As Putin Threatens, Despair and Hedging at Munich Conference

As the leaders of the West gathered in Munich over the past three days, President Vladimir V. Putin had a message for them: Nothing they’ve done so far — sanctions, condemnation, attempted containment — would alter his intentions to disrupt the current world order.

Russia made its first major gain in Ukraine in nearly a year, taking the ruined city of Avdiivka, at huge human cost to both sides, the bodies littered along the roads a warning, perhaps, of a new course in the two-year-old war. Aleksei Navalny’s suspicious death in a remote Arctic prison made ever clearer that Mr. Putin will tolerate no dissent as elections approach.

And the American discovery, disclosed in recent days, that Mr. Putin may be planning to place a nuclear weapon in space — a bomb designed to wipe out the connective tissue of global communications if Mr. Putin is pushed too far — was a potent reminder of his capacity to strike back at his adversaries with the asymmetric weapons that remain a key source of his power.

In Munich, the mood was both anxious and unmoored, as leaders faced confrontations they had not anticipated. Warnings about Mr. Putin’s possible next moves were mixed with Europe’s growing worries that it could soon be abandoned by the United States, the one power that has been at the core of its defense strategy for 75 years.

Barely an hour went by at the Munich Security Conference in which the conversation did not turn to the question of whether Congress would fail to find a way to fund new arms for Ukraine, and if so, how long the Ukrainians could hold out. And while Donald Trump’s name was rarely mentioned, the prospect of whether he would make good on his threats to pull out of NATO and let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” with allies he judged insufficient hung over much of the dialogue.

Yet European leaders seemed to also sense how slowly they had reacted to the new realities. European plans to rebuild their own forces for a new era of confrontation were moving in the right direction, leader after leader insisted, but then they added it would take five years or more — time they may not have if Russia overwhelms Ukraine and Mr. Trump undermines the alliance.

The dourness of the mood contrasted sharply with just a year ago, when many of the same participants — intelligence chiefs and diplomats, oligarchs and analysts — thought Russia might be on the verge of strategic defeat in Ukraine. There was talk of how many months it might take to drive the Russians back to the borders that existed before their invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. Now that optimism appeared premature at best, faintly delusional at worst.

Nikolai Denkov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, argued that Europeans should draw three lessons from the cascade of troubles. The war in Ukraine was not just about gray zones between Europe and Russia, he argued, but “whether the democratic world we value can be beaten, and this is now well understood in Europe.”

Second, European nations have realized that they must combine their forces in military, not just economic endeavors, to build up their own deterrence, he said. And third, they needed to separate Ukraine’s urgent needs for ammunition and air defense from longer-term strategic goals.

But given the imperialist rhetoric of Russia’s leaders, Mr. Denkov said, “long term in this case means three to five and maximum 10 years — it is really urgent.”

American officials reached for the familiar assurance that Washington’s leadership and commitment remained unchanged. But they could not describe a plan of action for Ukraine when Congress was still holding up funds for arms, and they struggled to explain how they would achieve a sustainable peace after the war in Gaza.

In the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the conference stage where Mr. Putin warned in 2007 that NATO’s eastern expansion was a threat to Russia, Mr. Navalny’s widow made an emotional appearance on Thursday hours after her husband’s death, reminding attendees that Mr. Putin would “bear responsibility” for it.

But there was little discussion of what the West could do — almost every available sanction has been imposed, and it was unclear if the United States and the Europeans would be prompted to seize the $300 billion or so in assets that Russia unwisely left abroad before the invasion. When a senior American official was asked how the United States would make good on Mr. Biden’s 2021 pledge of “devastating consequences” for Russia if Mr. Navalny died in prison — a statement made in Mr. Putin’s presence at a meeting in Geneva — the official shrugged.

Some attendees found the commitments made by the leaders who showed up uninspiring, said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs. “Kamala Harris empty, Scholz mushy, Zelensky tired,” she said of the American vice president, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Lots of words, no concrete commitments.”

“I feel underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed” by the debate here, said Steven E. Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany. “There was a lack of urgency and a lack of clarity about the path forward, and I did not see a strong show of European solidarity.” He and others noted that Emmanuel Macron, the French president, did not attend.

Most striking in the conversations about Russia was a widespread acknowledgment that Europe’s military modernization plans, first announced nearly two decades ago, were moving far too slowly to match the threat that Russia now poses.

“European defense was a possibility before, but now it’s a necessity,” said Claudio Graziano, a retired general from Italy and former chairman of the European Union Military Committee. But saying the right words is not the same as doing what they demand.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, together with a series of defense and intelligence officials, referred repeatedly to recent intelligence conclusions that in three to five years Mr. Putin might attempt to test NATO’s credibility by attacking one of the countries on Russia’s borders, most probably a small Baltic nation.

But the warning did not appear to be generate a very urgent discussion of how to prepare for that possibility. The conference celebrated the fact that now two-thirds of the alliance members have met the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense — up from just a handful of nations 10 years ago. But a few acknowledged that goal is now badly outdated, and they talked immediately about the political barriers to spending more.

Even Mr. Stoltenberg warned that Europe remained dependent on the United States and its nuclear umbrella, and that other NATO countries would be unable to plug the gap if the United States continued to withhold military aid for Ukraine.

But the prospect of less American commitment to NATO, as the United States turned to other challenges from China or in the Middle East, was concentrating minds.

“We have to achieve more” in Europe, Boris Pistorius, the German defense minister, told the conference. But when pressed whether his country’s military spending should be closer to 4 percent of German economic output, he was reluctant to commit, given that this is the first year in decades that Berlin will spend the NATO goal of 2 percent on the military.

“We might reach 3 percent or maybe even 3.5 percent,” he finally said. “It depends on what is happening in the world.” When his boss, Mr. Scholz, took the stage, he said that “Europeans need to do much more for our security, now and in the future,’’ but he stayed away from specifics. He said he was “urgently campaigning” in other European capitals to boost military spending.

But the fundamental disconnect was still on display: When Europeans thought Russia would integrate into European institutions, they stopped planning and spending for the possibility they might be wrong. And when Russia’s attitude changed, they underreacted.

“This is 30 years of underinvestment coming home,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, who called them “les trente paresseuses” — the 30 lazy years of post Cold-War peace dividends, in contrast to the 30 glorious years that followed World War II.

Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, said that Europe must boost its defenses “because what really provokes an aggressor is weakness.” Then, Mr. Putin might risk attacking a country like hers in an attempt to fracture NATO. “But if we do more for our defense, it will act as a deterrent. People around Putin would say that, you know, you can’t win. Don’t take this up.”

What was important for Europeans to remember was that this hot war in Ukraine was close and could spread quickly, Ms. Kallas said. “So if you think that you are far away, you’re not far away. It can go very, very fast.”

Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of embattled Ukraine, was blunter. “I think our friends and partners were too late in waking up their own defense industries,” he said. “And we will pay with our lives throughout 2024 to give your defense industries time to ramp up production.”