Debates: Russia Direct interviewed prominent experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich International Security Conference.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the 2017 Munich Security Conference. Photo: MSC 

The 53rd Munich International Security Conference, which took place on Feb. 17-19, assumed special significance this year amidst growing instability in the world. With increasing tensions in Eastern Ukraine, Russia’s attempts to reclaim its regional influence, the aftermath of Brexit, Donald Trump’s uncertain foreign policy moves and ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, participants in Munich were facing a multitude of global challenges.

“Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?” read the title of the Munich Security Report. The authors of this report describe the current situation as “a geopolitical recession,” implying that the Western-centric world order might come to an end unless immediate measures are undertaken. 

Despite the attempts of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to persuade the participants of the conference that Washington is not going to backtrack and withdraw from its commitments to NATO and the EU, his European counterparts met his speech with skepticism, in part because of their distrust of Trump and the whimsical nature of his policy.

“Humanity is at a crossroads,” Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during the conference, as quoted by Kommersant. “An entire historical era – the post-Cold War order – has come to an end. Its key result became the failure of adjusting Cold War institutions to the new reality. The world became neither Western-centric nor safer and more stable.”

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Lavrov described the new world order as “post-West,” which means the concept of realpolitik that prioritizes national interests will replace the liberal system of international relations. However, according to the participants of the Munich conference and key stakeholders, “this is just the wishful thinking of Moscow,” Kommersant reported. According to Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media outlet, most of the participants discussed Russia in the context of geopolitical threats for the West and the liberal world order. The West made it clear that it sees the Kremlin as a troublemaker.

Keeping this in mind, Russia Direct interviewed experts to figure out how they assess the results of the 2017 Munich conference.

Andrei Kortunov, the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC):

The Munich Security Conference reflected the overall mood of uncertainty and even confusion that is more than common in the West today. The U.S. delegation from both the executive and the legislative branch of the government tried hard to convince everybody that America under President Trump would continue to carry its burden of the responsible global leadership provided that American partners are committed to a fair burden-sharing. U.S.-European allies welcomed this rhetoric, but appeared to remain concerned.

The future of the European Union after Brexit was another elephant in the room; the modalities of Brexit procedure itself was a subject of intense debates between proponents of a “hard Brexit” and supporters of softer approaches to the defecting United Kingdom. The new balance of powers in Syria as well as potential implications of the U.S. — Iranian confrontation added some spice to the Conference deliberations.

The Ukraine-related discussion did not generate any innovative ideas. Neither had it demonstrated any visible progress on the ground. Russia reconfirmed its previous positions on major international matters clearly indicating that it is in no mood for any concessions or innovative proposals at this stage.

The big question looming on the horizon was about whether the world had already entered a post-West stage or it would be still premature to make a final judgment on this question. 

James Carden, contributing editor to The Nation and former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department

The Munich Security Conference, not for the first time, nor for the last, showed itself both incapable and unwilling to seriously address the underlying problems that have bedeviled European security for the past two decades. It functions more as a showcase for aspiring politicians in search of national security credentials and, perhaps worse, for politicos seeking continuing relevance in their home countries.

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No better example of the latter can possibly be found than U.S. Senator John McCain, who came equipped to deal with the seemingly intractable challenges of intra-European security with threats and bluster – and little else.

Like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), everyone else was playing to type: the Americans (McCain, Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis) pledged eternal fidelity to NATO, the Europeans meekly followed along, while it was left to Russia, in the person of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to argue for a new global security order, an argument that no doubt fell on deaf ears.

On a more positive note, Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany pledged to renew their efforts in implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreement, but no one should be deluded by the prospects for success, particularly in light of Kiev's refusal to hold a vote on decentralization for the breakaway regions and President Putin's move toward de facto recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics through his decision to recognize rebel-issued civil registration documents.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at Center on the United States and Europe

In their meetings and public remarks at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis sought to reassure America's European allies about the continued U.S. commitment to NATO in face of its current security challenges — a more aggressive Russia in particular.  They also made the point, however, that allies need to devote more resources to the Alliance and their own defense.

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The vice president and secretary of defense provided a degree of reassurance to allies uneasy about the Trump administration's foreign policy, but some nervousness undoubtedly remains.  Allied officials — as do many in Washington — wonder how closely Pence and Mattis match the views of President Trump. He has raised questions about NATO and its relevance, even during his Feb. 18 rally in Florida.

So the Munich Security Conference helped, but it was probably not enough. Allies will continue to watch Washington and the specifics of the Trump administration's European security policy as they emerge for clues as to whether that policy reflects the thinking of Pence and Mattis, or the campaign utterances of the president.

Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and an Associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University

Few international gatherings offer the potential of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has emerged as the premier international forum for international security decision-makers. Moreover, what happens on the sidelines at times may possibly be even more important than deliberations at the MSC itself. In 2011, for instance, it was during a ceremony on the sidelines that American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchanged the instruments that were necessary for ratifying the New START Treaty.

This month’s MSC again offered great scope, with discussion and exchanges both within the conference and on the sidelines. From the future of NATO to the prospects for the European Union, key policy-makers had an opportunity to express their hopes and fears that also provided a context for better understanding relations with Russia. Shared concerns by many Western leaders focused on the dispute in Ukraine.

Following a meeting of the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, Lavrov offered new hope when he announced a ceasefire to start on Feb. 20 which would also involve implementing key elements of the Minsk agreement, including the withdrawal of heavy arms. Perhaps the ceasefire signals the beginning of a major positive change in Russia-West relations, yet it is premature to suggest that a grand bargain is in the making.

Still, as the fighting in Eastern Ukraine has resulted in a great loss of lives, a ceasefire is certainly welcome, even if it may be merely a “band-aid”. Of course, a “band-aid” may allow for healing, but unfortunately at times, the wound underneath dangerously festers. The mixed signals from Russia have made it difficult to discern which might be more likely.

On the one hand, a successful ceasefire could create the right preconditions to change relations between Russia and the West, and lead to a resolution of the problem in Ukraine. The cacophony emanating from the Trump administration currently leaves it unclear which way that administration will move, but the possible absence of a set American policy may well afford Russia an opportunity to reset relations through meaningful reassurance.

On the other hand, President Putin’s decision on the same day to sign an executive order that temporarily recognizes travel identity documents issued by separatists in the Donbas, indirectly recognizes the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. As OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier noted this will not only hurt chances of a the ceasefire taking hold, but raises questions about the long-term intent of the Kremlin. There seems to be a rather small window where true reassurance can change attitudes on both sides.

It will behoove everyone then to reduce contradictions and to appreciate how vital confidence-building measures are to resolving the conflict in Ukraine and rebuilding Russia-West relations.