to an organizational mishap.

Some people in the US want “to embrace dictators and adopt their repressive tactics and abandon commitments to our allies in favor of unilateral action,” she said.

But her ability to persuade attendees was constrained from the outset, with the influence of her administration’s Republican opponents the source of allies’ concern. 

Europeans were shaken by Trump’s suggestion a week earlier that he would let Russia attack countries that didn’t meet the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s targets for defense spending.

Dutch premier Mark Rutte, who is the front-runner to become the next NATO chief, chided those complaining about Trump’s rhetoric.

“Stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump— we don’t spend more on defense or ramp up ammunition production because Trump may come back,” Rutte said. “We have to do this because we want to do this, because it’s in our interest.”

Zelensky invited Trump to travel with him to the front lines and see the conflict for himself. It’s important to maintain ties to US officials from both sides of the political divide, he said from the Munich stage.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas seemed to suggest that US officials’ just crossing the Atlantic may have won some hearts and minds. 

“The feeling was that being here they also maybe understand better what is at stake,” she told Bloomberg in an interview, adding that after attending meetings with senators and representatives she was optimistic Congress may unblock the funds.

Despite the difficult situation, there were some glimmers of hope for the Ukrainian side. Officials pointed to Ukraine’s claims that Russia was losing men at an astounding rate— seven soldiers for every Ukrainian. And plans by allies to send Ukraine AI-enabled swarm drones opens up the prospect for Ukrainian forces to outmaneuver Russia’s artillery barrages.

Even if US funding comes through, equipment will take time to reach Ukraine, according to a senior congressional aide. They pointed to the need for air-defense interceptors, a shortage of which has already resulted in grave damage from Russian missile barrages.

Kallas warned that “time is working in favor of Putin.” 

She was echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was speaking on the same panel: “It’s not only about making the right decision,” he said, “but it’s about making the right decision early.” 

(Published 19 February 2024, 03:35 IST)

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