This year’s 50th anniversary of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) – which was founded 1963 by former resistance fighter and security expert Dr. Ewald von Kleist, who died last year- was showing a strategic community which in respect to some key crisis spots had no clear answers. This became particularly evident in a split reaction concerning the crisis in the Ukraine.
A key subject of the Munich Security conference was the question which role Germany is going to play in the future in world affairs. For the first time ever a German President, Joachim Gauck,gave the introductory key note at this year’s conference. The President defined Germany’s future role as a commitment not to stand-by in the future but to take “more responsibility” for the world. Gauck’s speech was interpreted by many commentators as a major “turn” of Germany away from just standing-by and avoiding conflicts but to become more concretely involved in the future.
Yet this new line of taking more responsibility could become a “geopolitical trap” in respect to the Ukraine. Clearly the present German government has no strategic interest to escalate the Ukraine conflict or let it derail in a violent mess. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the MSC conference, the German government wants to look for a “peaceful solution” together with Russia – which itself has a lot of strategic interests at stake in the Ukraine. Germany has no interest to create a debacle with Russia. This however seems to stand in contrast to the strategic interest of the US—as evidenced by the speeches given by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Minister Chuck Hagel as well as by those Americans ( like Senator McCain who in the last weeks have visited Kiev, making clear to the demonstrators that they will do everything to help the opposition (in spiritual and material terms) and that the Ukraine belongs to Europe.
The Specter of World War I
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier pointed to the dilemma which Germany, who has a traditional interest to engage in a constructive cooperation with Russia, is facing. He referenced a recently published book about the First World War (1914-1918) “Sleep walkers” written by the British historian Christopher Clark. According to Steinmeier the book should be studied by politicians and diplomats today and understood as a “warning”. Within months and weeks, as developments in the pre-world war I period documented, Europe drifted into a world war, which nobody in Europe really wanted. A war which was triggered by a series of events and the total inability and stupidity of the ruling elite to act “rationally” .Today Europe is surrounded with a lot of violent conflicts in East Asia – particularly the growing tension between Japan and China (a subject which also Dr. Kissinger commented comparing it to the situation in Europe before world war I), the Middle East confronted with erosion and the arc of crisis extending from the Sahel zone, Persian gulf to the Gulf of Guinea.
In the panel on “Global Power and regional stability” the German Foreign Minister outlined in 7 theses where he sees the future role of Germany: he demanded a stronger stance on foreign policy issues and military conflict areas, in particular in respect to fragile states like in Africa. At the same time he stressed, that military deployment can only be “ultima ratio”. In respect to the Ukrainian situation he urged that there shouldn’t be a violent solution and urged that together with Russia a compromise must be found. This cooperation with Russia is also the only way to find solutions for Syria and Iran, as Steinmeier emphasized.
The Russian point of view
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov referred to some aspects outlined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, including the World War I analogy as well as his appeal to solve the situation in Ukraine in cooperation with Russia. He stated that there was once the dream of a “unified Europe” which Russia shared together with the rest of Europe after the Berlin wall had come down 25 years ago. He reminded the OSCE summit in Astana (December 2010) where Russia and EU had signed a document expressing their commitment to engage in a “Euro- Atlantic –Eurasian partnership”. But this all has been waning. Since the November Vilnius summit on Eastern European Partnership (2013) and Ukraine’s refusal to sign an association treaty with EU, new tensions between Russia and EU have emerged. The Foreign Minister upset the audience by asking: “What has the provoking of unrest to do with demonstrations? Why has there been no condemnation of Nazi and racist slogans used by many demonstrators who occupy government buildings? Why does the EU tolerate such acts?”
According to Lavrov “Europe is no more the intersection point of an East- West conflict, it can become a center of power if it cooperates with Russia.” He referred to the recent EU/ Russia summit in Brussels where Russian President Putin had outlined the need for Russia and EU to cooperate on the “Eurasian Union.” “The Eurasian integration is one space from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There should be cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Union.” In respect to the Ukraine crisis, Lavrov responded to Steinmeier’s thesis, namely that a peaceful solution brought about by both Russia and the EU is needed for the Ukraine, and not an intervention. He recalled the final act of the Helsinki Charta (Conference on European Security and Cooperation 1975) signed at the time by East- and Western European states, in which they declared that there should be no meddling into the internal affairs of other states, like the Ukraine.
Ukraine: Compromise necessary, says Brzezinski
Most of the media attention surrounding the Munich security conference was focused on the subject of the Ukraine. In this respect it is worth mentioning a panel on the Ukraine which featured as speakers the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara, Opposition leader Vitali Klychko, as well as Minister President of Georgia Irakli Garibashvili and Romanian President Traian Băsescu, Leon Slutsky, a leading member from the Russian Duma responsible for Eurasian integration and as introductory speaker and former NSC advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. The US geo-politician in the 1990ies became famous for his book “Chess game” in which he had stated that whoever controls Eurasia in the future controls the world.
Brzezinski ironically was one of the few sober thinking strategists who underlined during the panel discussion that the Ukraine geographically lays at the crossroad between Europe and the US. Given its geographical position and taking into account the century’s old history of Ukraine which was shaped by three Empires including the Austro- Hungarian and Russian Empire, Brzezinski called for a “compromise”. He emphasized that the opposition movement must become more visible and define a clear political program, i.e. there must be “one” leader who has a true program which stands for all Ukrainians. There should be no split or division of the Ukraine, Brzezinski warned. The EU and Ukraine must more seriously negotiate but also with Russia. In light of the tremendous economic chaos in the Ukraine economy Brzezinski urged that the EU and Russia must find a formula how to cooperate in a healthy environment which takes into account both Russian and EU interests.
“If there is no quick result found economically it would be a catastrophe for Russia and Europe”, Brzezinski stressed.
The Ukrainian foreign minister Kozhara explained that Ukraine is a big country, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state. “There are 8 Million Russians living in the Ukraine. We have many different capitals, we have cultural links and this also goes for the relation with Russia. We were ready to sign an association treaty agreement with the EU in Vilnius (November 2013), but then the IMF made demands which became totally inacceptable since it would have bankrupted the Ukraine economy. In turn, as he outlined, Russia made an attractive offer with 15 billion Euros and a cheap gas price. The Foreign Minister called the Maidan phenomenon a “complex problem” and urged that “we must think strategically, but also the opposition must think strategically.”
Ukraine opposition leader Klychko, played up by the press as the great “charismatic leader” in Munich, in his speech reiterated his demands: the fight against corruption, the need for a new constitution as part of new elections and amnesty for prisoners who were arrested during the demonstrations. Different Munich observers, after having listened to Klychko, did however note that he is in a huge “dilemma”: on the one side he is raising too many maximal demands, including for example the immediate resignation of the President, on the other side the EU also has brought about the dilemma by having done nothing in the last two years.
An angry old man: Helmut Schmidt attacking unrestrained financial powers
There were many rumblings and a lot of unease concerning the strategic future of Europe. These were the most adequately expressed by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In the panel “50 years MSC” which featured senior politicians such as Henry Kissinger, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Egon Bahr commemorating the 50 years MSC, Schmidt spoke about future security challenges, locating them in the demographically exploding mega cities and the overcrowded slums which could become “a hotbed for turmoil, social disorder and a real security challenge.”
Schmidt stated that Europe in 2020 will only be 7% of the world population (down from 20% in 1959) and he warned that Europe should not be megalomaniac –but rather humble by not exaggerating its significance. What on the contrary makes Europe unique and unified, Schmidt stated, is Europe’s literature, its painting and music. In each European country the best poets are being translated for every other European country – i.e. accessible for all European citizens. While there is a true spiritual power, Schmidt on the other side sharply criticized the power of certain finance managers: “There is the power of 20 000 finance managers living in NY, Hong Kong or London. After the Lehman collapse we could see that millions of people were thrown into misery. Nobody talks about that”, the 95 year old Helmut Schmidt said angrily. “We have not been able to do anything in Europe in terms of controlling certain excessive finance powers, not even a common banking surveillance …If Europe was more modest and less calling for humanitarian intervention but would concentrate on these essential tasks, the future world would look better.”