When it comes to Russia, it’s Munich all over again – again

February 19, 2016
Civil defense members try to put out a fire after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam

Civil defense members try to put out a fire after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam

The run-up to the annual Munich Security Conference, when world leaders descend on the Bavarian capital, seemed like the perfect opportunity to put a halt to Syria’s bleeding. But skeptics rubbished Secretary of State John Kerry’s ceasefire deal from the beginning, and now even President Barack Obama is casting doubt on it.

It appears as if the world is right back where it was a year ago, when the West was in a similar position, trapped between its fear of a greater war and inability to confront a ruthless adversary. Last February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a lasting ceasefire in Ukraine.

At the time, Putin insisted on a three-day buffer to give his proxies in Ukraine a chance to overrun the transport hub of Debaltseve; this year Russia demanded a one-week deadline to give its Syrian allies the upper hand in their assault on Aleppo. A year ago, the Kremlin flatly denied evidence that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; this year it refutes multiple reports of civilian casualties during Russian air strikes in Syria. Western leaders continue to murmur the mantra that “there is no military solution,” while Putin creates new facts on the ground through brute force.

“You can’t simultaneously negotiate and kill people,” Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said during the Munich conference. Moral imperative meets Russian realpolitik.

If last year’s conference was overshadowed by the danger of Ukraine exploding into a European conflagration, the meeting over the weekend seemed even more fraught. Syria, the nexus of Islamic State, a refugee crisis, and criss-crossing regional interests, was on everybody’s mind.

When Russia entered the war to prop up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in September, Putin insinuated himself into the middle of the conflict, dictating terms to the rest of the world.

Thirty heads of state and dozens of foreign and defense ministers packed into the five-star Hotel Bayerischer Hof. The overriding mood was fatalistic, whether expressed by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or U.S. Senator John McCain. Few shared the blithe optimism of Kerry, who did his best to sell the truce he had negotiated for Syria.

On Saturday, Kerry promised European allies — bitterly divided over a common refugee policy — that they would “emerge stronger than ever.” Ukraine’s future is “far brighter” than a few years ago, he said. And there was “no doubt” in the secretary of state’s mind that Islamic State would be defeated. Kerry’s buoyancy appeared to be based on the truism that everything is relative. Fewer people are dying in wars than ever before, he said. Child mortality is down and life expectancy up around the world. Compared to the Battle of Verdun 100 years ago, things aren’t that bad, Kerry seemed to say.

Putin declined an invitation to speak at the conference this year and sent Medvedev as his emissary. In a speech in Munich nine years ago, Putin attacked the United States for pursuing a “unilateral world” with “one master.” Medvedev picked up on this theme, speaking of a “new Cold War” and the rise of a “global caliphate” if the West and Russia don’t put aside their differences and join forces.

After the end of the Cold War, Europeans became accustomed to gathering in Munich each year to talk about other people’s problems. Now they are learning that fences and seas can’t keep out the rest of the world, as demonstrated by the refugee crisis and the November terrorist attacks on Paris.

Especially in Germany, there is widespread denial about what is happening. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier willfully ignores that diplomacy works only when all sides want a solution — and not when one party uses negotiations as a stalling technique to gain advantage. After Medvedev said the world had slid into a new Cold War, Steinmeier reinterpreted the remark, saying the Russian prime minister had merely meant it was a danger, not a reality.

Eastern Europeans have fewer illusions. “The Cold War was awful and nasty,” Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said. He thinks it’s worse. “This is not a cold war. Russian troops and their proxies are killing Ukrainians every day.” While talk of nuclear deterrence is in vogue once again, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has less lethal ways of defending itself, for example cutting off Russia from international banking, Ilves said.

Even as the United States plans to quadruple military spending in Europe next year, the move is a delayed reaction to Putin’s aggressive new agenda. At the Munich conference, longtime observers noted a diminished U.S. presence compared to past years. “There’s not enough of the transatlantic,” complained Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the German parliament from Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “The Americans aren’t so present in the discussions. It’s a sign.”

Besides Kerry, McCain was the most visible American in Munich, though he criticized Obama’s foreign policy almost as much as Putin’s. In the absence of strong U.S. or European leadership, the Russian president is in the driver’s seat and loving it.


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They may be aggressive, but they haven’t made any progress. They’re still stuck in eastern Ukraine and haven’t opened a land bridge to the Crimea. They’ve spent all the money for the deployment in Syria and Assad hasn’t regained anything of importance. Meanwhile sanctions and low oil prices have wrecked their economy. Putin is getting closer everyday to the “surprise” withdrawal that is clearly on the horizon because they simply can’t afford the luxury of projecting power. That’s why Secretary Kerry is so rosy.

Posted by 38far | Report as abusive

The U.S. CIA funds a bunch of terrorists who take over Ukraine and then can barely hold their own government together all so VP Biden’s drug addict son can take over the largest natural resources company in Ukraine and become a billionaire oligarch. Then the western politicians whine about Russian intervention because Putin decided to protect ethnic Russians from the west’s hegemony. Now they have an even worse problem in Syria because Turkey, the leading supporter of ISIS, is a member of NATO and may very well attack Russia creating grounds for retaliation which could very well turn into WWIII.

Posted by lsmft52d | Report as abusive

the same concerns apply to china

Posted by EdMartin | Report as abusive

Whatever perceived good Obama has done domestically and I couldn’t really comment as I live in the UK, he’ll be remembered mostly overseas for his shambolic foreign policy.

Posted by TheTruth01 | Report as abusive

This article can be described as hypocrisy double standards from a writer who seems to be the only one obsessed with Russia and Putin

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

However flawed Trump, Cruz, Rubio and Clinton may be, any one is likely to be better than Obama in this regard.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

One-sided info saurces lead the author to biased conclusions. Intentionally or not – depends on the vieu-point.

Posted by Mu_Kha | Report as abusive

So many journalists and commentators seem blind to the fact that Russia’s 12,500 mile land border is a massive headache for whoever leads its government. The fact that NATO (USA) has seen fit to encircle Russia with missile stations, troops and heavy weapons has hardly had a calming influence on Putin’s blood pressure. I ask all these Putin critics “what would you want the leader of your national government to do if a proven aggressive military pact was posturing ever closer to your country?”

Posted by baglanboy | Report as abusive

Haven’t we done enough damage to middle east and now started screwing with EU?

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Why do you think this sudden love for Cuba if not for our paranoid NATO’s fear for Russia/China’s reciprocating to stage forces closer to our home?

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

@ Mottjr: If what you write about the US’s rapprochement with Cuba is true, then +1 for NATO and -1 for Putin’s Russia/the PRC.

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

@ lsmft52d: Don’t be mad just because the people of Ukraine (which, hysterically enough, included Putin’s former puppet Yanukovych) decided to stop being a vassal state of Putin’s Russia and join the community of civilized nations.

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

@baglanboy: People like you seem blind to the fact that the European migration crisis is a massive headache for the vast majority of NATO’s member states. The fact that Putin’s Russia has seen fit to threaten NATO with troops exercises and military buildup near the borders of many of its member states has hardly had a calming influence on the blood pressure of the vast majority of people who live in those countries. I ask you as a dutiful stenographer of the Putinist regime: What would you want the leader of your national government to do if a proven aggressive militaristic country was posturing ever closer to your countries ?

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

The one thing that should have been learned by now about “cease fires” is that they are meaningless if both sides use them to resupply and reorganize for another round of killing. It seems that Putin is determined to cause so much pain and suffering that the regime opponents will give up ans sue for peace with amnesty. The current status quo is fierce fighting and then a cease fire for “humanitarian intervention” followed by another round of killing repeated ad nausium.

Posted by elcantwell | Report as abusive

Each member of the UN Permanent Security Council plus Germany should immediately carve up Syria into 6 pieces, and occupy and maintain their respective zones. Seize and destroy all Syrian weapons. Take silverware and issue out plastic. Get these zones safe so that the good Syrian people can be returned from all over the world to their homeland by the end of this year! Maybe we can best show our love by taking these immediate steps to save the good people still remaining. All migrants, all refugees, returned. Even those from other countries could help rebuild, and together, by common bonds, could work for an everlasting peace. Money well spend, and other countries could invest in this.

Posted by BillUSA | Report as abusive

“But skeptics ‘rubbished’ Secretary of State John Kerry’s ceasefire deal from the beginning…” How can you possibly come up with “rubbished”? It isn’t even a real word! Your making stuff up now?!

Posted by Botvinnik | Report as abusive