Inside the halls of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, the unwanted ghost of Munich’s past — authoritarianism and appeasement — dominated the picture this weekend.

None of the conference participants would have wanted to dispute that a heavy feeling – that Europe has reached the end of peaceful times as we’ve known them since the end of World War Two – hung like thick air in the packed Munich corridors.

Those were buzzing with the world’s leaders, security officials, and military brass, and most Europeans had one name on their lips: Donald Trump and the new damage he has inflicted on the transatlantic alliance, just as times are getting even more uncertain.

Beyond doubt, the core question remained whether current Ukraine support hiccups are fixable – the answer was mainly yes, but only if the West has the political will to act accordingly.

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For Kyiv, there were no tangible results that could offer any noticeable relief for the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops at the front. The fall of Ukraine’s frontline town Andiivka added to the sense of doom and gloom.

There was no indication, at least not beyond the assurances from the large American delegation, that Washington could soon approve the $60 billion aid package currently stuck in the US House of Representatives.

Despite public American assurances, it was the comments by US Republicans that drove the conversation in the bars and coffee places inside the venue.

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The starkest contrast perhaps, was an exchange between two second-tier actors.

J.D. Vance, a Republican senator from Ohio, argued that the US doesn’t produce sufficient ammunition to support Ukraine and that “what’s reasonable to accomplish is some negotiated peace”.

Ricarda Lang, co-chair of Germany’s Green party, rebutted immediately that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has shown he doesn’t want peace.

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Sure, Europe has gone through a significant transformation over the past two years when it comes to threat perception and coming to terms with the need to deal with a renewed Russian threat.

“We have been in a long period of silent disarmament in Europe,” the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said, reflecting on Europe’s change in tack when it comes to defence.

Still, not many thought they would see the day when a Green politician adopts a more hawkish stance against Putin than a Republican senator, several participants told me in exasperation.

A day earlier, Vance’s fellow Republican Senator Pete Ricketts was booed on stage for comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to illegal migration at the US-Mexican border – an improbable link Republicans are increasingly hung up on.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? Suddenly, it is we, Europeans, that need to be the moral compass on this issue,” one participant told me over a drink.

“When you listen to the speeches, our people were saying all the right things, but the question is whether we will be able to translate that into doing the right things,” they added.

Finland’s president-elect Alexander Stubb probably put it best, saying that “this is our 1918, 1945, 1989 moment, of our generation.”

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MUNICH MEMO | 

Reports of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death overshadowed talk of the two main headline conflicts at the conference, as his wife, Yulia, took the stage.

All eyes were on US Vice-President Kamala Harris underscoring the Biden administration’s commitment to global engagement and American leadership.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a stark warning to a packed conference hall, invited former US President Trump to go with him to the frontlines and told world leaders not to fear Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defeat.

The EU will have to double its military support to Ukraine to fill a gap left by the United States after months of blockage of new aid by the US Congress, the Kiel Institute, which monitors Western assistance to Kyiv, said in a fresh report.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, like many other European leaders speaking at the main stages and sideline events, said Europeans need to do much more on security regardless of who wins the upcoming US elections or how the war in Ukraine turns out.

Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is widely considered a top contender to become the next NATO Secretary-General, said we should “stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump.” Read our interview with him here.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU “has to step up its defence industrial base.” She also gave traction to the debate the bloc should get its separate defence commissioner portfolio, in addition to current structures.

Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna agreed issues between their countries over grain and need to be resolved.

Munich brought together a flurry of Middle Eastern diplomats with some hoping for a window for Gaza peace. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said the situation in the Israel-occupied West Bank posed a major obstacle to finding a long-term solution for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog called for the return of hostages to be a top priority, with representatives of hostages’ families present in the audience.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said that when it comes to the prospects for a deal, “we made some good progress in the last few weeks in the negotiations” but differences remain. Other high-ranking Arab officials agreed the priority must be ending the current humanitarian catastrophe that is happening in Gaza.

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Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry told the conference that “any extensive [Israeli] military action there [in Rafah] will have a devastating effect on the humanitarian situation.”

Ukraine and Gaza aside, fear of climate-change-driven migration is topping the security threat posed by Russia for respondents of a fresh survey for the Munich Security Conference.

While previous years have seen a flurry of European crisis diplomacy on the sidelines – Serbia-Kosovo, Armenia-Azerbaijan, you name it – it was striking not much of that happened this time around.

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said in Munich that Beijing wants to be a force for stability and China and Europe should avoid “ideological distractions.”

DEFENCE BRIEFING

KEEP CALM & INVEST | NATO’s European members have embarked on a mission to prove they are stepping up their burden-sharing efforts, in a bid to preempt the risks of a new Trump presidency and preserve the alliance’s unity in the face of the most serious security challenges since World War Two.

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Eighteen out of 31 NATO countries will spend more than the required 2% of GDP on defence in 2024, according to new estimates presented this week.

BELGIAN PRESIDENCY | Europe’s commitment to bolster its defence industry will not become autonomy overnight, but it is necessary to start now, Belgium’s Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder told Euractiv, as pressure mounts for the ‘old continent’ to step up its security.

UPCOMING STRATEGY | With its long-awaited defence industry programme, the European Commission looks to use the bloc’s budget to restructure its defence industrial base, showing determination to ramp up sustainable production across the continent and become more independent from other suppliers such as the US.

WIDER EUROPE

CATCHING UP | Georgia is working to catch up with Ukraine and Moldova, which are farther along their EU accession path, and the key will be holding orderly elections in October, forming a pro-European government, and implementing EU recommendations, President Salome Zourabishvili told Euractiv in Munich.

EU IN THE WORLD

RUSSIAN ASSETS | The European Union has moved toward using the profits from frozen Russian central bank assets to finance Ukraine’s reconstruction. The move, in line with steps taken by the G7, establishes a legislative route by which profits generated by confiscated Russian assets under specific circumstances could ultimately find their way toward Ukraine via the EU budget.

GAZA CALL | Ireland and Spain are seeking an “urgent review” of whether Israel is complying with human rights obligations under its trade agreement with the EU, according to a joint letter seen by Euractiv. The call was also supported by a large batch of EU lawmakers.

WHAT ELSE WE’RE READING 

Why Russia Killed Navalny [The Atlantic]

The Taiwan Catastrophe [Foreign Affairs]

When Economics and Great-Power Foreign Policy Collide [Foreign Policy]

ON OUR RADAR NEXT WEEK

EU foreign ministers meet on Ukraine, Gaza| Monday, 19 February 2024 | Brussels, Belgium

 ICJ hearings on Israel’s policies in Palestinian Territories| Monday, 19 February 2024 | The Hague, Netherlands

EU-Georgia Association Council| Tuesday, 20 February 2024 | Brussels, Belgium

G20 foreign ministers meet| Wednesday, 21 February 2024 | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

UN Security Council meets on the Middle East| Thursday, 22 February 2024 | New York, United States

UN Security Council meets on Ukraine – EU’s chief diplomat Borrell, Ukraine’s FM Kuleba attend among other| Friday, 23 February 2024 | New York, United States

Russia’s war on Ukraine enters 3rd year| Saturday, 24 February 2024 | 

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