February 20, 2023
Two years ago, on February 19, 2021, at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, President Biden addressed the global community for the first time. He defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”
He told European leaders that the West must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China. He accused the Kremlin of attacks on Western democracies and said President Putin seeks to weaken the European project and the NATO Alliance because it is so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community.
After President Biden, Chancellor Merkel, and President Macron addressed the same audience.
Chancellor Merkel underscored the importance of multilateralism as the “foundation of our political activity”.
She reiterated Germany’s commitment to NATO as the central transatlantic pillar and to European defense policy which in her view supplement each other and belong together.
On Russia, she said, “It’s therefore crucial that we draw up a joint transatlantic agenda on Russia which, on the one hand, contains offers of cooperation and, on the other, clearly spells out the differences.”
She said devising a joint agenda on China is a more complex matter. Because China, on the one hand, is a systemic competitor, but on the other hand the West needs China to help resolve global problems. It is to be noted that after seven years of negotiations, the EU and China reached an investment deal at the end of 2020. And China is now the EU’s top trading partner.
Her concluding remarks were the following: “We have to work together to define the strategic challenges… That doesn’t mean that our interests will always converge – I have no illusions about that; we also have to speak frankly about our differences…”
It appeared that despite its stand on the Ukraine conflict, Germany was determined to continue with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was to bring gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
President Macron said that a Europe better able to defend itself, and more autonomous, would make NATO “even stronger than before”. He also urged that the renovation of NATO’S security abilities should involve “a dialogue with Russia.” The readout of President Macron’s February 25 call with President Xi Jinping mentioned the “strategic partnership between France and China.”
A Washington Post article reporting on the Munich Security Conference was titled, “Biden Tells Allies ‘America Is Back,’ but Macron and Merkel Push Back”.
Almost exactly a year later Russia invaded Ukraine.
Thus, the 59th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held between February 17-19, 2023, only days before the first anniversary of the invasion took place in a dramatically changed European landscape. The use of the adverb “first” may sound pessimistic, but so far there is precious little inspiring optimism.
This year at the Conference, Chancellor Scholz struck a different tone. [i] His speech was a major foreign and security policy statement. Here are a few takeaways:
“First of all, Putin’s revisionism will not prevail.
“We’re supplying cutting-edge weapons, ammunition and other military goods – more than any other country in continental Europe.
“In doing this, we have broken with decades-long principles of German policy. For example, the maxim that we don’t supply weapons in a war such as this.
“… the sooner President Putin realizes that he cannot achieve his imperialist objective, the greater the chance that the war will end soon with a withdrawal of Russia’s occupying forces.
“… this includes documenting and prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russians in Ukraine.
“At the same time, we’re making sure that war doesn’t break out between NATO and Russia.
“… we will continue to strike a balance between providing the best possible support for Ukraine and avoiding an unintended escalation.
“After all, the path we’ve embarked upon together runs through uncharted territory.
“For the first time in our history, a nuclear power is waging an imperialist war of aggression here on European soil.
“… in this key question, caution must take priority over hasty decisions, unity over solo actions.
“Germany is committed to living up to its responsibility for Europe’s security and that of NATO Allied territory – without any ifs or buts.
“… the European Union must pull together strategically when it comes to arms policy.
“Europe has to get out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”– this quote from the Indian Foreign Minister is included in this year’s Munich Security Report.
“He has a point.”
President Macron’s speech and comments in Munich were regarded as “mixed messages” by some, particularly for saying that neither Europe nor Russia had digested the end of the cold war properly, he wishes Russia to be defeated but not crushed.
He said today is not the time for dialogue because Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, has chosen war, has chosen to intensify the war, and has chosen to go as far as war crimes and attacks on civilian infrastructure. But he mentioned the possibility of peace talks after a Ukrainian offensive and when Kyiv believes that the moment is right.
As for the expectations of a leadership change in Moscow, President Macron said, “When I hear a lot of people advocating for regime change, I would just ask them for which change, who is next and how do you implement it? We have experienced in the past decades regime change many times and it has been a total failure.” He must have been referring to the regime change projects in the Middle East.
He also said that the West has been losing the global south and has not done enough to answer the charge of double standards.
And he called for the EU to come up with a joint defense investment program by the summer so that it could look after its interests.
Remarks by the two leaders made it amply clear that the West has to do a lot more to claim that there is “international unity” against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, beyond UN General Assembly Resolutions.
Remarks by Vice President Harris and Secretary Blinken contained no new messages except the latter saying that China is now considering providing “lethal support,” including weapons and ammunition, to Russia.
This Friday, it will be a year since the invasion. But many questions remain unanswered.
Perhaps looking at the Crimea example, President Putin made a big miscalculation and launched the invasion of Ukraine and the West has shown unprecedented solidarity. Thus, some have raised the possibility of a “Ukrainian victory” or “Russia’s defeat” although such terms are not clearly defined.
In his year-end interview with TASS news agency on December 27, 2022, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that victory over Russia “on the battlefield” is the strategic goal of the United States and its NATO allies; that they see it as a mechanism to “significantly degrade” or even destroy Russia; that NATO members have de facto become parties to the conflict.
Would Russia’s failure to achieve a regime change in Kyiv or its failure to capture Odesa and shut Ukraine off from the Black Sea be declared a victory at some point? Or would Russia have to be ejected from all the Ukrainian territory it occupied since February 24, 2022? Is that a realistic expectation? Are the US, the UK, Poland, and the Baltic states after a “significantly degraded” Russia to declare “victory”? If this is the case, at what point would Russia be regarded as “significantly degraded” or “sufficiently weakened”? Have NATO allies consulted in depth on their war objectives and arrived at specific conclusions? If not, when is that going to happen? Is the West following a policy of strategic ambiguity? Is Washington investing in a leadership change in Moscow? If that were the case, would President Putin’s successors be more willing to compromise?
There is no doubt that President Putin is counting on the weakening of Western resolve in supporting Ukraine. But doesn’t he worry about the long-term impact of Russia’s poor battlefield performance and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians on the global perception of Russia? What are his plans for the second year of the war? Is shutting off Ukraine from the Black Sea still a part of his plans?
Moreover, there is the question of arms supplies to Ukraine. Last Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated the following in an interview with CNBC News, “… some Western European politicians say that Russia cannot be- cannot win this war and Ukraine cannot be defeated. We have to change that paradigm and we have to say, Ukraine must win and Russia must be defeated… there were many things beyond our imagination at the beginning of the war, and then unimaginable became realizable. And so was with tanks, so was with the Patriot anti-aircraft, anti-missile- anti-rocket system. And I believe that also with fighter jets, eventually, there will be fighter jets from the West, delivered to Ukraine.” [ii]
Today, President Biden was in Kyiv to underline Washington’s firm support for Ukraine. His next stop is Warsaw.
This is how Fiona Hill and Angela Stent concluded their must-read article in Foreign Affairs:
“The events of the last year should also steer everyone away from making big predictions. Few people outside Ukraine, for example, expected the war or believed that Russia would perform so poorly in its invasion. No one knows exactly what 2023 has in store.
“That includes Putin. He appears to be in control for now, but the Kremlin could be in for a surprise. Events often unfold in a dramatic fashion. As the war in Ukraine has shown, many things don’t go according to plan.” [iii]