When It Comes to Russia, It’s Munich All Over Again – Again

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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