Russia Direct recently spoke with New York University Professor Mark Galeotti to discuss the results of the Munich Security Conference. In addition, Galeotti gives his take on the meaning of the recent “hot line” conversation between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks at the 2016 Munich Security Conference. Photo: RIA Novosti

The annual Munich Security Conference has traditionally been a venue for Russia and the West to discuss pressing security matters on the geopolitical agenda, and this year’s event promised to be no different. Syria, Ukraine and the growing risk of destabilization in the Middle East all were topics of discussion this year in Munich, but what was really accomplished?

For a very different take, read a Q&A with Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council.

To answer that question, Russia Direct recently spoke with New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security issues, to get his take on the 2016 Munich Security Conference. In the Q&A below, Galeotti also shares his thoughts on the recent “hot line” telephone conversation between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin – a conversation that coincided with the ending of the conference in Munich.

Russia Direct: What do you think about the 2016 Munich conference? To what extent was its agenda relevant?

Mark Galeotti: This conference, as much as anything else, always provides excuses to get the key people together for talking. In that respect, it is always useful. However, generally speaking, it was rather a disappointment. But, frankly, it was inevitably going to be a disappointment. First of all, because of the kinds of challenges that recently emerged between Russia and the West – they are not the kinds of challenges that one conference can deal with.

Secondly, the key decision-makers – Putin and Obama – were not at the negotiation table and didn’t attend the conference. Thirdly, the whole Syrian crisis adds one extra layer of complexity to their relationship and it is very much at the fore at the moment. It is very hard to see what can be done more than getting a few tactical agreements.

New York University Professor Mark Galeotti. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: In your view, what are the most important issues or security challenges that were discussed at the conference? Are there any substantial results of the discussion?

M.G.: Well, the discussions were conducted on three levels. One was the very practical issue of Syria and some progress has been made about arranging a temporary ceasefire. However, it was very quickly brought into question by Russia’s bombing operation, and because of – let’s be honest – Turkey’s activity and Saudi Arabia’s movement of new planes into the conflict. The trouble is that they are all very willing to talk about peace, but, at the same time, there are so many protagonists keen on inflating the war.  But, nevertheless, there was a slight progress on Syria [the Munich agreements]. It is a small step on a long, long road.

The second level was obviously Ukraine. I think what we can say is that there was no meaningful progress on Ukraine. And the third level, the most far-ranging one, is of course, about the general relationship between Russia and the West. And in some respect, I find very interesting the current disagreement over the exact wording of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, when he was reportedly describing Russia-West relations as potentially heading towards a new World War; but in fact, he talked of the risk of new war in the world.

This emphasizes the absolute lack of meaningful dialogue at the moment between Russia and the West, the fact that neither side is really listening to and understanding each other. For me, it is a fundamental issue. It is all very well to reach very technical and temporary agreement on Syria, but no progress was made on this fundamental point.

RD: Yet, there is the perception in Russia that Medvedev is perceived in the West more favorably than other Russians politicians. So, he might succeed in, at least, alleviating the mistrust between Russia and the West. Is it really the case?

M.G.: Not really. The point is that no matter how much people in the West might regard Medvedev as a nicer guy than Putin, they also have no illusions about his actual power within this system. The fact that Medvedev went to Munich was a signal that the Kremlin didn’t expect much of Munich.

RD: In general, what do you think about Russia’s performance at the 2016 Munich conference? Did you see any differences in how Russia presented itself and was perceived in Munich this year, in comparison with the previous year?

M.G.: What I find interesting is the rough ride that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov got this year. I think, in many ways, this reflects the fact that, over the last two years, Lavrov has been put increasingly in too unfavorable a position. He’s expected to articulate a series of points of views that are very, very hard to sell, making it very difficult for him to maneuver. Lavrov’s stature within the diplomatic community, which once was very, very high indeed, has suffered dramatically.

And some don’t mind showing that: he got a very discouraging reception. I think what this really says is precisely that Russia is very much isolated in term of its relations with the West; even in those countries that have some qualms about European or, generally speaking, Western policy [toward Russia]. There is very little sympathy for Moscow these days and it was clearly visible.

RD: Do you see anything new in the positions and approaches of the U.S. and European powers toward Russia and the current security challenges in comparison with the previous conferences?

M.G.: It is very difficult to say, because each Munich conference takes place in a very different context of the time. But, generally speaking, to me, it was one of the most disappointing Munich conferences. It is hard to see how, in the current context, it could have had any particularly better outcome. But, nevertheless, I felt everyone was saying what they’ve been saying for weeks and months. It seemed to me more as if the people at Munich preferred going through the motions to negotiations. The problem is we have been hearing the same talking points; everyone talked about peace but no one really listened to anyone else. It seems to me that there was very, very little engagement between any of the sides.

RD: On the final day of this year’s Munich conference, U.S. President Barack Obama called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the current challenges. So, how do you see this move?

M.G.: Yes, it is a good sign. But at the same time, it is symbolic of the way the Munich conference wasn’t really a meaningful event, the very fact that two principals who didn’t attend, actually had a phone conversation to try to arrange something more significant. Particularly, as Turkey becomes more and more aggressive and, particularly, actually challenges the United States by attacking the U.S.-supported Kurds. This creates an opportunity for some kind of a limited agreement between Obama and Putin. And it is striking to me, that although it didn’t emerge at Munich, it is beginning to emerge as a result of maintaining bilateral contacts through the Obama-Putin phone call.    

RD: Regarding the Turkey-Russia-U.S. triangle, Washington seems to prefer to work with Russia to deal with the Middle East conundrum. Do you agree? 

M.G.: No, it is not the case at all. Turkey is still NATO’s ally. Russia is, frankly, an antagonist. The United States finds itself with no good options over Syria. It is certainly not willing to more than halfheartedly back Turkey and, therefore, it wants to keep a sort of understanding with Russia.    

RD: How do you assess the odds of military confrontation between Russia and Turkey?

M.G.: The situation is certainly very worrying, but the point is that we must realize that there are two separate issues. There are the prospects of a conflict between Russia and Turkey and the prospect that this could lead to a wider conflict between Russia and NATO. Now Turkey can rely on Article 5 to bring in NATO if Russia is actually the aggressor. All I can say is that I hope that Moscow is aware about this distinction.

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

If, for example, there are indirect clashes in Syria between the two [Moscow and Ankara], which is not at all impossible (for example, clashes between Turkish intelligence and its Russian counterparts), that is not something that would bring in NATO. Although there is a genuine threat of a kind of military interaction, I do not think there will be the direct military confrontation, with Russian forces on Turkish soil or vice versa.

RD: Given that there is a lack of communication between Russian and Western leaders and officials, much less than was the case two or three years ago, as some argue, can we see the Obama-Putin phone talk as an attempt to revive this tradition to conduct “hot line” talks more frequently?

M.G.: In fact, a lot of these kinds of contacts, frankly, were substitutes for meaningful interaction rather than sources for it. If Russia and the United States want to talk, they can rely on ambassadors. In regards to Russia, [establishing frequent contacts] is as much as anything else about reducing the isolation in which it finds itself. It is a pretext, when it says it wants to reestablish more frequent contacts on an official level. But the point is, it is not that people don’t get to meet each other enough, it is that they don’t have enough points on which to agree when they do. 

RD: What are the most important security challenges for Russia and the world now?

M.G.: I think it is [existential] disaster, if a wider and unpredictable conflict emerges. That’s the highest risk. For example, think about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and global terrorism — they are serious, but they are not existential threats. They are pervasive, multiple and low-level threats. But the single greatest security threat to Russia and the West is climate change, with all its demographic and economic implications. Right now, almost no one thinks about that, because they are preoccupied with more obvious, current kinetic security threats.