MUNICH — Nearly one year into the brutal and costly war in Ukraine, Western leaders pledged to remain steadfast in their support for Kyiv amid worries about whether their unity can survive what France’s president called “a prolonged conflict.”
As dozens of leaders convened in Germany, Ukraine’s president opened the annual Munich Security Conference with a warning against “fatigue” and emphasizing that speed is of the essence if his country is to hold off a renewed Russian onslaught.
“We need to hurry up,” Mr. Zelensky implored the attendees. He compared his country’s fight against Russia to the biblical battle of David and Goliath, saying that Western weapons would be the key to defeating “the Russian Goliath.”
He said that was why weapons deliveries must be accelerated. “Delay has always been, and still is, a mistake,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany each delivered speeches vowing that the West would not lose its patience, even as debate grows about the war effort’s scale, its cost and the economic damage it has done around the world.
American and European officials have crowed in recent months about their unity against Russia, which has defied many predictions, including in Moscow, of infighting and capitulation. But the war is expected to last at least another year, and that unity will be tested. Few expect a sudden breakthrough by either side, and the cost of sustaining the Ukrainian fight against a larger foe is also expected to create new strains among allies.
Throughout the day the leaders did their best to bat away any suggestions of impatience or disunity. Before his address, Mr. Scholz had told an interviewer, Christiane Amanpour of CNN, that “it is not really a very good idea” to “discuss the question of when, in which month, the war will end.”
“The really important decision that we should all take together is saying that we are willing to do it as long as necessary and that we will do our best,” he added.
Unlike Mr. Scholz, though, Mr. Macron hinted at the prospect of an eventual negotiated settlement to the war.
The State of the War
- Vuhledar: A disastrous Russian assault on the Ukrainian city, viewed as an opening move in an expected spring offensive, has renewed doubts about Moscow’s ability to sustain a large-scale ground assault.
- A Sea of Crosses: A bleak, snowy cemetery is filling with more and more dead soldiers from the Wagner mercenary forces, a sign of the huge casualties Russia is suffering in Ukraine.
- Bakhmut: With Russian forces closing in, Ukraine is barring aid workers and civilians from entering the besieged city, in what could be a prelude to a Ukrainian withdrawal.
- Arms Supply: Ukraine and its Western allies are trying to solve a fundamental weakness in its war effort: Kyiv’s forces are firing artillery shells much faster than they are being produced.
While pledging that the West is “ready for a prolonged conflict” and saying the time is not right for talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the French leader also used words like “dialogue” and “re-engagement” to describe some eventual interaction with Moscow.
But having been criticized in the past for being too accommodating to Moscow, Mr. Macron stressed that there could be no talks until the Kremlin had been pushed back.
“Now the question is how to resist? How to help the Ukrainians to make on the ground something which will force Russia to come back to the table on the conditions of Ukraine,” Mr. Macron said in English, answering questions after a speech delivered in French.
They were joined at the three-day gathering of leaders, diplomats and foreign policy elites by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, and several members of the U.S. Congress.
Amid the focus on Ukraine was a subplot around the open question of whether Mr. Blinken might meet with China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, who will speak at the conference on Saturday. Relations between Washington and Beijing are especially tense following the U.S. shoot-down of a Chinese spy balloon that floated over the United States earlier this month.
During his appearance by video, Mr. Zelensky was asked by a moderator, Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, to respond to Mr. Putin’s conviction that “Russia has more staying power than Ukraine” and the international community.
Mr. Zelensky replied that Mr. Putin argues to other countries that harsh Western-led sanctions against Russia are the root cause of global problems like food and energy inflation, “to make them feel tired.”
U.S. officials acknowledge frustration that the Russian message resonates, particularly in what they call the global south, where many developing countries feel little stake in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. They note that Mr. Putin’s invasion itself and not sanctions, which exempt food products, is the main driver of higher food costs worldwide.
Mr. Putin met on Friday in Moscow with his closest international ally, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, the two men posing and chatting before a group of reporters before talking privately. Such amicable displays have helped keep alive concerns that Belarus might join in Russia’s war against Ukraine, but Western officials say they have seen no signs so far of such a shift.
Mr. Scholz’s address in Munich was notable in part for his aggressive call for more military supplies to Kyiv. Weeks earlier, he had been under intense pressure from NATO allies over his reluctance to approve the supply of Germany’s modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Mr. Scholz eventually relented on the tanks after the Biden administration provided him with political cover by agreeing to send America’s advanced Abrams tanks to Kyiv as well. And in his speech today, it was Mr. Scholz who was imploring others to send tanks to Ukraine.
“All those who can actually supply battle tanks of this kind should do so,” Mr. Scholz said on Friday, adding that he and other top German officials would be “canvassing intensely for this” in Munich.
“We will do whatever we can to make this decision easier for our partners — for example, by training Ukrainian soldiers here in Germany or supporting them with supplies and logistics,” Mr. Scholz said. He did not name specific countries.
“The sooner that Mr. Putin realizes that he cannot achieve his imperialist objective, the greater the chance that the war will end soon with the withdrawal of Russia’s occupying forces,” Mr. Scholz said.
That line echoed the position of many Western officials and analysts, who say that Mr. Putin is unlikely to enter peace talks in good faith until his military position is significantly weakened.
Thanks in part to the weapons it has received from the West, Ukraine has thwarted many of Mr. Putin’s key goals so far, driving his forces from the outskirts of Kyiv in the north and Kharkiv in the northeast, from the city of Kherson in the south and from parts of the Donbas region in the east. Even so, officials and analysts say that Mr. Putin believes that his country’s superior manpower and enormous natural resources — along with what he sees as the West’s inevitable loss of will — can propel him to victory, including conquering the entire Donbas.
But Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group whose mercenary fighters have been critical to Russia’s war effort, warned on Thursday that it will take months for the Russians to seize control of the city of Bakhmut in the Donbas — an indication of how long the war may last. For months, the Bakhmut area has seen the most intense fighting in Ukraine, with immense losses on both sides, but the front line there has moved very slowly.
In recent weeks, Moscow has rushed tens of thousands more troops, many of them inexperienced new recruits, to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, as Mr. Putin’s forces seek to demonstrate progress before the anniversary of their invasion on Feb. 24.
In Munich, one of the more pressing issues being discussed, albeit more in private than in public, is how the war should end: Is full Ukrainian sovereignty over all of its territory, including Crimea, even possible? If not, can there be negotiations? Is Mr. Putin even interested in negotiations?
“There clearly is a consensus, now also including France and Germany, that there is no prospect of getting to a serious negotiation unless and until Ukraine has made additional territorial gains,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In a Friday interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, Ms. Harris said the U.S. goal is to “do everything possible within our power to strengthen Ukraine’s position on the battlefield so that if and when there are negotiations, Ukraine will be in the strongest position in a negotiation.”
Saturday’s proceedings will feature remarks by Ms. Harris and Mr. Blinken, and from Mr. Wang, who will discuss Beijing’s foreign policy outlook. Attendees will be listening carefully for any shift in China’s largely unqualified support for Russia’s invasion. The Chinese state news media has portrayed his presence at the event as a sign of China’s moderating influence in a forum that would otherwise be dominated by American interests.
With battles looming in Ukraine, its allies have been working to come up with ways to provide Kyiv with the supplies it will need for the fight ahead. Already, they have given all manner of different Western weapon systems to Kyiv’s war effort, most recently pledging to supply it with battle tanks.
Ukraine has lobbied hard to take Western military aid to a higher level, pleading for fighter jets, which President Biden has so far refused, though the governments of France and Britain have indicated that they are open to the idea. On Friday, a handful of U.S. Congress members who are military veterans, both Republicans and Democrats, urged Mr. Biden to send warplanes to Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky expressed thanks for allies’ assistance to date, but noted that he had sought support at the previous year’s conference, in the days ahead of Russia’s invasion.
“We wanted to hear, ‘Ukraine, we will be with you.’ Unfortunately, I only heard that after Russian missiles started to hit Ukrainian land,” he said.