News Analysis: Munich Security Conference -- What's In It For Moscow, Washington, and Europe?
Steve Gutterman February 16, 2017
When leading officials meet in the heart of Europe for a prominent annual piece of geopolitical theater, two key players will be offstage: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The U.S. and Russian presidents are staying away from the Munich Security Conference on February 17-19, sending subordinates to a gathering that will be watched for clues to how Russia-U.S. ties will unfold -- and what it will mean for the rest of the world.
The conference is taking place at a time when, according to its chairman, the global security environment may be "more volatile than at any point since World War II."
RFE/RL takes a looks at what Russia, the United States, and Europe may hope to get out of the event.
Ten Years After
Putin has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, but has attended the Munich Security Conference only once. In 2007, he used the meeting as a platform for a now-famous denunciation of the United States as a dangerous hegemon that was ignoring state borders, violating international law, and "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." It was high time, Putin said, to "seriously think about the architecture of global security."
A decade later, the Kremlin's repeated calls for a restructuring of world security have not produced the result Putin seemed to have in mind: a new system with Russia in a leading role on equal footing with Washington.
Instead, Putin has muscled Russia into a more powerful position by breaking the same rules he accused the United States of breaking -- first by sending troops into Georgia to fight a five-day war in 2008, then by seizing Crimea in 2014 and supporting separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 9,750 people in eastern Ukraine and persists two years after a cease-fire and peace deal was signed in Minsk.
Now, Putin may be looking to the advent of the Trump administration as a chance to cement what gains he has made, to roll back Western opposition to Moscow's actions in Ukraine, Syria, and further afield, and to make an assertive Russia the new normal.
In the decade since Putin's Munich address, "the main achievement is considered [by the Kremlin] to be that Russia has destroyed the U.S. monopoly on the use of force outside its traditional region and 'won the right to violate international law' -- like the United States," Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in an article published by the Russian news site Republic.ru on February 14.
Before Trump took office, the prospect of his victory seemed to hold almost boundless promise for Putin -- so much promise that, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, Russia conducted a campaign of hacking and propaganda aimed at undermining Trump's opponent and U.S. democracy in general while helping the Republican candidate.
During the campaign, Trump praised Putin several times, suggested he would consider lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama administration over Moscow's interference in Ukraine, and made clear he hoped to improve ties with Russia -- while giving no indication that he would press the Kremlin on human rights issues. Most important, perhaps, he declared after the election that the United States "will stop racing to topple foreign regimes" and focus on fighting terrorism -- almost exactly the approach Putin has long and bitterly claimed the United States has avoided taking.
Since Trump's inauguration on January 20, the messages on Russia have been much more mixed. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on February 3 that the United States "continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea," and that sanctions related to the seizure of the peninsula "will remain in place" until Russia returns it to Ukraine. On February 14, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump has "made it very clear" he expects Russia to "return Crimea" and reduce violence in eastern Ukraine. Trump himself, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that he hopes to get along with Putin but suggested that if he does not, he can live with that, too.
At the same time, the White House described a January 28 telephone call between Trump and Putin as "a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair." But no date has been set for a face-to-face meeting, and the signals from the White House may leave Putin to wonder which direction the relationship will take.
In Munich, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will represent Russia and Vice President Mike Pence will be the top U.S. official, the Kremlin will be looking for clearer signals from the United States.
In a possible sign of impatience, Putin reiterated his calls for counterterrorism cooperation with the United States at a February 16 meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB), saying in televised comments that "dialogue [with] the intelligence agencies of the United States and other members of NATO" is in the common interest. "It's absolutely clear that in the area of counterterrorism, all relevant governments and international groups should work together."
But Frolov suggested that Russia will have to struggle to come up with something to offer to make the close counterterrorism cooperation that both sides have talked up a reality.
"Moscow's real capabilities on the antiterror front may not live up to the excessive expectations of Trump and his advisers," he wrote.
The conference caps a week of European debuts for Trump's team, following Defense Secretary Jim Mattis's first meeting with NATO counterparts in Brussels on February 15-16 and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's attendance at a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn on February 16.
In Munich, U.S. officials will have to juggle the attention of the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine, among others.
Trump has triggered concern in Europe with his enthusiasm for Britain's departure from the EU, his depiction of NATO during the campaign as "obsolete," and some of his remarks about Russia.
Scrutiny of Trump's foreign policy intentions could be all the more intense following the forced resignation on February 13 of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amid controversy over conversations the ousted official held with Russia's ambassador to the United States in December.
U.S. officials may see the Munich meeting as a chance to focus on diplomacy and leave the controversy -- which has grown larger in the wake of a New York Times report stating that associates of Trump had contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the months ahead of the election -- behind in Washington.
But they are also likely to face pressure from Russia, which is eager to add some substance to the bilateral talk of better relations.
So far, European leaders seem more likely than the Kremlin to be reassured by the remarks from the U.S. side this week.
In Brussels on February 15, Mattis warned NATO that Washington might "moderate" its support if European allies do not increase their financial contributions to common defense. But talk of obsolescence was replaced by a reference to NATO as a "fundamental bedrock for the United States and for all the transatlantic community."
On February 16, Mattis said that the United States is "not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level" with Russia, which he said must "live by international law just like we expect all mature nations on this planet to do."
And Tillerson, after his meeting with Lavrov the same day, said: "As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate violence in Ukraine."
Tillerson is skipping the conference. But with Pence expected to meet Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Munich, the United States will also be dealing with Kyiv's desire for support as it struggles with the loss of control over Crimea and the continuing conflict with Russia-backed separatists who hold chunks of two eastern provinces.
Both Sides Now
At past editions of the Munich conference -- such as in 2007 and last year, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke of a new Cold War -- there has often been a sense of a divide: Russia on one side and the transatlantic community on the other.
This time, the vibe may be different: European governments are wondering about the intentions of both Putin and Trump.
In a letter to EU leaders ahead of a summit on February 3, European Council President Donald Tusk said the challenges facing the bloc were "more dangerous than ever before" and that statements from Trump's team constituted part of an external threat.
"Russia's aggressive policy towards Ukraine and its neighbors, wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and in Africa, with radical Islam playing a major role, as well as worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable," Tusk wrote.
"Particularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy," he added.
Tusk, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the leaders due to attend the conference.
European jitters about the future are reflected in the title of the annual Munich Security Report published before this year's conference: Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?
"The past twelve months have been a resounding rejection of the status quo," the report says, citing elections and referendums in which "political outsiders succeeded, while the establishment was dealt major blows."
Western societies are troubled from within by "the emergence of populist movements that oppose critical elements of the liberal-democratic status quo," it says. "From outside, Western societies are challenged by illiberal regimes trying to cast doubt on liberal democracy and weaken the international order. And Western states themselves seem both unwilling and unable to effectively tackle the biggest security crises -- with Syria as the prime example."
Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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