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In Munich, European leaders gird against Russia, call for more military spending

Boosting military spending in the face of Russia's threat was a major theme at the Munich Security Conference. EU leaders are increasingly talking about the need to be ready for possible war with Russia.

(CN) — Warning about a growing threat from Russia, European Union leaders, military chiefs and diplomats on Friday convened in Munich for a three-day security summit where discussions focused on preparing their nations for war.

The mood over the Munich Security Conference — a high-profile event in its 60th year where Western leaders discuss security threats — was tense amid an alarming array of threats ranging from Donald Trump's recent attack on the NATO alliance to Moscow's advances on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, its impressive arms buildup and an apparent attempt to develop an anti-satellite weapon.

Darkening the mood further was Friday's news of the death of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian prison officials said he died after a walk at the Arctic prison where he was serving a long sentence. Western leaders condemned it as a political assassination.

Europe's shift toward a war footing has been accelerating since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago and shattered Europe's security order.

On Friday, this shift was underscored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy making trips to Paris and Berlin to receive long-term security guarantees for Ukraine's defense from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

This year, a sense of panic has spread in the EU as wars in Ukraine and Israel rage on, American support for Ukraine diminishes and the likelihood increases that Trump may win in November.

A second Trump term is deemed a major threat to the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Trump's recent comments at a rally where he said he wouldn't defend NATO members that don't meet military spending commitments have rattled Europeans. It also was a stark reminder of the bloc's reliance on America's security umbrella.

This year, 18 of NATO's 31 members are expected to reach the goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense, including Germany for the first time in decades. Last year, only 11 NATO members met that goal, many of them states close to Russia's borders.

In Munich, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was vital to boost military spending across the alliance.

“This requires expanding our transatlantic industrial base to increase deliveries to Ukraine and refill our own stocks,” he said. “And shifting from slow peacetime to the high tempo of conflict — to produce more at a higher speed.”

He added: “This will help Ukraine, it will make NATO stronger, and it will provide more highly skilled manufacturing jobs.”

He said there was “no imminent threat” to any NATO member as the alliance “continues to ensure there is no room for miscalculation in Moscow about our readiness to protect all allies: With more forces, higher readiness, and increased defense spending.”

Since the Russian invasion, Western leaders and scores of experts have warned that Putin harbors imperial ambitions and that he might carry out more attacks if he succeeds in Ukraine, even against NATO members.

But NATO is underpinned by a mutual defense clause and opinion is divided among Western military experts, with many doubting Russia would attack a NATO country.

The Kremlin has stated it does not have the military capacity to fight the Western alliance. Putin, however, has called for NATO to withdraw troops and missiles from its borders and he's called Ukraine's push to join the alliance a red line.

Meanwhile, among the public in Western countries, fewer people see Russia as a top threat, according to a survey conducted by the Munich Security Conference.

The survey, based on responses from about 1,000 people in each of the Group of Seven rich nations, found that mass migration, climate change and Islamic terrorism have surpassed Russia as top concerns.

“While Russia was still the top risk for five G7 countries last year, only the citizens of the U.K. and Japan still consider it so,” leaders said in the report. “German citizens now only see Russia as the seventh greatest concern and Italians see it as the 12th.”

Some European leaders are worried about complacency setting in. Among them are Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, one of the EU's most hawkish leaders. Estonia and its Baltic neighbors have begun building bunkers and defensive lines along their borders with Russia and Belarus.

“This is the European hour and we need to rise to the challenge,” Kallas said on social media upon arriving in Munich. “Defense matters and the best way to show that is to spend on defense.”

This year, EU leaders are ramping up calls for a massive arms buildup and some have even floated the idea of developing a European nuclear weapons system.

In a recent article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said it was time to think about a European bomb in cooperation with the continent's two nuclear powers, France and Britain.

“Under what political and financial conditions would Paris and London be ready to maintain or expand their own strategic capabilities for collective security? And vice versa, what contribution are we willing to make?” Lindner said.

During a visit to Paris on Monday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk spoke about the need to build up the EU's military might.

“The European Union, France and Poland must become strong and ready to defend their own borders and to defend and support our allies and friends from outside the union,” he said during a meeting with Macron.

Later in Berlin, Tusk said the EU must seriously consider Macron's proposal to use France's nuclear weapons to protect all of the EU.

Tusk said there was “no reason at all why the European Union should be militarily weaker than Russia.”

On Friday, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris tried to reassure Europeans that the U.S. was fully behind the NATO alliance, though she warned against American isolationism, a clear reference to Trump.

“I believe it is in the fundamental interest of the American people for the United States to fulfill our longstanding role of global leadership,” she said at the Munich summit.

She said the Biden White House was “committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.”

In a thinly veiled attack on Trump, she said some in the U.S. want to isolate America, “embrace dictators” and “abandon commitments to our allies in favor of unilateral action.”

“Let me be clear: That worldview is dangerous, destabilizing and indeed short-sighted,” she said. “That view would weaken America and would undermine global stability and undermine global prosperity.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / International, Politics

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