Munich Security Conference – Hot Issues and Vibrant Debates as Ukraine Steals the Show (I)

Munich Security Conference – Hot Issues and Vibrant Debates as Ukraine Steals the Show (I)

From February 6 to 8, 2015, Munich was again in the focus of international politics with over 400 renowned decision-makers in international politics, including about twenty heads of state and government and more than sixty foreign and defence ministers, 30 CEOs of large global companies as well as strong parliamentary delegations coming together at the 51st Munich Security Conference (MSC) to discuss current and future issues in foreign and security policy focused heavily on the new Russia - West standoff over Ukraine and the Islamic State posing a global threat among other acute issues. 

True, the annual conference offers no concrete decisions and adopts no resolutions. But unlike before there were no long-winded turgid speeches with turbid meaning. Not this time. The discussions were vibrant and concrete. The high level of representation made the event stand out while offering great opportunities for candid talks behind the closed doors with the results left for guessing. 

Talking about Ukraine ideas diverged on the best way forward, especially over possible lethal aid to Kiev. The German Chancellor and the French President went to Kiev and Moscow to work out a solution to the conflict in the Normandy Four format (Russia, Germany, Ukraine and France) which would satisfy both Kiev and the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions - a sign of the US and the EU being divided on ways of dealing with the Ukrainian crisis. 

Ukraine reveals differences between USA and Europe

The conflict in Ukraine dominated the agenda on the first day of the event. The vigorous debates boiled down to whether the West should begin arming Ukrainian forces with lethal weapons. Differences within the Western alliance thrust into the open. Among a plethora of opinions the view opposing such a step was expressed by those who represented the host country. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated Germany's position against arming government forces in the Ukraine conflict. «The problem is that I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily», she said. «The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved by more weapons,» the Chancellor told the conference. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen also warned against sending arms, saying this would act as a ‘fire accelerant’. «I am convinced that the supply of weapons alone will be a fire accelerant and brings us even further away from a desired solution,» she told the conference. 

The US participants seemed to tilt into arming Ukraine. Ms. Merkel’s position was challenged by Senator Bob Corker, a Republican of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who noted that there was growing support in the US Congress for arming Ukraine.

US Republican Senator John McCain criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for not yielding to supplying arms to Ukraine. «One might think that she does not know or does not care that people are being slaughtered in Ukraine», the German media quotes McCain as saying. The Senator’s words, coming ahead of Merkel’s visit to Washington on February 9, caused heavy criticism back in Germany. The military commander of NATO, US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said the Western alliance should not rule out the idea of weapons for Ukraine. «I don't think we should preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option», he told reporters.

Actually the issue of arming Ukraine's struggling government is a particularly perplexing one for President Barack Obama as he tries to assess the consequences of the move. The US President delivered a national security strategy document to Congress on February 6 emphasizing diplomacy over military power and warning against American over-reach in world affairs.

Speaking at the conference Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the US for practicing double standards over Ukraine and taking steps that «only promoted further aggravation» of the conflict. The Minister emphasized that Russia is ready to guarantee agreements between Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics. Mr. Lavrov pointed out that Kiev failed to engage in talks with self-defense militia leaders in the East of the country. He also emphasized the threat posed by the influence of ultra-right elements in Ukrainian politics, something the US and the EU shy away from talking about. 

The Islamic State threat paled by Ukraine

Arab leaders bemoaned what they called a lack of strategy and weapons in the fight against jihadists at a security conference. «I don’t see that there is a clear strategy how to deal with ISIS,» Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said. «We need more weapons, the quality, the sophistication of the weapons, the technology so that we can track and be able to infiltrate these organizations,» Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told Reuters on the sidelines of the Munich conference. Echoing Egypt’s calls for a more comprehensive strategy, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged leaders in Munich to act on militants operating from his country, adding that this threat should not be treated in isolation from Islamist groups. Speaking at the Munch conference, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said 15000 square kilometers have been liberated by Peshmergas from the IS. «The fight against ISIS is not only a military solution. The source of their financial must be dried up. There must be an ideological war against them and the religious Islamic establishment must take the fight against them. Whether they be defeated in Iraq if they stayed in Syria as a safe haven they manage to reorganize themselves and they manage to come back and make a threat. So there must be at the same time a strategy to defeat them», he added.

But at the conference the Islamic threat was paled by Ukraine with German Chancellor and French President visiting Moscow, Angela Merkel flying to Washington on February 9 and the Normandy format talks scheduled on February 11. 

(To be continued)