When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, I was easing my way into a new job and in the throes of the teaching year. But that war quickly hijacked my life. I spend most of my day poring over multiple newspapers, magazines, blogs, and the Twitter feeds of various military mavens, a few of whom have been catapulted by the war from obscurity to a modicum of fame. Then there are all those websites to check out, their color-coded maps and daily summaries catching that conflict’s rapid twists and turns.
Don’t think I’m writing this as a lament, however. I’m lucky. I have a good, safe life and follow events there from the comfort of my New York apartment. For Ukrainians, the war is anything but a topic of study. It’s a daily, deadly presence. The lives of millions of people who live in or fled the war zone have been shattered. As all of us know too well, many of that country’s cities have been badly damaged or lie in ruins, including people’s homes and apartment buildings, the hospitals they once relied on when ill, the schools they sent their children to, and the stores where they bought food and other basic necessities. Even churches have been hit. In addition, nearly 13 million Ukrainians (including nearly two-thirds of all its children) are either displaced in their own country or refugees in various parts of Europe, mainly Poland. Millions of lives, in other words, have been turned inside out, while a return to anything resembling normalcy now seems beyond reach.
No one knows how many noncombatants have been slaughtered by bullets, bombs, missiles, or artillery. And all this has been made so much worse by the war crimes the Russians have committed. How does a traumatized society like Ukraine ever become whole again? And in such a disastrous situation, what could the future possibly hold? Who knows?
To break my daily routine of following that ongoing nightmare from such a distance, I decided to look beyond the moment and try to imagine how it might indeed end.
It’s easy to forget just how daring (or rash) Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was. After all, Russia aside, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country in land area and its sixth-largest in population. True, Putin had acted aggressively before, but on a far more modest and careful scale, annexing Crimea and fostering the rise of two breakaway enclaves in parts of Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk, which are industrial and resource-rich areas adjoining Russia. Neither was his 2015 intervention in Syria to save the government of Bashar al-Assad a wild-eyed gamble. He deployed no ground troops there, relying solely on airstrikes and missile attacks to avoid an Afghanistan-style quagmire.
Ukraine, though, was a genuinely rash act. Russia began the war with what seemed to be a massive advantage by any imaginable measure — from gross domestic product (GDP) to numbers of warplanes, tanks, artillery, warships, and missiles. Little wonder, perhaps, that Putin assumed his troops would take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, within weeks, at most. And he wasn’t alone. Western military experts were convinced that his army would make quick work of its Ukrainian counterpart, even if the latter’s military had, since 2015, been trained and armed by the United States, Britain, and Canada.
Yet the campaign to conquer key cities — Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kharkiv — failed disastrously. The morale of the Ukrainians remained high and their military tactics adept. By the end of March, Russia had lost tanks and aircraft worth an estimated $5 billion, not to speak of up to a quarter of the troops it had sent into battle. Its military supply system proved shockingly inept, whether for repairing equipment or delivering food, water, and medical supplies to the front.
Subsequently, however, Russian forces have made significant gains in the south and southeast, occupying part of the Black Sea coast, Kherson province (which lies north of Crimea), most of Donbas in the east, and Zaporozhizhia province in the southeast. They have also created a patchy land corridor connecting Crimea to Russia for the first time since that area was taken in 2014.
Still, the botched northern campaign and the serial failures of a military that had been infused with vast sums of money and supposedly subjected to widespread modernization and reform was stunning. In the United States, the intrepid Ukrainian resistance and its battlefield successes soon produced a distinctly upbeat narrative of that country as the righteous David defending the rules and norms of the international order against Putin’s Russian Goliath.
In May, however, things began to change. The Russians were by then focused on taking the Donbas region. And bit by bit, Russia’s advantages — shorter supply lines, terrain better suited to armored warfare, and an overwhelming advantage in armaments, especially artillery — started paying off. Most ominously, its troops began encircling a large portion of Ukraine’s battle-tested, best-trained forces in Donbas where besieged towns like Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, Lyman, and Popasna suddenly hit the headlines.
Now, at the edge of… well, who knows what, here are three possible scenarios for the ending of this ever more devastating war.
1. De Facto Partition
If — and, of course, I have to stress the conditional here, given repeatedly unforeseen developments in this war — Putin’s army takes the entire Donbas region plus the whole Black Sea coast, rendering Ukraine smaller and landlocked, he might declare his “special military operation” a success, proclaim a ceasefire, order his commanders to fortify and defend the new areas they occupy, and saddle the Ukrainians with the challenge of expelling the Russian troops or settling for a de facto partition of the country.
Putin could respond to any Ukrainian efforts to claw back lost lands with air and missile strikes. These would only exacerbate the colossal economic hit Ukraine has already taken, including not just damaged or destroyed infrastructure and industries, a monthly budget shortfall of $5 billion, and an anticipated 45% decline in GDP this year, but billions of dollars in revenue lost because it can’t ship its main exports via the Russian-dominated Black Sea. An April estimate of the cost of rebuilding Ukraine ranged from $500 billion to $1 trillion, far beyond Kyiv’s means.
Assuming, on the other hand, that Ukraine accepted a partition, it would forfeit substantial territory and President Volodymyr Zelensky could face a staggering backlash at home. Still, he may have little choice as his country could find the economic and military strain of endless fighting unbearable.
Ukraine’s Western backers may become war weary, too. They’ve just begun to feel the economic blowback from the war and the sanctions imposed on Russia, pain that will only increase. While those sanctions have indeed hurt Russia, they’ve also contributed to skyrocketing energy and food prices in the West (even as Putin profits by selling his oil, gas, and coal at higher prices). The U.S. inflation rate, at 8.6% last month, is the highest in 40 years, while the Congressional Budget Office has revised estimates of economic growth — 3.1% this year — down to 2.2% for 2023 and 1.5% for 2024. All this as mid-term elections loom and President Biden’s approval ratings, now at 39.7%, continue to sink.
Europe is also in economic trouble. Inflation in the Eurozone was 8.1% in May, the highest since 1997, and energy prices exploded. Within days of the Russian invasion, European natural gas prices had jumped nearly 70%, while oil hit $105 a barrel, an eight-year high. And the crunch only continues. Inflation in Britain, at 8.2%, is the worst since 1982. On June 8th, gasoline prices there reached a 17-year high. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development anticipates that the French, German, and Italian economies (the three largest in Europe) will contract for the rest of this year, with only France’s registering an anemic 0.2% growth in the fourth quarter. No one can know for sure whether Europe and the U.S. are headed for a recession, but many economists and business leaders consider it likely.
Such economic headwinds, along with the diminution of the early euphoria created by Ukraine’s impressive battlefield successes, could produce “Ukraine fatigue” in the West. The war has already lost prominence in news headlines. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s biggest supporters, including the Biden administration, could soon find themselves preoccupied with economic and political challenges at home and ever less eager to keep billions of dollars in economic aid and weaponry flowing.
The combination of Ukraine fatigue and Russian military successes, however painfully and brutally gained, may be precisely what Vladimir Putin is betting on. The Western coalition of more than three dozen states is certainly formidable, but he’s savvy enough to know that Russia’s battlefield advantages could make it ever harder for the U.S. and its allies to maintain their unity. The possibility of negotiations with Putin has been raised in France, Italy, and Germany. Ukraine won’t be cut off economically or militarily by the West, but it could find Western support ever harder to count on as time passes, despite verbal assurances of solidarity.
All of this could, in turn, set the stage for a de facto partition scenario.
2. Neutrality with Sweeteners
Before the war, Putin pushed for a neutral Ukraine that would foreswear all military alliances. No dice, said both Ukraine and NATO. That alliance’s decision, at its 2008 Bucharest summit, to open the door to that country (and Georgia) was irrevocable. A month after the Russian invasion began, Zelensky put neutrality on the table, but it was too late. Putin had already opted to achieve his aims on the battlefield and was confident he could.
Still, Russia and Ukraine have now been fighting for more than three months. Both have suffered heavy losses and each knows that the war could drag on for years at a staggering cost without either achieving its aims. The Russian president does control additional chunks of Ukrainian territory, but he may hope to find some way of easing Western sanctions and also avoiding being wholly dependent on China.
These circumstances might revive the neutrality option. Russia would retain its land corridor to Crimea, even if with some concessions to Ukraine. It would receive a guarantee that the water canals flowing southward to that peninsula from the city of Kherson, which would revert to Ukrainian control, would never again be blocked. Russia would not annex the “republics” it created in the Donbas in 2014 and would withdraw from some of the additional land it’s seized there. Ukraine would be free to receive arms and military training from any country, but foreign troops and bases would be banned from its territory.
Such a settlement would require significant Ukrainian sacrifices, which is why candidate membership in the European Union (EU) and, more importantly, a fast track to full membership — one of that country’s key aspirations — as well as substantial long-term Western aid for economic reconstruction would be a necessary part of any deal. Expediting its membership would be a heavy lift for the EU and such an aid package would be costly to the Europeans and Americans, so they’d have to decide how much they were willing to offer to end Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II.
3. A New Russia
Ever since the war began, commentators and Western leaders, including President Biden, have intimated that it should produce, if not “regime change” in Russia, then Putin’s departure. And there have been no shortage of predictions that the invasion will indeed prove Putin’s death knell. There’s no evidence, however, that the war has turned his country’s political and military elite against him or any sign of mass disaffection that could threaten the state.
Still, assume for a moment that Putin does depart, voluntarily or otherwise. One possibility is that he would be replaced by someone from his inner circle who then would make big concessions to end the war, perhaps even a return to the pre-invasion status quo with tweaks. But why would he (and it will certainly be a male) do that if Russia controls large swathes of Ukrainian land? A new Russian leader might eventually cut a deal, providing sanctions are lifted, but assuming that Putin’s exit would be a magic bullet is unrealistic.
Another possibility: Russia unexpectedly becomes a democracy following prolonged public demonstrations. We’d better hope that happens without turmoil and bloodshed because it has nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads, shares land borders with 14 states, and maritime borders with three more. It is also the world’s largest country, with more than 17 million square kilometers (44% larger than runner-up Canada).
So, if you’re betting on a democratic Russia anytime soon, you’d better hope that the transformation happens peacefully. Upheaval in a vast nuclear-armed country would be a disaster. Even if the passage to democracy isn’t chaotic and violent, such a government’s first order of business wouldn’t be to evacuate all occupied territories. Yet it would be so much more likely than the present one to renounce its post-invasion territorial gains, though perhaps not Russian-majority Crimea, which, in the era of the Soviet Union, was part of the Russian republic until, in 1954, it was transferred to the Ukrainian republic by fiat.
This Needs to End
The suffering and destruction in Ukraine and the economic turmoil the war has produced in the West should be compelling enough reasons to end it. Ditto the devastation it continues to create in some of the world’s poorest countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen. Along with devastating droughts and local conflicts, it has led to staggering increases in the price of basic foods (with both Ukrainian and Russian grains, to one degree or another, blocked from the market). More than 27 million people are already facing acute food shortages or outright starvation in those four nations alone, thanks at least in part to the conflict in Ukraine.
Yes, that war is Europe’s biggest in a generation, but it’s not Europe’s alone. The pain it’s producing extends to people in faraway lands already barely surviving and with no way to end it. And sadly enough, no one who matters seems to be thinking about them. The simple fact is that, in 2022, with so much headed in the wrong direction, a major war is the last thing this planet needs.
This article was republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Rajan Menon is the Director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York. He is also a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
keep readingShow less
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shakes hands with U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978. (Public Domain photo courtesy of Carter Library)
Since October, Egypt has joined most of the international community in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. With Egypt being the only Arab country to border Gaza, Cairo’s stakes are high. The longer Israel’s war on the besieged enclave continues, the threats to Egypt’s economy, national security, and political stability will become more serious.
Located along the Gaza-Egypt border is Rafah, a 25-square-mile city that until recently was home to 300,000 Palestinians. Now approximately 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in Rafah because of the Israeli military’s wanton destruction of Gaza City, Khan Younis, and other parts of the Strip. Having asserted that four Hamas battalions are now in Rafah, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that deploying Israeli forces to this Palestinian city is necessary for his country to defeat Hamas amid this war. As of writing, Israel’s military is preparing to launch a campaign for Rafah.
Officials in Cairo fear that Israeli military operations in Rafah could result in a large number of Palestinians entering the Sinai. “An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” said European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on February 10.
Not only could such a scenario fuel massive amounts of friction between Cairo and Tel Aviv, but it could also severely heighten tensions between the Egyptian public and President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s government. It’s easy to imagine a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which would amount to essentially a “Nakba 2.0,” triggering widespread unrest in Egypt if the government in Cairo is widely seen by Egyptians as playing a role in permitting, if not facilitating, such an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza. Along with economic considerations, this is one of the main reasons why Cairo has articulated that Israel depopulating Gaza of Palestinians and forcing them into Egypt is a red line that Tel Aviv must not cross.
“The biggest concern for Cairo is related to the fate of the [Palestinians in Gaza] forcibly evacuated by the Israelis and who might find a ‘safe haven’ in Sinai. An uncontrolled influx of Palestinians into the [Sinai] Peninsula would be an enormous burden on Egypt, which would have to manage a problematic situation from a political and security point of view, as well as having to justify internally to its own public opinion an imposition that came from outside,” Giuseppe Dentice, head of the Middle East and North Africa Desk at the Italian Center for International Studies, told RS.
“It is no coincidence that Cairo has reinforced the border with Gaza, closed the Rafah crossing, and warned Israel that any unilateral action involving a forced exodus of the Strip’s inhabitants to Egyptian territory could jeopardize not only bilateral relations, but the preconditions for peace and stability guaranteed in the [Camp David Accords],” added Dentice.
On February 15, Maxar Technologies, a Colorado-headquartered space technology company, captured satellite images showing Egypt’s construction of a wall roughly two miles west of the Egypt-Gaza border. The following day, the London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said that this construction “is intended to create a high-security gated and isolated area near the borders with the Gaza Strip, in preparation for the reception of Palestinian refugees in the case of [a] mass exodus.”
What might happen to the Camp David Accords?
On February 11, two Egyptian officials and one Western diplomat told the Associated Press that Cairo might suspend the 1979 Camp David Accords if Israeli troops wage an incursion into Rafah. A day later, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denied such reports about his government’s plans to freeze the peace treaty with Israel, yet he emphasized that Egypt’s continued adherence to the 1979 deal would depend on Tel Aviv reciprocating.
Alarming to Egyptian officials were Netanyahu’s statements late last year about the Israeli military taking control of the Philadelphi Corridor (a nine-mile-long demilitarized buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt which was established in accordance with Egypt and Israel’s peace treaty) because such a move on Israel’s part would be a breach of the Camp David Accords.
Are Egyptian officials serious about possibly freezing the historic peace deal? Or does such talk amount to empty threats issued for political purposes at home, as well as pursuing certain Egyptian aims vis-à-vis Washington and Tel Aviv? Mouin Rabbani, a political analyst and co-editor of Jadaliyya, told RS that if these statements from anonymous Egyptian officials are geared toward a domestic audience but Cairo doesn’t follow through, Sisi’s government could have a “potentially serious problem on its hands.”
Ahmed Aboudouh, an associate fellow with the Chatham House and a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, doubts that Egypt would go as far as suspending the Camp David Accords. “In the end, Egypt is unlikely to take the first step to tear the treaty up unilaterally,” he said.
But what Egypt is doing is embracing “discursive strategic posturing” whereby Cairo uses “rhetorical escalation” and directs messages at three audiences, Aboudouh told RS. First is the domestic audience to say that Cairo is standing up for Egypt’s core security interests as well as the Palestinian cause. The second is Washington to relay the Egyptian government’s anger at the Biden administration for not stopping Israeli actions that threaten to displace Palestinians into the Sinai. Third is to Netanyahu, generals in the Israeli Defense Forces, and the Israeli intelligence community.
Gordon Gray, a former U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia, also discounts recent suggestions that Cairo would suspend its peace treaty with Israel for three main reasons. “First, Egypt does not seek military confrontation — even an inadvertent one — with Israel. Second, Egypt does not want to risk losing U.S. military assistance ($1.3 billion annually), which was granted as a direct result of the Camp David Accords. Finally, while Egypt abhors the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, it shares Israel’s views about the threat Hamas poses,” said Gray in an interview with RS.
What would come from Egypt freezing the treaty?
Despite many experts believing that Egypt would not freeze the Camp David Accords, that potential scenario should be considered. There are important questions to raise about what it could lead to in terms of region-wide ramifications, as well as Cairo’s relationships with Western capitals. But it’s difficult to predict how events would unfold if Egypt took that step because there would be so many unknown variables in play.
Egypt could act in different ways after suspending the peace treaty with Israel. Rabbani asked, “Would it simply declare the peace treaty suspended and leave it at that or would it stop implementing provisions of that treaty?”
Regardless, any freezing of the Camp David Accords by Egypt would inevitably bring a layer of instability to Egyptian-Israeli relations never seen since Jimmy Carter’s administration, which — with help from Iran, Morocco, and Romania — brought Egypt’s then-President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachim Begin together in northern Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains to sign the peace treaty in September 1978. The response from Washington would likely be extreme, particularly given how central Egyptian-Israeli peace has been to U.S. foreign policy agendas in the Middle East for almost half a century while surviving a host of regional crises, including Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and all the previous Gaza wars.
“The U.S. is certain to act true to form and retaliate against Egypt without holding Israel in any way accountable for producing this crisis, and Washington may well cease foreign assistance to Egypt, which is a direct function of its peace treaty with Israel. The EU will probably announce it is launching an investigation of the Egyptian school curriculum or some other nonsensical initiative,” Rabbani told RS.
Irrespective of how Egypt approaches its relationship with Israel, the fact that officials in Cairo are suggesting a potential freeze of the Camp David Accords speaks volumes about the Gaza war’s impact on Israel’s diplomatic standing in the Arab world.
With the probability of more Arab countries joining the Abraham Accords in the foreseeable future having essentially dropped to zero, the pressing question is not which Arab government might be next to normalize with Tel Aviv. The focus has shifted to questions about how Arab countries already in the normalization camp, such as Egypt, will manage their formalized relationships with Israel at a time in which Israeli behavior in Gaza is widely seen across the Arab-Islamic world as genocidal.
keep readingShow less
Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.