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Europe prepares for a world in which the US retreats

NATO members are privately speaking of a Russian attack on one of their own as a danger requiring an urgent response, as they increasingly doubt whether the United States will retain its traditional role as Europe’s defender within the alliance, Bloomberg reports.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden did his best to exclude the word “panic”, but wrapping his head around it was the most accurate description of Europe’s mood.

“My God,” the president told reporters at the White House, condemning Congress for going on a “two-week holiday” without taking action on a Ukraine aid package opposed by Republicans. He noted:

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.

The growing anxiety of his European allies emerges from the realisation that they find themselves in a situation where Russia has been emboldened by its combat successes, the US could significantly reduce support for their region, and they themselves have done too little to prepare.

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

Senior defence officials attending the conference expressed concern that the US has not provided billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine and said they were planning scenarios in which this public deterioration in support could prompt Russia to launch a direct attack on the NATO ally, according to Bloomberg.

Compared with the decisiveness of previous meetings, a mood of uncertainty prevailed in Munich this year, according to one official who, like others interviewed for this article, asked not to be named when discussing private conversations. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius told Bloomberg in an interview:

I can’t predict if and when an attack on NATO territory might occur. But it could happen in five to eight years.

The Ukrainian town of Avdiivka fell on the second day of proceedings in Munich, bringing Moscow its most significant battlefield victory in nearly a year.  As military supplies run out in Ukraine, the backdrop for the discussions was that a $60 billion aid package to Kyiv was still being held up in Congress. It was a very public manifestation of the prospect of a wavering US commitment to Ukraine that has dominated behind-the-scenes conversations.

Ukraine’s army is already having to ration its artillery as ammunition promised by allies is in short supply. Last month, Bloomberg news agency reported that Kyiv outnumbers its forces on the battlefield by a ratio of three to one.

J.D. Vance, a Republican senator from Ohio, an opponent of aid to Ukraine and a close ally of Donald Trump, expressed the views of many in his party, saying his country needs to shift the focus of its foreign policy to Asia, leaving it with fewer resources to help its friends on the other side of the Atlantic. Vance said on a panel in Munich:

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. The American security blanket has allowed European security to atrophy.

Efforts to unlock emergency US aid have been at a partisan impasse for months, with Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky making increasingly urgent appeals to Congress.

Biden said he called Zelensky on Saturday to tell him he was “confident we will get this money.” The US president blamed lawmakers who failed to approve emergency aid for Ukraine for the fall of Avdiivka and warned that several other Ukrainian towns could be lost if funding is not allocated. Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins said in an interview:

We’re hoping that US congressmen understand the gravity of the vote that’s lying ahead of them.

Referring to €50 billion euros ($53.9 billion) in aid for Ukraine recently agreed by the European Union, he added:

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. French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne told reporters on the sidelines of the conference:

As Europeans, the only element of pressure we have in our hands is to set an example and that’s what we’ve done.

Despite Germany barely meeting NATO’s defence spending target of 2% of GDP, Pistorius, the country’s defence minister, has proposed increasing military spending to 3.5% of GDP.

US Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a denunciation of Trump’s views in her speech on the opening day of the Munich meeting, without once mentioning him by name as long queues of listeners waiting to hear her address were blocked due to an organisational glitch.

Some people in the US want to “embrace dictators, adopt their repressive tactics and abandon commitments to our allies in favour of unilateral action”, she said. However, her ability to persuade those present was limited from the start, as the influence of her administration’s Republican opponents has been a source of concern to allies.

Europeans were shaken by Trump’s suggestion a week earlier that he would allow Russia to attack countries that fail to meet North Atlantic Treaty Organisation requirements on defence spending.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is a leading contender to be the next head of NATO, rebuked those who complain about Trump’s rhetoric. He said:

Stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump — we don’t spend more on defence or ramp up ammunition production because Trump may come back. 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 military conflict for himself. It is important to keep in touch with US officials on both sides of the political divide, he said from the stage in Munich, Bloomberg reports.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas seemed to suggest that US officials who just crossed the Atlantic may have won some hearts and minds. She told Bloomberg in an interview, adding that after attending meetings with senators and representatives she was optimistic Congress may unblock the funds:

The feeling was that being here they also maybe understand better what is at stake.

According to a senior congressional official, even if the USA allocates funds, it will take time to deliver the equipment to Ukraine. They pointed to the need for air defence interceptors, the shortage of which has already caused serious damage from Russian missile attacks.

Kallas warned that “time is working in Putin’s favour.” She was echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke at the same panel:

It’s not only about making the right decision, but it’s about making the right decision early.

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