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The silhouette of a woman reflected in a puddle as she crosses in front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. Photo: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said today that an “unthinkable” question now hangs over Europe: What happens if the U.S. leaves us to fend for ourselves?

The big picture: Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Parly indicated that the growing transatlantic divide isn’t just about defense spending, or even a clash of personalities. “Now that the strategic rivalry is moving to Asia, and Europe is no longer its main playground, a question mark has emerged,” she said. With Washington's eyes turning toward China, “will U.S. commitment [to Europe] be perennial?"

Between the lines: Parly conceded that despite the current push on “strategic autonomy,” the state of Europe’s collective military capabilities is “unflattering.”

  • Europe’s NATO contingent has a combined GDP more than 10 times Russia’s, spends 3.5 times as much on defense, and includes two nuclear powers, the Economist points out. But reliance on the U.S. has left gaps in capability that would, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, take at least 15 years to fill.
  • That’s not even accounting for the political hurdles. Washington’s security guarantee has papered over cracks that Moscow and Beijing would rush to expose. Removing it would “overwhelm the Europeans politically, financially and militarily,” said Michael Rühle, a NATO official.

Parly paraphrased NATO’s first secretary-general, Hastings “Pug” Ismay, who quipped that NATO was designed to “keep the Russians out and the Americans in” (she left out the part about keeping the Germans down).

  • While President Trump has put one-half of that equation in doubt, Vladimir Putin continues to nibble away at the other.
  • Angela Stent, author of the new book “Putin’s World,” says the West has been flummoxed as to how a country with a GDP smaller than Italy’s could play a great power role — how Vladimir Putin could invade Ukraine and deploy a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, and continue to be seen as a man with whom the world can do business.

Putin is adjusting to the new global reality. China shields him from political isolation and offers him an economic lifeline. It’s also a burgeoning superpower with which Russia shares a 2,600-mile border, much of it sparsely populated.

  • “The potential China danger is something that you dare not speak its name,” Stent says. She adds that the Kremlin recognizes, but would never acknowledge, that it's the junior partner in the relationship.
  • But while the U.S. turns its focus elsewhere, Alina Polyakova of Brookings notes, Russia is deploying trolls online and mercenaries in places like the Central African Republic: “We’re not paying attention and ceding ground to a country that is relatively weak but is playing a weak hand well.”

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, speaking at Brookings last week, expressed frustration that NATO allies are speaking in hypotheticals about conflict with Russia at a time when Moscow is occupying Crimea and flexing its cyber and disinformation capabilities:

  • “People say, ‘This is nothing like the real thing.’ It’s the real thing of the 21st century.”
  • She noted that the NATO security guarantee was not merely symbolic in Estonia and that Russia's "hybrid" activities are backed by conventional and nuclear capabilities. "We've seen all this before, and none of it is good."

Parly also referenced Eastern Europe, contending that if the next flare-up was allowed to happen on NATO's turf, rather than in Georgia or Ukraine, it would signal “a drastic reduction in U.S. power" and have global repercussions.

The bottom line: China's rise poses new questions for the U.S., but it can't afford to ignore the old ones.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

British national named in Colleyville synagogue standoff

A law enforcement vehicle sits near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Jan. 16. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

British national Malik Faisal Akram took four people hostage at a Texas synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, the FBI said in a statement.

State of play: Authorities had initially declined to release the name of the 44-year-old suspect or identify the hostages, all adults, though police chief Michael Miller confirmed that one of those held was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who leads the congregation.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron — WHO recommends 2 new treatments — What "mild" really means when it comes to Omicron — Deaths are climbing as cases skyrocket.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas— Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements— Supreme Court blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for large employers.
  3. Politics: Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health" — Focus group says Biden weak on COVID response, strong on democracy
  4. Economy: America's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic— — CDC COVID guidance for cruise ships to be optional starting Saturday — The cost of testing.
  5. States: West Virginia governor feeling "extremely unwell" after positive test — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers — America struggles to keep schools open
  6. World: Beijing reports first local Omicron case weeks before Winter Olympics — Teachers in France stage mass walkout over COVID protocols.
  7. Variant tracker
7 hours ago - Sports

Novak Djokovic loses Australian visa appeal

Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a forehand during a practice session ahead of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2022. Photo: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Tennis star Novak Djokovic left Australia on Sunday evening, facing a three-year visa ban after an appeals court in the country revoked his visa.

Driving the news: Djokovic will not be able to defend his Australian Open title when the tournament starts in Melbourne. The World No. 1 is looking to break a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most Grand Slam men's singles titles.