The Munich Security Conference bills itself as the pre-eminent forum for debating the most pressing challenges to international security, a moment for leaders to confront brutal truths about the world today. In Munich last year, however, a sense of unreality reigned. The meeting took place just days before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces had massed on the country’s borders, but some in the highest circles of diplomacy did not seem convinced that he would follow through on his threats. They had persuaded themselves that the Kremlin could still be talked down, leaving President Zelensky to warn of the ghost of appeasement and of the need to learn the terrible lessons of history.
One year later and world leaders are returning to Munich, with Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen set to meet on the sidelines to discuss a deal on the protocol. But what has the West really learned in the year since the Ukraine war began? There are, of course, reasons to be hopeful. Putin has turned out not to be the master strategist many had once believed him to be. Nato has shown itself to be far more than a relic of the Cold War. Belatedly and fitfully, Germany has begun to shoulder its responsibilities as one of the leading nations in Europe.
But we are still paying the price for the attitude, prevalent since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Western militaries could be shrunk without consequence, with defense budgets diverted into welfare spending. So small is the RAF’s fleet of combat jets, the UK now finds itself unable to meet Mr Zelensky’s request for planes without damaging its own security. Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of Nato, gave an alarming warning this week that the West is running out of ammunition, with Ukraine’s consumption outstripping our ability to produce it. We will have to wait until the Budget next month to find out if the UK Armed Forces will receive the spending increase Ben Wallace believes they need.
Few Western leaders, meanwhile, appear willing to take the difficult decisions necessary to improve their countries’ resilience to external shocks. In Britain, this is most obvious the case of energy. The Government has bailed out consumers and businesses, protecting them from higher bills, but it has done little to improve domestic energy production, particularly of gas. The country was lucky to avoid widespread blackouts this winter.
The West has made progress towards adapting to the new world wrought by Russia’s invasion, but this is no time for back-slapping. Putin is preparing for a long war, marshalling more troops and materiel and putting his economy on a war footing. This crisis is very far from over.