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Europe’s future depends on the West’s ability to counter Putin’s threats to Ukraine

MUNICH – A sense of helplessness and dread hangs over Western leaders gathered here at the Munich Security Conference as Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly expected to launch a military attack on Ukraine in a few days, even a few hours.

In return, there is a renewed and invigorated sense of common cause and unity between the United States and its allies and partners, alongside a heightened belief in the historic moment. Not since the end of the Cold War have NATO allies and their partners engaged in more intensive military planning, sanctions design, political consultation and intelligence sharing.

What is uncertain is what will be more decisive for the future of Europe: Putin’s determination to reverse the results of the Cold War by recreating a Russian sphere of influence by force, or the return momentary to a common Western cause that it provoked. In every crisis lies an opportunity, but everyone is betting on the depth of the crisis Putin unleashed or the duration of the Western response.

American and European leaders have struggled to rally their citizens to Putin’s dangers to post-Cold War principles: that borders cannot be erased by force, that great powers cannot be allowed to subjugate their neighbours, and that independent countries should be free to make sovereign choices about their alliances and associations.

What has changed the mood here regarding Putin’s intentions to greater concern over the three days is a rising and indisputable tide of evidence that Putin is about to launch the greatest military action the world has seen since 1945.

A U.S. official, with access to real-time intelligence, told me, “No other conclusions can be drawn from the mounting evidence we’re seeing that Putin just wouldn’t go to that level of difficulty, cost and logistical gymnastics if it wasn’t I don’t intend to do anything very serious with it.”

The mood here is one of disbelief that such a conflict could be possible in modern Europe, after several years of focusing more on less kinetic issues such as climate change and pandemic response.

There is also a sense of resignation that all threats of political and economic sanctions from the West – and the commitment to advance NATO forces to allied countries on the eastern front if Putin attacks Ukraine further – will not be enough to dissuade the Russian leader from this he considers its historical imperative.

Munich is full of parlor psychologists, many of whom have met Putin over the years, wondering why the supernaturally calculating Putin is rolling the dice now. He himself told his Russian colleagues he was entering ‘uncharted territory’ and European officials who know him best believe policing Ukraine has become more of an obsession than a strategy, some 22 years in power and shortly before turning 70. To restore what he called “old Rus” in his essay on Ukraine last summer, which would cement his place in his country’s history, regain control of Ukraine alongside Belarus is not negotiable.

European officials here pay tribute to US President Joe Biden’s administration for preventing Putin from controlling the narrative by disseminating intelligence, both open source and classified, regarding the unprecedented build-up of Russian troops and plans for false flag operations aimed at proving that Ukraine was provoking Russia’s military actions. Within hours, US officials also refuted Putin’s claims that Russian troops were withdrawing.

Speaking here, Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Russia has now deployed between 169,000 and 190,000 troops near Ukraine and in Crimea – far more than the American allies had experienced – a worrying increase of a force of 100,000 on 30 January.

Said Carpenter, “This is the largest military mobilization since World War II.” How, when and how many Putin will use all these troops remains unclear, but only a dwindling number of experts believe he will not use them at all.

General David Petraeus, former commander of the US Army and director of the CIA, said at a lunch here on the Ukraine question that what is most telling is the massive deployment of “enablers” for the fight which are generally not present for military maneuvers. “You don’t need field hospitals for exercises,” he said. “You need it for the invasion.”

What is troubling is how long ago the West could have countered the revanchism of Putin who forged this path 15 years ago here in a speech which landed in the conference room of the Bayerischer Hof hotel like a hand grenade.

A few weeks later, in April 2007, Russia launched a series of cyberattacks against Estonia, he invaded Georgia in 2008, it annexed Crimea in 2014 and then this supported Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine. Along the way, Putin cracked down on opposition more brutally at homewhile Russia was connected abroad assassinations, poisoningcyber attacks, election interference and disinformation campaigns.

With a smile towards his Munich audience in February 2007, Putin noted“The format of this conference will allow me to say what I really think about international security issues. a conference.”

He quickly comes to the point: “A state and, of course, in the first place the United States, has exceeded its national borders in every way. This can be seen in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. . Well, who likes that? Who is happy? »

The height of audacity came when he quoted former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on why the post-Cold War security order could not hold. “When the peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries is in danger,” Putin said quoting FDR.

Now Putin is breaking the peace.

There is another well-known historical association with this city and that is the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, when Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy ceded the German-speaking Sudetenland of the Czechoslovakia. At the time, Europe was celebrating the deal as a way to prevent a major war.

The lesson of Munich then – Munich 15 years ago, and Munich today – is the same: appeasement does not reduce the dangers but increases them. Putin is unlikely to back down from his designs on Ukraine, but the United States and its partners can capitalize on the threat by supporting their new common cause, in the face of the most audacious assault yet on the post-World War II international order.

Frederick Kempe is the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.