Munich re-thinks the Russia threat


The growing threat of military confrontation on the European continent and the potential for the global escalation of hostilities became one of the key themes of this year’s Munich Security Conference.

U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry gestures during his speech at the Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 13. Photo: AP

For the second year in a row, the Munich Security Conference took place in a very alarming environment. A year ago, the participants were occupied by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, this year, by the Syrian civil war. And it's not just some faraway war being fought on TV: European citizens see these events as having a direct influence on their personal lives.

For that reason, the Malaysian Boeing shot down over Ukraine in 2014, the influx of millions of refugees to Europe, and, what is most depressing, the returned fear of possible military intervention on the continent, all have very tangible effects on the prevailing mood in Europe.

The threat of war in Europe has not been seriously thought about for many decades. The war in Yugoslavia was a nightmare, but a local nightmare, not expanding beyond the Balkans. Today, as the Munich discussions show, even the citizens of rather prosperous European countries have stopped feeling safe and it happened, in part, due to the foreign policy decisions made in 2014-2015 by the Kremlin.

Also read: "Russia and Turkey, on the slippery slope to direct confrontation"

One can discuss the absurdity of the idea of Russian intervention in Finland or the Baltic States, but it's absolutely clear that the fear of war is returning to Europe and again is becoming a strong factor that is influencing the character of international relations. What matters here is not even the real possibility of military conflict, but the entire fact that we are having a serious discussion of such scenarios.

The terms "war" and "peace" – terms that humanity has lived with for thousands of years in the last few decades have been replaced in the Western lexicon by more decorous euphemisms like "security" or "humanitarian intervention." A respectable European has learned to avoid the very thoughts of war, to consider it a primal archaic terror that has long departed from political practice and is urgent only for people who live in the backward, "developing" periphery.

No doubt, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had a lot to do with this "moral improvement." It was Gorbachev, after all, who announced the era of "new thinking" 30 years ago. Nowadays, also from a Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, Europe learns that Gorbachev’s "new thinking" was an illusion and an act of self-deception, and all of us will have to return from the warm and cozy security nest to the cruel world where the terms "victory" and "defeat" are common and where "truce" can look like a much more desirable prize than the abstract and unreachable "safety."

Missile and bomb strikes are, like half a century ago, again becoming not just a way to punish misbehaving dictators, but an instrument of foreign policy of great power states in their interaction with each other.

Speaking at the Munich conference, deputy of the German Bundestag Norbert Rottgen said that Russia has gained the upper hand in Syria, and managed to achieve that by use of armed force. That phrase was immediately broadcast by all Russian pro-government media as the West's nearly official recognition of the triumph of Russian weaponry. Few people in Russia paid attention to the rest of Rottgen's thoughts, that the West should learn its lesson and increase military expenses to parry the Russian threat.

Despite the huge stress that Europeans have experienced as a result of the events of recent years, there's no way they would admit the ruin of their worldview and agree to accept the image pushed by Moscow.

Also read the Q&A with New York University Professor Mark Galeotti: "Why the 2016 Munich Security Conference was a disappointment"

It seems that the Kremlin doesn't fully realize this, or at least it is wishful thinking, when through the head of the Russian delegation in Munich, Dmitry Medvedev, they first scare the Europeans, and then, forgetting about all the mutual reproofs, immediately suggest to normalize relations and fight world terrorism together.

However, it's obvious that even if the past level of collaboration with Russia will somehow be restored, Europe won't ever be able to return to the era when there was no fear of war and the growing threat of destruction of their lifestyle.

Putin's foreign policy strategy today looks, at first glance, relatively lean and convincing: first, to help the Syrian authorities win the civil war and second to deal with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Third, the triumphant stage includes the repentance of the West (or at least Europe) for their past sins and unjustified arrogance towards Russia, the beginning of a relationship constructed from scratch on equal terms, and maybe even a special status for Russia as the only truly effective military state.

But Kremlin strategists don't notice, or don't want to notice, some obvious things that many Munich speakers pointed out. The military victories in Syria that Moscow is gloating over don't increase, but rather, decrease Russia's chances to normalize relations with the West. Russia winning is even more terrible than Russia losing.

Aside from that, military fortune is changeable, and the victories of Assad and his allies can easily be followed by defeats if Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who have already announced their relevant plans, join the military action. Does Putin have a "Plan B" in case of a full military failure and the fall of Assad's regime?

Even if we allow for the unbelievable, and imagine that Russia, using its determination and readiness to use all its military hardware (something the U.S. and NATO lack so much), will be able to defend Syria and preserve a friendly regime there, and then deal a crushing blow to ISIS would the West see it as a great triumph?

The Turkish authorities have already called Russia "a terroristic state," and if the military action intensifies and, even more, nuclear weapons will be used – a massive toll among the peaceful population will be unavoidable, Russia will be viewed by the whole Western world as a looming existential threat, and the hypothetical Syrian-Iranian-Russian victory over ISIS will be of no necessity and importance.

Read the Q&A with Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council: "Munich Security Conference: Ukraine still top-of-mind for Russia"

If the events will keep developing in accordance with the murky forecasts, which were plentiful at the Munich Security Conference, the next meeting of the world elites in 2017 might use the slogan, "How we brought Europe to war one more time while talking about strengthening our security."

It is clear that only a miracle can stop the escalation of violence into which the world has fallen in recent years. Today it's no use to look for the guilty or waste time on arguments about whose decisions launched this horrible spiral. And it's absolutely useless to try and keep to some abstract "national interests" (as, by the way, was noted relevantly by Medvedev in his Munich speech).

Now it's necessary to understand who is able to improve the current and absolutely dead-end situation quickly and radically. Maybe the closest to answer that question was the British Minister of Foreign Affairs Phillip Hammond, who said in a recent interview that, "Putin could end the Syrian war with one phone call."

That phrase is a good reason to think once again about what will be victory, and what will be defeat for Russia in the Syrian conflict. Especially given that the easiest answer to that question is definitely not the most correct.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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