In retrospect it was the final major gathering of the West in the old era. In February 2022 the Munich Security Conference (MSC) – the leading annual meeting of transatlantic defence- and security-policy elites – convened just days before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, dressed in a suit and tie, spoke from the main stage as Russian troops massed on his country’s borders. This year he addressed the MSC via video link from his compound in Kyiv. He wore his now-customary battle fatigues and, having visibly aged more than the 12 months separating the two events, urged speedier support from the West.
The past year has tested the networks of ideas and power that coalesce in the Bavarian capital every February, and what they stand for: the US-Europe alliance, Nato, the liberal international order. The broad consensus among participants at the 2023 MSC was that this test had been passed.
“Kyiv is still standing, Russia is weakened, the transatlantic alliance is stronger than ever,” proclaimed the US vice-president Kamala Harris. In 2019 the French president Emmanuel Macron declared that Nato had suffered a “brain death”, but the alliance has proven its indispensability for European security. “I hope they are working on a statue of Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, now,” quipped Ben Hodges, the former commander of US armed forces in Europe, during a discussion with me and the NS international editor, Megan Gibson.
The main question, however, looming over the conference in the platform discussions, side events and conversations in the corridors of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel was: what next? Russia and Ukraine are both planning spring offensives. The West has moved to provide Kyiv with battle tanks. Yet many attendees at the MSC expected a drawn-out war, for the conflict to remain a long-term feature of the European security landscape.
Nato is preparing for what is billed as a “consequential summit” in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July. This is expected to define the future of the alliance, the establishment of a deepened military-industrial base for Europe and a return to Cold War-style plans for the defence of every inch of its territory.
A common theme of these exchanges in Munich – sometimes explicit, more often implicit – was that the West has to be more concrete about what it expects from the endgame in Ukraine, whenever that happens. Yet those same observations also demonstrated why this clarity remains a distant prospect: there is simply not a consensus on what the endgame should be.
Macron, for example, presented military backing for Kyiv as the basis for an ultimately negotiated settlement to the war: “It will force Russia to come back to the table on the conditions of Ukraine.” He also told French media that Putin’s forces should be defeated but not “crushed”. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz said the goal must be “a withdrawal of Russia’s occupying forces” but did not go as far as his new defence minister, the impressive Boris Pistorius, and utter the all-important phrase: “Ukraine must win this war.”
Starker assessments came from officials from Nato’s eastern flank states. At one discussion under Chatham House rules, a senior minister from an eastern European government argued: “The West has to set out definitions of peace also from its perspective. One point is that the aggressors should be punished. Another is that we cannot have grey [buffer] zones in Europe.” In her speech, Harris not only accused Russia of war crimes but also vowed that perpetrators and “their superiors” would be “held to account”. This would have been music to such ears.
[See also: This is how Putin loses the war]
I had gone to Munich expecting Ukraine to be the major topic, of course. A less-expected theme of this year’s MSC was the prominent focus on relations with the Global South. More participants from Latin America, Asia and Africa attended than ever before, a conscious decision by organisers that reflects growing concerns about where relations with such states are headed.
Over the past year a notable divide has opened up between Western democracies actively supportive of Ukraine and non-Western democracies that have remained ambivalent – a new “non-aligned” bloc comparable to that during the Cold War.
This was woven through the discussions on Ukraine. In his speech, Scholz cited India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.” Macron spoke of the need for a new focus on north-south relations. At a platform event on the rules-based international order – described by the MSC president Christoph Heusgen as “the most important of all the panels we are doing” – leaders from the Global South illustrated the gulf separating these worlds.
When asked about Ukraine, Brazil’s new foreign minister Mauro Vieira called for “an atmosphere that would lead us to some kind of understanding and a negotiation”. The prime minister of Namibia, Saara Kuugongelwa, reminded the audience that her country had been urged to embrace peace and reconciliations by governments that are now arming Ukraine. She said: “We decided to put civil war behind us and look forward to the future.” She was concerned that the war was distracting attention from global topics such as climate change and hunger.
In his concluding comments Heusgen pushed back, diplomatically but firmly: “I am very sorry to say that from a German perspective we have learned the lessons of history and we cannot sit on the fence.” The comment garnered applause – but only after a brief, pregnant silence in the hall.
This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon