Russian victories shake world leaders’ confidence in Ukraine’s war prospects

Twelve months ago, delegates at the Munich Security Conference expressed optimism about Ukraine’s prospects, while the West vowed to support Kiev in its war with Russia “for as long as necessary.” This year, with the conflict tilting in Moscow’s favor and confidence in Western support declining, optimism has turned to unrelenting gloom.

The three-day meeting in Munich that ended on Sunday was marked by recognition that Ukraine desperately needs more weapons and ammunition and that the rhetoric of solidarity must now be urgently translated into action.

“We don’t need more words, we need decisions,” said Mette Frederiksen, Danish Prime Minister. “Ukraine can win this war only with weapons. Words are simply not enough.”

This was echoed by Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister. “I see the political will, but the political will must translate into action,” he said.

This year’s meeting of political leaders, diplomats, top military brass and spy chiefs in the Bavarian capital – a conference dubbed the Davos of defense – was dominated by the war in Ukraine, amid fears that Russia was gaining the upper hand , as well as the alarm over the situation and the increasingly dark turn that Russia is taking.

Delegates applaud Yulia Navalnaya
Delegates applaud Yulia Navalnaya on the day the death of her husband Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian opposition leader, was announced © Kai Pfaffenbach/AFP via Getty Images

On the first day, participants were shocked to learn of the death of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader sent to an Arctic Circle prison by Vladimir Putin’s regime.

“If you look at what happened to Navalny, you can see the Russia we are facing,” said Alexander de Croo, the Belgian prime minister.

The following day, it was announced that Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from the critical eastern town of Avdiivka, giving the Kremlin its first major battlefield victory since the destruction and capture of Bakhmut last May.

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

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, welcomed European efforts to fill the void left by the delay in US aid, but warned that the “magnitude and military capabilities” of the United States will make it impossible for it to fully fill the gap.

The eve of Munich was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s shocking statements this month, when he said that Russia could do “whatever the hell it wants” to NATO countries that failed to spend 2% of their GDP on defence.

The intervention came as Western leaders were already concerned about what a possible second Trump presidency could mean for the future of the transatlantic alliance and Western support for Ukraine.

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

The mood this year is in stark contrast to the more optimistic 2023. “Last year was very self-congratulatory, with so much hope pinned on the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” said Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund.

This year, the outlook is darkening as Russia rebuilds its military and transitions to a war economy. “We will see Ukraine suffer battlefield losses, we may see significant Russian gains and the Ukrainians will have no more ammunition,” Conley said.

Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of NATO’s military committee, acknowledged that the West has been “overly optimistic about war in 2023,” believing that “if we give the Ukrainians the ammunition and training they need, they will win ”.

Now, he added, “we must be careful not to be overly pessimistic about 2024.” “The simple fact that Ukraine is still a sovereign state and that the Ukrainians took back 50% of what the Russians took in 2022 is remarkable,” she said.

Speeches and public discussions in Munich were dominated by handwringing over how to fill Ukraine’s arms deficit.

“Russia has learned many lessons [and] it also produces more ammunition and equipment than we can collectively provide,” said Petr Pavel, the Czech president and former general. “We need to be as innovative and flexible as the Ukrainians on the ground and start looking for equipment everywhere.”

This message was echoed by JD Vance, US Republican senator and Trump supporter, who stated that “the problem is that America doesn’t produce enough weapons, Europe doesn’t produce enough weapons, and this is much more important than political will of the United States or the political will of the United States.” how much money do we print and send to Europe”.

Some leaders’ speeches were characterized by a streak of rancor, a sense that their countries were bending over backwards for Ukraine while others in Europe were not pulling their weight.

“The sense of urgency is not there,” Frederiksen said. “Denmark has donated its entire stock of artillery, but there is still ammunition in Europe” that could be sent to Ukraine.

This was also the message of Grant Shapps, the British Defense Minister, who said that “we need all countries to step up”, and of Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor.

Germany has provided 28 billion euros in aid to Ukraine, with another 7 billion euros planned this year. “I hope that… similar decisions could be taken in other European capitals,” she said.

Olaf Scholz
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the conference that some European countries should provide more aid © Anna Szilagyi/EPA/Shutterstock

Scholz added that the United States provided Ukraine more than $20 billion in military aid per year, compared to its GDP of $28 trillion. “A comparable effort should be the minimum that any European country undertakes,” he said.

Germany is in fact the second largest aid provider to Ukraine after the United States. But Scholz has also come under criticism for refusing to send Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine – a weapons system that some say could be a turning point in the war.

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

“We keep hearing ‘as long as it takes,’” he said. “But where is the action? Where are the Taurus missiles? Where are Russia’s frozen assets? Why aren’t they transferred to Ukraine?”

“The free world says the right thing, but we are not up to the moment,” he said. “And the timing is terrible.”

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