‘Russia is weaponizing time,’ Ukraine tells NATO
At Halifax conference, Western policy leaders struggled to meet a concatenation of crises.
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia—The premise of the annual Halifax International Security Forum is simple: like-minded democracies working together are far stronger than whatever threatens them. But never in the forum’s 14 years have global events presented attendees, or the policy community of Western-aligned democracies, with greater challenges.
In 2021, the event spotlit concerns that China might invade Taiwan within just a few years, while a senior Ukrainian delegation tried to draw attention to the Russian buildup on its border. Last year, the assembly stood in solidarity with Ukraine while spending little time on the Middle East. This year’s event showed how the policy elite are struggling to find a coherent response to multiple converging crises.
But the message from Ukrainians at this year’s event was clear: your support is more important now than ever before.
“We live every day between hope and belief. Because when we are stronger, we believe in our victory. We believe that we will be supported. If the situation is a little bit more difficult, we hope,” said Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general. “Russia is weaponizing time.”
Next to him, Gen. Robert Brieger, an Austrian who currently serves as the chairman of the EU military committee, said that the EU has rapidly increased production of new military equipment, for both EU members and Ukraine.
“The ambition is to produce one million 155mm artillery ammunition rounds by spring next year,” Brieger said. “Probably we will not fully reach this ambition.”
The Austrian general was sober to the point of sullenness in his remarks, acknowledging that June’s baby coup by Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin had not weakened Putin to the extent many were hoping.
“I consume the open resources, and my impression is that despite this Wagner incident last summer, the regime is stable,” he said.
Moreover, Brieger acknowledged that historic sanctions on the Kremlin had not eliminated Russia’s ability to continue its campaign against Ukraine.
“Russia has an enormous potential to ramp up production capacity, and they proved it during World War II. This is a big economy,” he said. “Probably not the high-end products, but vast numbers of material and big numbers of human resources—not well-trained, not very motivated—but still a factor on the battlefield.”
Ukraine continues to notch important but incremental battlefield gains, but the resolve of Western democratic allies is showing signs of weakness, in part because of changing political realities in various countries. In Slovakia, a populist, more Kremlin-friendly regime won elections in October. In January, Austria announced it would stop sending military aid to Ukraine, but said it would maintain support in other ways.
That theme of intractability carried through various sessions and conversations at Halifax, many of which focused on the Middle East, and particularly on Israeli military operations in Gaza. The Biden administration has portrayed U.S. support for Ukraine and U.S. support for Israel’s operation as fundamentally linked and, following Hamas’ Oct.7 attack on Israel, asked Congress to approve a $100 billion in aid for Israel, Taiwan, and especially Ukraine. But Republicans are putting new conditions on aid to Ukraine, such as increased funding for security on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak criticized the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to talk meaningfully about a post-war governance structure for the Palestinians in Gaza. Barak argued, as he has over the course of his career, that a two-state solution is essential for Israeli security. The former Labor Party leader suggested that an international coalition of Arab states could serve as a type of interim government, clearing the way for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to preside over a Palestinian state. He suggested that its land area might be some 9 percent smaller than the border negotiated in 1967, to accommodate some current Jewish settlements.
But even Barak was forced to acknowledge what he called a “sad reality.”
“More than half of the Israeli public believe the opposite: that there should be a one-state solution,” he said, meaning Israel should control the entire territory.
On the stage, PBS correspondent Nick Schifrin quickly chimed in.
“More than half of Israelis don’t believe in” a two-state solution, Schifrin said. “More than half of Palestinians don’t believe in two-state and nobody in the current coalition [government of Israel] believes in two-state. But that’s certainly the vision.”
With no long-term solution on offer, Israel’s tactics in Gaza are under scrutiny. Outside the Halifax conference center, protestors loudly demanded a ceasefire.
U.S. officials are often asked about the high civilian casualties from Israeli strikes against civilian infrastructure targets, which U.S. and Israeli officials say Hamas uses for military purposes. State and Defense officials routinely fall back on the line that Israel has “a right to defend itself.” In recent days, even the State Department has adjusted some of its messaging about unconditional support for Israel and is now calling for humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow aid to reach Gaza and civilians to flee. For the first time, U.S. President Joe Biden is considering sanctions against the Israeli settlers who are using the conflict in Gaza to drive Palestinians from their homes in the West Bank.
And more and more policy professionals are openly questioning whether the current operation meets any standard of self-defense, or if it's even contributing to the security of Israel.
“The bloody scorched-earth campaign in Gaza will fail to deliver security for Israelis while inflicting horrible suffering on Gaza’s civilians, providing Hamas with an invaluable propaganda victory and recruitment tool, and fueling anti-Israel sentiment across the world,” said Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer, considered a centrist analyst.
Bremmer also recently made the point that as terrible as Hamas’s actions toward Israel have been, the group of 30,000 or so militants using tunnels and crudely-motorized paragliders does not pose an actual existential threat to Israel, the most advanced military in the Middle East and one of the most advanced in the world.
Compare that to Ukraine’s plight: a true existential threat from a more powerful, nuclear-armed military.
On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv to “reassure” allies in the Ukrainian government. But the first question he faced in his press conference was about the possibility that Israel might be using U.S.-provided weapons to commit war crimes. Austin, who also announced a new round of military aid for Ukraine, could only return to familiar talking points on how the United States “expects” Israel to minimize civilian casualties.
The Biden administration would rather people focus on helping Ukraine to survive, not least because its support for Israel is hurting him politically. Joe Biden’s approval rating stands at 40 percent, the lowest of his presidency. His support for Israel’s operation in Gaza has particularly hurt his popularity among young people, who disapprove of it by 70 percent, an NBC News poll found.
Among the topics barely covered during the conference was the possibility of a second Trump administration. The Halifax crowd of U.S. and European policy professionals represents exactly the sort of group that Donald Trump has vowed to get rid of. Trump has also threatened to leave NATO and to push Ukraine to concede territory to Russia.
During a dinner with various European and Ukrainian military and government officials (they did not allow their names or affiliations to be reported), one told Defense One that only recently had European partners begun to discuss the possibility of a second Trump administration and only “informally.” But, said another, if Trump were to prevail and pursue a new era of American isolationism, there would be no replacement for America’s role in supporting Ukraine.