MUNICH — In the best of times, the annual Munich Security Conference serves as an altar upon which the trans-Atlantic alliance can reaffirm its vows. When the chips are down, as they were this year, Munich exposes the deep fragility of Euro-Atlantic unity.
The tone of European leaders assembled at the conference was as ominous as the threats described were diverse. The European Union is overwhelmed by migrants from Syria, transnational terrorism, and the threat of Russia on the eastern flank.
"There is a great deal at stake. The forces pulling us apart in Europe are so enormous," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during a panel session at the conference.
Despite a valiant effort by US Secretary of State John Kerry to encourage his Western colleagues, session after session of Munich panels saw top European leaders lament the state of affairs, while focusing primarily on their immediate security priorities.
"This moment is not as overwhelming as people think it is," Kerry said, referring to a slew of threats ranging from the migrant crisis, deterring Russia, dealing with ISIS and ending the war in Syria. "We know what needs to be done and, most importantly, we have the power to do it."
Part of Kerry’s problem was the distinct impression that Europe is no longer certain the US will act as the ultimate guarantor of continental security. Meanwhile, Russia is seizing upon almost every opportunity to pursue its own objectives.
These objectives have been described as seeking sanctions relief, asserting itself as a great power and dividing the European Union — three formulations that are inexorably linked.
Many interpreted the Munich security conference as signaling a new Cold War. Whether that is true or not, the battle of wills between Moscow and the West appears to be heating up.
The Threat List
Russian foreign policy is opportunistic and the Kremlin has long resented power blocs to which it does not belong — be they political, economic or military alliances. And Moscow is now an obstacle to every major European challenge.
The lack of a unified vision for Europe’s priority was made clear during the conference’s so-called presidents’ debate. The panel featured the presidents of Poland, Finland, Lithuania and non-EU member Ukraine.
It kicked off with EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, who unintentionally framed the remaining debate appropriately by naming the rise of transnational skeptics to national governments across the EU as the greatest security threat to Europe. What followed was a laundry list of national security concerns presented by Europe’s eastern neighbors.
Polish President Adrzej Duda, for example, respondent to Schultz’s concerns by asserting Poland’s main priority now is to deter Russia by strengthening NATO’s presence in the region with "more bases, and especially infrastructure of NATO in our part of Europe."
Predictably, Duda’s priorities were echoed by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who called for reforms to be discussed at the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, scheduled to take place this summer.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto argued that Europe should look at the bigger picture and work to find the "most basic common denominator" with which to engage Russia constructively, a point that stood in obvious contrast to the rest of the panel — especially Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who, in an impassioned oratory reminded Europe he was fighting a war against their common antagonist, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The list of competing security concerns continued beyond the presidential panel.
France, in the wake of the Paris attacks, was busy trying to rally the international community to deepen its commitment to fighting ISIS and radical extremists of all stripes everywhere.
Germany, as well as a number of other western, central and northern EU members, cited the migrant crisis as the primary existential threat to the EU, and argued that ending the war in Syria should be the continent’s main priority.
The common thread was Russia. Niinisto perhaps said it best: "Russia is there — from Syria to the Arctic. Always."
The Russian Connection
Backed into a corner by sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Moscow appeared to launch a full-court press while in Munich. During his speech, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev delivered a dire warning: You need us to fight terrorism and end the war in Syria, so lift the sanctions.
The initial reaction to Medvedev was negative, and his question-and-answer session was dominated by hard questions pertaining to Russia’s role in the MH17 disaster over eastern Ukraine, and its alleged indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in northern Syria.
The question is whether nations like Germany will tolerate the migrant crisis or terrorist spillover from the Syrian conflict if things get worse. With reforms in Ukraine faltering, along with the European Union's patience with Kiev, can Moscow pressure the West into accepting its terms?
Moscow has the mechanisms to do so, if calls for Western unity go unheeded. The Kremlin has inserted itself as an obstacle or would-be partner in nearly every challenge cited by European nations.
In this way, Russia appears to have chosen to directly challenge the Western diplomatic policy of "compartmentalization," the almost sacred separation of Ukraine and Syria with regards to engaging Moscow that has driven diplomatic jargon in recent months.
If Europe’s main priority is to end the migrant crisis, the war in Syria must be drawn to a close. In Syria, Russia holds all the cards. Though a cease-fire is soon to be implemented, Russia continues to allegedly bomb civilians and opposition fighters.
Worsening the tensions between Europe and Russia over Syria is the recurring antagonism between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin. Both have a penchant for bravado and escalation, and tensions could flare as Russia gets closer to its objectives in Syria.
Russia’s moves may indicate that Moscow is attempting to exacerbate the refugee crisis, defeat the Syria opposition, and only then present the West with a deal to combat ISIS together with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Putin’s terms.
Meanwhile, Russia is arguing that it should be let off the hook for Ukraine. Medvedev asserted that sanctions poison relations and prevent both sides from taking on the real civilizational threat together: violent extremism in the Middle East.
Two years after the events in Kiev that eventually led to Russia’s annexation of Crime and its alleged involvement in the civil war in Donbas, the new government’s reform efforts are foundering, and it's not clear Poroshenko can keep the situation under control.
The risk for the West to give up on Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s cooperation in Syria, or even just the promise of cooperation, should be taken seriously. Poroshenko certainly did during his panel session, where he devoted a significant amount of time to defending reforms.
Munich sent a clear message: 2016 will test the strength of the political, economic and cultural ties that have bound the trans-Atlantic community since 1945. And Russia may have the momentum. It certainly has the clearer goals.