Why War Pledges for Ukraine Fell Flat in Munich
Biden, Harris, and other world leaders pledged to help Ukraine fight for “as long as it takes.” So why does nobody believe them?
MUNICH, Germany—One after another, leaders from the United States, NATO, and nearly every European country west of the Dnipro River stood up at the Munich Security Conference and declared that they would not abandon Ukraine. The West, they vowed, would arm, equip, and fund Kyiv’s fight against Russian invaders until the war is won.
“As President Biden often says: The United States will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will not waver,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, in her televised keynote speech on Sunday. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, at an invitation-only sideline luncheon immediately afterward, said Putin should know that “this help [for Ukraine] isn’t ending. It doesn’t end. As long as it takes.”
So why did nobody believe them?
After all, Harris gave Ukraine the full-throated support of the United States and the packed-to-the-rafters audience cheered. On Monday, President Joe Biden delivered more of the same—for “as long as it takes”—during a celebrated visit to Kyiv, and again to a massive crowd on Tuesday in Warsaw.
“One year into this war,” Biden said, “Putin no longer doubts the strength of our coalition, but he still doubts our conviction. He doubts our staying power. He doubts our continued support for Ukraine. He doubts whether NATO can remain unified. But there should be no doubt: Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.”
One year into this war, it turns out, Putin isn’t the only doubter. In the overcrowded halls of the annual security conference here—and later in receptions and dinners at beer halls across the city—many of the national security community and journalists gathered for this massive event sneered at the speeches and hissed at the moment. They did not celebrate the politicians’ pledges, which for many have proven too cautious, too little, and too late. Instead, they lamented the dishonesty within them. They wished that the speechmakers would just come out and say what we all seem to agree on: there is a cold-blooded reality facing Ukraine. Unless the West fights Russia out of Ukraine with drastically more advanced weapons and air power, and soon, reluctant leaders will only prolong the war and its body count. If that happens, then the only person who can end the war is Putin.
“I understand why politicians can’t speak that way,” said Anne Applebaum, of The Atlantic, sitting on stage with Finland’s Marin after Harris’ unsatisfying speech. But, she said, “The realistic truth is that the war will end when the Russians understand that it was a mistake.”
It seems we are still painfully far from that point. Applebaum predicted the end of this conflict would resemble the French withdrawal from Algeria in the 1960s after a decade of fighting, or the British giving up on Ireland. “The war will end when we come to that moment,” she said, not any ceasefire or frozen conflict. “It’s actually over and we begin to reconstruct Europe and Russia begins to redefine itself as no longer an empire.”
On the same stage, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba went further: “My personal endgame is pretty simple…for me, the end of the war will be when the Russian president, whatever his name will be, will pay a visit to Ukraine, will [get down] on his knees in front of the monument to the victims of Russian aggression, and will beg for an apology. For me, this will be the end of the war. Everything between here and then is war, one way or another.”
What that should mean for U.S. and Western policymakers is that every conversation and news cycle in which they make more pledges of support, or debate the next best-weapon (yesterday, tanks; tomorrow, F-16s) is just a continuation of the war. There is so much further to go.
Leaders from NATO’s pending members Sweden and Finland shared the urgency we have always heard from Ukrainian and Eastern European leaders. “We should do more and we should do it faster,” said Marin.
“Don’t wait until it’s too late,” said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, who said he “basically, yes” agrees with Ukraine’s Kuleba. “This must not end in a frozen conflict.”
“Whatever we can deliver [for air defense] now, it’s needed in the short term… the more assets we can deliver to Ukraine for air defenses, the better,” said Czech President-elect Petr Pavel, a retired general who has served as chief of the military and chairman of the NATO Military Committee.
Estonia’s popular Prime Minister Kayja Kallas, who has long preached total victory, noted that NATO membership is the only reason member countries like hers are not fighting Russia on their soil, and that this conflict should teach them: “There will be no gray areas in Europe. Gray areas—they mean conflicts, they mean wars.”
On the same panel sat David Petraeus of “Tell me how this ends” fame. He was asked whether Ukraine was getting what it needed. “Not yet,” said the former commanding general of two wars, neither of which ended in clear American victories. In the near term, he said, Ukraine is trying to hold off “an intense and growing Russian offensive” and they need ammunition, precision munitions, and spare parts. In the medium term, meaning by June, Ukraine needs tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and drones to wage “combined arms defense” that will “crack Russian forces in the south” that support Crimea. Longer term, Ukraine needs long-range ground fires, like ATACMS, and Western aircraft, “and this is inevitable… this is a must… it’s time to get on with the decision to start training on F-16s” and other fighters.
In other words, even by Petraeus’s best-possible timeline, this war does not end by summer. And, he added, military aid may not break Putin’s will or make him realize the war is unsustainable for Russia in the way Applebaum described. Political leaders must accompany it with more aggressive non-military moves, from more sanctions to directly blocking vital supply lines into Russia, he argued.
Petraeus was channeling the frustrated audiences off-stage. They too believe strongly that Ukraine cannot hold Russia off forever, and Western funds, weapons and public support are finite. Some are angry that Biden and some NATO leaders still won’t go for the total victory, call Putin’s nuclear bluff, and swiftly escalate the fight to expel Russia’s exposed and weakened forces from Ukraine immediately and entirely. Others think overly-cautious Western leaders and their advisors are prolonging unnecessary death by giving Ukraine just enough to linger but not to win.
At some point, the fighting will stop. Despite every well-meaning, table-pounding leader’s call for total victory, if Putin survives, then Russia will not walk away empty-handed. The Russian leader has the will of a delusional madman and is armed with millions of potential conscripts and a Cold War-sized arsenal of nuclear weapons that, as of Tuesday, are no longer subject to inspection by outsiders. As Petraeus noted, Russia already is losing six times as many men per day as the United States lost in its worst month in Iraq. Putin heard everything Western leaders had to say at Munich, and two days later he recommitted Russia to swallowing Ukraine by force.
Nobody can see clearly how this ends. Nobody is satisfied with the way this is going. Nobody believes the Americans and Europeans will outlast Putin. Everyone has doubts.
For their part, leaders like Harris, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., knew what to expect in Munich. They came prepared and with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Estonia’s Kallas and others, they sold the war effort hard. They still need to convince their voters that this war is worth the cost and worth the risk to their military’s depleted arsenals. And they needed to convince those in the Munich halls that will support or undermine those efforts.
To their credit, NATO leaders mostly remain unified in message and voice towards continued support for Ukraine. Consider recent years when ascending movements like Brexit and Donald Trump’s America First movement threatened to undo international security architectures from within.
“We have come together to stand for our common values and our common interests and our common humanity. I have no doubt that this unity will endure,” Harris said. Neither do I. But she also said, “I also have no illusions about the path forward. There will be more dark days in Ukraine. The daily agony of war will persist… but if Putin thinks he can wait us out, he is badly mistaken. Time is not on his side.”
“Sure it is,” one analyst whispered to me, later. Putin does not have to answer to voters.
The one clear consensus in Munich: if Putin is not stopped or convinced to stop, he will continue the war in Ukraine until he can walk away with part of it. For as long as it takes.