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Opinion: Europe is already painting Trump out of its defense picture

Opinion by David A. Andelman

(CNN) — Madeline Albright famously called America the “indispensable nation.” Is former President Donald Trump making America the irrelevant nation?

Trump finally broke days of silence on Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s death but failed to mention Russia or condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin in his first public comments. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have continued to follow his lead, stalemating assistance for Ukraine, the one nation standing up to Putin’s armies.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has resisted calls to bring a Senate-passed aid package for Ukraine up for a quick vote, instead allowing the House to adjourn for a nearly two-week recess.

There may be majority support for Ukraine aid in the chamber as whole, but Johnson faces stiff opposition from his right flank over additional aid, with Trump urging Republicans to reject it.

These moves followed Trump’s recent threat to tell Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member nations who lag in their military spending.

The result? Rising fears of a new and frightening turn in the United States have left an increasing number of European leaders determined to strike out on their own.

Even comments from President Joe Biden addressed to a recalcitrant Congress such as “the way they’re walking away from the threat of Russia, the way they’re walking away from the threat of NATO, the way they’re walking away from meeting our obligation, it’s shocking,” haven’t helped.

Indeed, much was made at the annual Munich Security Conference over congressional failures. Most European leaders headed home from Munich, more convinced than ever that the United States is on the cusp of abandoning them.

For many, it is clear democracies must begin considering in concrete terms how to defend themselves without the American nuclear and security umbrella under which they have thrived for more than a half century.

Before leaving, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen even announced her country would be handing over all her nation’s artillery to Ukraine as well as F-16 fighters. “We  have to do more,” Frederiksen said, as Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The first steps toward a new direction for such a Europe — without America — are already being taken. In Berlin, Ursula von der Leyen, the former German defense minister who has deftly steered the continent for five fraught years as the European Commission’s president, announced Monday that she would be seeking a second term. High on her agenda, she says, would be the creation of Europe’s first commissioner of defense.

Creating such a pan-European ministry goes far beyond simply reshuffling bureaucrats in Brussels, however. First, there’s the question of budgets.

Already, America’s reduced funding is being felt across Europe. As CNN reported, American support of Ukraine is still bleeding resources from the US Army’s Europe and Africa Command, now left with $3 billion to fund $5 billion in operational needs including the ferrying of weapons and equipment to Ukraine and even NATO member Poland.

Without congressional action, funding for US operations in Europe could run out in May, with Army Secretary Christine Wormuth expecting the Army would “have to sort of rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Von der Leyen has also said that upping European defense production would be a top priority for her second term — not to mention sorting through vastly divergent budgets of the various countries.

With respect to Ukraine, despite his initial  protestations of eternal solidarity,  French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has committed just 640 million euros ($686 million), compared with Germany’s 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in military aid, according to calculations from Germany’s Kiel Institute, an economic research institute and think tank.  Although the French figure has been disputed, the institute does say “France’s contributions “are far below the UK’s,” which is only in the middle rank of European suppliers.

Still, as a bloc, Europe at about 85 billion euros ($92 billion) has already passed the United States at 66.2 billion euros ($71.6 billion) in total commitments to Ukraine. US military assistance has been higher than the EU’s has been, though this has now been halted in the face of Congressional inaction while EU aid is only accelerating.

Then there is the nuclear issue. The US has an estimated 100 nuclear weapons deployed at air bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey — though all launch codes are in US hands. France is the only European Union country with its own arsenal — the world’s fourth largest. With 290 operational warheads, it’s the largest in Europe, though barely 5 percent the size of Russia’s.

France has refused to cede control of such weapons to any other power, though that could change. In a recent visit to Sweden, Macron suggested that while nuclear deterrence is in “France’s vital interests,” such plans should have a “clear European dimension, which gives us a special responsibility.”

Britain, while no longer in the EU, has an arsenal of 225 nuclear weapons. At the Munich Security Conference, the shadow (opposition) British Foreign Secretary David Lammy said his Labour Party, if elected in elections this year, would propose “a new U.K.-EU security pact.”

All these efforts and pledges represent a dramatic change in direction for a continent that for decades has remained chained unflinchingly to America as its guarantor. To oversee this process, Europe needs a strong and resolute individual for its first defense czar.

One front-runner is Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who’s already taken the lead in a EU plan to deliver 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine.

“We need a combat-effective Europe, able to provide for its own defense. This is the only way to build deterrence by denial that would be credible enough to avoid war and stop Russia’s cycle of aggression,” Kallas wrote last year for Politico Europe.

“Since the invasion began, we have seen Russia fire Europe’s monthly artillery production in a single day in Ukraine. Capacity and sustainability will determine the outcome of this war.”

Kallas has a clear motivation in taking on such a post — a Russian bull’s-eye on her back. Last week, the Kremlin placed her on a wanted list, apparently the first head of government to be targeted. (It accused her and others of destroying or damaging monuments in memory of Soviet soldiers.) And at Munich, she proposed seizing all of Russia’s assets frozen abroad and turning them over to Ukraine — before November’s US presidential election.

The most graphic evidence, though, of just how far Europe is moving away from America and toward self-sufficiency was an opinion column Monday by Estonian President Alar Karis that discussed the region’s defense without a single reference to the United States or Donald Trump.

“Any European country would struggle to face Russia alone,” Karis observed. “But when we’re united, we’re invincible.”

Or in a direct slap at Trump, German magazine Der Spiegel noted: “NATO, of course, is not a (debt) collection agency.”

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