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In Munich, Strong Rhetoric And Lack Of Action, With Bad News In Between

Yulia Navalnaya was at the Munich Security Conference when it was announced on February 16 that her husband, Aleksei Navalny, had died at the Russian Arctic prison where he was being held.
Yulia Navalnaya was at the Munich Security Conference when it was announced on February 16 that her husband, Aleksei Navalny, had died at the Russian Arctic prison where he was being held.

MUNICH -- If the Munich Security Conference last year felt optimistic, with Ukraine not only capable of resisting Russia's full-scale invasion of the country but also pushing back, with budding hopes that the summer offensive of 2023 would be a roaring success, this year's event in the Bavarian capital felt like the polar opposite.

Taking place over the weekend of February 16-18, the conference -- often billed as the world's leading forum for debating international security policy -- was supposed to bask in the glory of its 60th edition. Instead, it seemed as if the bad news never stopped.

All the talk leading up to the event was about a recent comment by Donald Trump, the front-runner for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, who questioned defending NATO allies who failed to spend enough on defense from a potential Russian invasion.

This, combined with the inability of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a $60 billion Ukraine aid package and instead go into recess until the end of the month, made people at the conference loudly question whether Washington was still committed to both Ukraine and transatlantic relations in general.

But this was just the start.

More And More Bad News

During the same weekend, Ukraine announced the strategic withdrawal of its troops from Avdiyivka, a city it had defended from Russian attacks for months. And then, on the first day of the gathering, news emerged that Russia's foremost opposition politician, Aleksei Navalny, had died in a Siberian prison.

The Kremlin opponent's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, was present in Munich. Just hours after the news broke, she took the main stage at the conference and, in the most poignant moment of the entire weekend, laid the blame on the Russian president.

"I want [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and everyone around him, his friends and the government, to know that they will be held accountable for what they did to our country, to my family, and my husband," she said, before adding, "That day will come soon."

From then on, it felt that most of the panel discussions, roundtables, and chit-chat in the corridors of the venue really circled around the two persons who weren't present: Putin and Trump.

So it was left to the people actually present in Germany to put on a brave face, starting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who noted dryly with a not-so-subtle hint at the U.S. Congress that "dictators don't go on vacation."

Possibly aiming at those who want Kyiv to negotiate with Moscow, he added, "Don't ask Ukraine when the war is over; ask yourselves why Putin can continue."

He then outlined a number of things that the West could do to help Ukraine -- most of which won't be delivered any time soon. Take, for example, Western sanctions on the Russian nuclear industry, which Zelenskiy said he hoped for. While the EU is poised to impose more sanctions on the Kremlin in the coming days, it will be a rather symbolic package without hitting Russian economic sectors.

Or take the confiscation of frozen Russian assets in the West, which he also alluded to. While work is under way in the EU to use some of the proceeds of those frozen funds to help Ukraine, it is unlikely to move much beyond that.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, whose country holds the majority of Russian assets in the bloc, told the Munich crowd that his country cannot "do it on its own" and that a G7 framework was necessary. An EU official told me afterwards that there wasn't much appetite in the group of leading industrial nations for this now.

Zelenskiy was asked about Ukrainian NATO membership, with the military alliance holding a key summit in July in Washington, but even he admitted that not all members were ready to extend such an invitation -- something that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a separate discussion hammered home matter-of-factly: "As long as war is raging, Ukraine cannot become a member of NATO. We cannot overpromise."

Instead, Kyiv will focus on signing so-called "security pacts" with key Western allies, which essentially means assurances of a steady stream of arms in the future. Zelenskiy came to Munich directly after inking such deals in both Berlin and Paris. A Ukrainian official told me that pacts with France and Germany were worth billions, but they will be "staggered," meaning that they won't cover the immediate military aid Kyiv is craving right now.

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was asked if Germany was ready to provide Ukraine with the long-range Taurus cruise missile, he was simply noncommittal, saying that the "right moment was needed."

Eyes Across the Atlantic

So what about the specter of a Trump presidency next year?

Zelenskiy simply responded that he would take him to the front lines and show that the war was real. Rutte berated the crowd, arguing that "we should stop moaning and whining about Trump" and that "we have to work with whoever is on the dance floor," while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell simply noted that, "I am happy underneath the American [security] umbrella, but the umbrella might not be open all the time."

The crowd of U.S. politicians in Bavaria, especially Democrats, were understandably less enthusiastic about a return of Trump. Hillary Clinton, who was defeated by Trump in the 2016 presidential race, warned at a side event organized by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation to take Trump "literally and seriously" and continued, "He will be an absolute authoritarian leader if given the chance to be so."

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, with Trump's recent NATO comments clearly in mind, noted: "Imagine we went easy on Putin, let alone encouraged him. History offers a clue: If we stand by, they will keep going. And in the case of Putin, that means all of Europe will be threatened."

The problem appeared to be that while everyone seemed to agree that Russia might continue to attack other European countries in the near future if successful in Ukraine, concrete action on the ground tells a different story. Part of it seems to be that the general public in the West doesn't appear to take the threat from Moscow seriously.

The Munich Security Report (perhaps aptly this year titled Lose-Lose?), published in the days before the conference, notes that the perceived threat from Russia has abated compared to last year, when respondents in 5 out of 7 G7 countries saw the Kremlin as the No. 1 threat. This year it was only No. 2. Interestingly, German citizens now only see Russia as the seventh-greatest concern, and Italians see it as the 12th.

The trick then by politicians, especially in Europe, is how to try to "sell" the need to help Ukraine to what appears to be an increasingly skeptical audience.

It's Just Business

And here, a new strategy may be emerging: Use the war in Ukraine as a pure business opportunity. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about the need to "expand the transatlantic industrial base" to refill arms stocks in the alliance and to send stuff to Ukraine, saying this would mean highly skilled jobs. Being in Munich, after all, he pointed to the building of a new high-tech production line in Bavaria to produce Patriot missiles as an obvious example.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was even more open in her sales pitch, saying that she, in early March, would propose a new military-industrial strategy for the bloc in which more money would be invested and joint procurement between European countries would be encouraged by offering "off-take agreements," meaning that there will be an advanced commitment to buy even if the product isn't ready yet.

More importantly, she pointed out that "we want a return on our taxes" -- essentially saying that the good jobs must be in Europe, even though not necessarily provided by EU companies. She added that the move is fully aligned with NATO and that Ukraine will be integrated into the bloc's defense program.

When I later asked an EU official why this is happening only now, two years into Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I got the sad but telling reply: "The truth is that Europeans didn't expect the war to last so long, maybe just a few weeks, so why build a factory? But now there is a sense that this is an opportunity."

This also goes quite some way in explaining why Europe is struggling to provide Ukraine with ammunition now. The EU optimistically pledged in March last year to deliver 1 million 155 mm artillery shells to the country in a year. Nearly 12 months later, the bloc has provided 524,000 rounds and now promises to reach 1.1 million by the end of this year instead.

But there is more "EU spin" on the story. One senior EU official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record briefed journalists on background, saying that there is a difference between donating and selling and that the abovementioned figure is just donating. The official also admitted that nobody knows how much ammunition the bloc has sold to Kyiv, as it is an "opaque system" with a lot of confidential information.

That in itself is, however, not the end of the process, as various European countries have tinkered with standards in recent decades so that there isn't any uniform 155 mm shell that fits the artillery -- perhaps most amusingly summed up by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who said that "politicians tick the box and get credit when there is agreement to send something to Ukraine, but on the ground it becomes a massive technical problem to send the right ammo to the right cannon."

And outside the merry diplomatic speed-dating at the Munich Security Conference, a Ukrainian official described the situation on the front line as absolutely dire, with the army shooting "with nothing," meaning less than 2,000 rounds per day compared to Russia's 10,000. The predicted result of this is losing more Ukrainian soldiers and eventually more territory. It was quite telling that Zelenskiy, when asked by the audience at the conference about the possibility of lowering the draft age from the current 27, elegantly dodged the question.

And this was, in many ways, how the Munich Security Conference this year shaped up: high in rhetoric but lacking in concrete news and outcomes.

While everyone spoke affectionately and emotionally about the loss of Navalny, pointing the finger solidly at the Kremlin, quite a few leaders quickly dismissed the need to punish Russia with new sanctions over the event. At least some believed that his tragic fate would spur U.S. lawmakers into passing the Ukraine supplement -- with some optimistically suggesting a vote will soon reach the floor -- but only in March, after the recess, naturally.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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