Russia is watching America’s fight over Ukraine and NATO 

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School

On the eve of the opening of the Munich Security Conference — the Superbowl of foreign policy events — America is sending terribly mixed signals about democracy. With a congressional fight over funding Ukraine, a former president threatening to end the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and Europe aghast, the United States is having one of its worst public diplomacy moments.  

The Munich Security Conference, founded in the fall of 1963, is the annual go-to forum for military planners, diplomats and members of Congress. Traditionally, you find U.S. Republicans there touting conservative positions on toppling authoritarian regimes and supporting freedom and democracy around the world. 

It was a favorite for the late Sen. John McCain, who famously said at one of the gatherings in 2017: 

“The unprecedented period of security and prosperity that we have enjoyed for the past seven decades didn’t happen by accident. It happened not only because of the appeal of our values, but because we backed them up with our power and persevered in their defense.” 

But this year is like no other. 

For one, former President Trump, running to be president again, has shaken Europe with disparaging remarks about the NATO, which safeguards Western democracy. Trump doubled down on earlier remarks about NATO, this time suggesting that Article 5 of the treaty, which ensures defensive actions to protect any NATO member country, is irrelevant. 

“If we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?” Trump recalled another country’s leader asking while him while he was president. “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”  

Alarmed European leaders denounced Trump’s remarks. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a written statement Feb. 11, said that “any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.” 

President Biden called Trump’s remarks about NATO “dumb,” “shameful,” “dangerous” and “unAmerican.” 

This year’s conference comes at a time when Congress and the U.S. public are wavering on support for Ukraine after two agonizing years of war. 

In Congress, the Senate voted 70-29 on a bipartisan $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other countries, $60 billion of which is for Ukrainian assistance. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have issued stark warnings about the consequences of abandoning longtime U.S. allies in Europe. And the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), just returned from leading a bipartisan congressional delegation to Kyiv and is warning that time is running out for Ukraine in its fight against Russian invaders. 

But sadly, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) has already poured cold water on the package.  

“In the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate, the House will have to continue to work its own will on these important matters,” Johnson said in a statement. “America deserves better than the Senate’s status quo.” 

For an American public exhausted by overseas news and worried about the economy at home, interest in Ukraine is waning. In the most recent Gallup poll, a plurality of Americans — 41 percent — say the U.S. is doing too muchto help Ukraine. That’s up from 24 percent in August 2022 and 29 percent in June 2023.  

Hesitancy on the Ukraine war effort could not come at a worse time for its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, following tensions between Zelensky and his top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, who complained about weaponry and has been fired

Meanwhile, Russia has benefitted from North Korea’s sending munitions to support the war effort; President Vladimir Putin is planning another trip to Pyongyang. And Iran remains the lead supplier of drones to Russia. 

Both sides in this war have endured huge losses. Russia’s military casualties could be as high as 300,000 including wounded and dead. Ukraine has lost close to 70,000, with as many as 120,000 wounded — higher than the 58,000 American soldiers the U.S. lost in Vietnam. 

As Michael Kofman, a leading Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The New York Times recently, in terms of fewer aid dollars, “the absence of further American help would “point to a dour, negative trajectory in the latter half of this year.” 

There are so many critical issues to discuss in Munich. 

A survey conducted in advance of the conference identified migration, climate change and Russia as among the top concerns, with Russia at the top of the list. It would be a historic mistake of grave proportions if the Munich Security Conference were to end with appeasing Putin and his belief that the West will cave on support for Ukraine.  

We need to get our act together — fast. 

(This post is republished from The Hill.)

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