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As Munich Security Conference concludes, does Europe feel like it can depend on U.S.?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

If there's one word that characterized this weekend's meeting of world leaders in Germany, it might be anxiety. Each year, the Munich Security Conference gathers political figures, analysts and journalists to talk about the state of the world. Reporter Teri Schultz was there, and she joins us now. Good morning.

TERI SCHULTZ: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Teri, how was this year different from other Munich conferences you've attended?

SCHULTZ: Well, there was already a lot of uncertainty in the relationship between the U.S. and Europe going into the conference. The war in Ukraine is going badly for Kyiv. The $60 billion U.S. aid package for Ukraine is blocked by Republicans on Capitol Hill. And, of course, Donald Trump has invited Russia to attack NATO allies who he says don't spend enough on defense.

FADEL: Right.

SCHULTZ: But then on Friday, as things got underway, an absolute shock went through the conference. We were all getting notifications on our phones, and people were gasping as they learned that Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, had died suddenly in an Arctic penal colony where Russian President Vladimir Putin had jailed him. Navalny's wife was there in Munich. Yulia Navalnaya decided to take the stage in an unscheduled appearance, looking understandably pale and shaken. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YULIA NAVALNAYA: (Speaking Russian).

SCHULTZ: "I didn't know if I should come out here or go straight to my children," she said, with her voice quivering. But she said her husband would want her there, demanding that Putin pay a price for his death. It really moved the audience. Even in her sorrow, she was just utterly composed and driven.

FADEL: So she's demanding accountability there. Is there any indication that European leaders will do anything about Navalny's death?

SCHULTZ: There's some indication. Yulia Navalnaya is actually here in Brussels today to talk to European Union foreign ministers, and they are considering what their joint response should be to the Navalny death. But Lithuania's foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, told me in Munich he believes the treatment of Navalny demonstrates Putin's absolute sense of impunity and is just one more sign that his country, on NATO's eastern flank, is at risk of a Russian attack. Here he is.

GABRIELIUS LANDSBERGIS: Why Russia would do it, not because it has superior firepower than the NATO, but because we're not deterring. That means that they might start believing that we won't be able to answer, that the answer is not coming, that we will promise some devastation and there will be none.

FADEL: I mean, you hear that sense of concern there, and there's also the concern about the U.S. not being really a reliable ally in this moment. Did Europeans hear anything from Vice President Kamala Harris or other U.S. politicians there in Munich that did reassure them after Donald Trump's comments?

SCHULTZ: I'd actually say, Leila, it's probably the contrary. The vice president emphasized that she and President Biden believe in NATO, but listen to the message that even this committed trans-Atlanticist former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, told me he's giving his European friends. Here he is.

IVO DAALDER: You, the Europeans, need to start thinking about, how do you prepare yourself for a world in which you will have to use your own capabilities to defend yourself? - something you haven't thought about for 75 years, to be frank. Now you really need to do it.

SCHULTZ: And Daalder says this holds true to some extent, no matter who wins the White House in November.

FADEL: OK. So that doesn't sound very encouraging for Europe or, maybe even worse, for Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was there also. What was his message?

SCHULTZ: Well, Zelenskyy is again just pleading with allies to send more weapons and ammunition. He insists Ukraine can defeat Russia with enough Western support. But he still says that he can win the war. And NATO's top military commander, Admiral Rob Bauer, believes him and says the West should stay positive.

ROB BAUER: You should also know that pessimists don't win wars.

SCHULTZ: But Ohio Republican Senator J.D. Vance, a Trump ally, said in Munich, it's time to stop the war for Ukraine, to negotiate a peace deal with Russia. And most European NATO allies reject anything other than a Russian defeat. So next year's Munich Security Conference may have to deal with even more insecurity.

FADEL: That's Teri Schultz in Brussels. Thank you.

SCHULTZ: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Teri Schultz