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Russia Under Pressure At Top Security Conference

  • Steve Gutterman

U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry (right) gestures beside of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich on February 12.

U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry (right) gestures beside of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a news conference after the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) meeting in Munich on February 12.

MUNICH -- Russia came under pressure at a prominent security conference on February 13, facing rebukes from Western leaders over its interference in Ukraine, its bombing campaign in Syria, and what the head of NATO denounced as dangerous "posturing" about its nuclear might.

In a combative response, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the West of pursuing the "containment" of Russia and said NATO is fomenting a new Cold War.

Standing in for President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev said the planet could face domination by an Islamic caliphate or be plunged into a third world war if the United States and Europe cannot cooperate more closely with Moscow.

The sometimes emotional exchanges came on the main day of the Munich Security Conference, where senior officials discussed what the chairman called a "bleak" security environment in a world beset by crises such as the war in Syria, a huge wave of refugees, and Russia's efforts to redraw national borders.

Sharing the stage with Medvedev, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that Russia must stop bombing civilians in Syria, where it launched a campaign of air strikes in September, to pave the way for negotiations and make peace a possibility after five years of war.

Valls said that France respects Russia and its interests, but that in Syria "we do need to have peace, we need to have negotiations -- and for that we need to stop bombing civilians."

Regional and global powers in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed in Munich on February 12 to push for a cessation of hostilities in Syria, to start in week. The plan does not include Islamic State (IS) militants and the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

Russia says those groups are its main targets, but Western governments say the majority of Russia's air strikes have targeted other opponents of the Syrian government, including Western-backed rebels. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the truce plan will not work if that doesn't change.

"To date, the vast majority of Russia's attacks have been against legitimate opposition groups," Kerry said in a speech in which he predicted that Syria's fate for the long term will be decided in the coming weeks. "To adhere to the agreement it made, we think it is critical that Russia's targeting change."

"If people who are ready to be part of a political process are being bombed, we are not going to have much of a conversation," he added.

Syria's Fate

Western officials fear that the aim of Moscow’s bombing campaign is to enable President Bashar al-Assad's government to defeat his opponents on the battlefield or, at the very least, ensure that a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria suits the Kremlin's interests.

Several Western and Middle East leaders have expressed concern that continued Russian bombing could scuttle the chances of progress toward a resolution of the five-year war in Syria. Assad added to concerns by saying he aimed to regain control of the entire country.

Speaking on a panel with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond also said the success of the cease-fire deal depends on whether Russia believes it has attained its goals or opts to keep pounding Assad's opponents.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the 2016 Munich Security Conference

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at the 2016 Munich Security Conference

Kerry suggested that Moscow has agreed to at least consider changing its targeting, saying that the entire ISSG -- "including Russia" -- had agreed to work on these issues. But Lavrov made no mention of that in his remarks at the conference, insisting that Russia is targeting IS and Al-Nusra.

He said it is the Syrian rebels and the West that will be to blame if the deal fails, saying it won’t work unless the United States agrees to far closer military coordination with Russia in Syria. He accused Washington of seeking to force Russia to stop bombing while continuing its own air strikes against IS.

Pressed to say how confident he is that a "cessation of hostilities" will be implemented within a week, on a scale of 1 to 100, Lavrov replied: "49." Hammond said Lavrov's remarks made the chances sound more like "somewhere close to zero."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also had harsh words for Russia at the conference, which opened in the German city on February 12.

Steinmeier said that "the question of war and peace has returned to the European continent" following Moscow's seizure of Crimea and its backing for separatists in eastern Ukraine whose war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014.

Steinmeier said that after the end of the Cold War and the violent 20th century, "we had thought that peace had returned to Europe for good" and that "borders would not be put into question."

Kerry also blasted Russia for its "aggression" against Ukraine and said sanctions will stay in place until the Minsk II deal to resolve the conflict is implemented in full.

"Russia has a simple choice: fully implement Minsk or continue to face economically damaging sanctions," Kerry said.

"Put plainly, Russia can prove by its actions that it will respect Ukraine's sovereignty, just as it insists on respect for its own," he said.

Kerry added that implementation includes the withdrawal of Russian forces -- which Western governments say are in Ukraine despite Moscow’s denials -- and restoration of Kyiv's control over its entire border with Russia.

Kerry spoke of joint and "unwavering support for a democratic Ukraine" by the United States and the European Union, and called for Ukraine to do more to fight corruption.

WATCH: Poroshenko Denounces Russian 'Aggression' In Ukraine

'This Is Your Aggression'

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko vowed to do so but stressed that his country needs unflagging support from the West, saying that the security of Europe and the world are at stake in Ukraine.

At a presidential panel at the Munich conference, he addressed angry remarks to an absent Putin.

"Mr. Putin, this is not a civil war in Ukraine, this is your aggression...this is your soldiers who have entered my country," Poroshenko said in English.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has decreased dramatically since September 2015, but central aspects of the Minsk II deal have gone unfulfilled amid mutual recriminations.

Poroshenko said that it is "not only Ukraine, not only Ukrainian security" that is at stake: "This is European and global security."

He warned that Putin is threatening Europe and its values, saying there is an illiberal "alternative Europe" and its "name is Vladimir Putin."

Putin, who set the tone for deepened tension with the West in an angry speech at the Munich conference in 2007, has not attended since.

Medvedev delivered the Kremlin's sharply worded message this year -- and acknowledged that he had discussed his speech with Putin before making the trip.

He mixed calls for closer cooperation between Moscow and the West with accusations blaming the United States and Europe for the security problems plaguing the world.

Medvedev denied that Russian bombs are hitting civilians in Syria.

Accusing the United States and Europe of seeking to contain Russia -- using a Cold War term that Putin has frequently uttered -- he warned that problems such as the war in Syria and the threat from Islamist militants could get worse unless there is more cooperation between Moscow and the West.

"The danger of this approach is that in 10 to 20 years" the world may still be discussing the same issues it is facing today, he said. "That is, if there is anything to discuss. In a global caliphate, discussion is not welcome."

Medvedev said relations between Russia and NATO had "slid into a new period of Cold War."

"Almost every day we are accused of making new horrible threats either against NATO as a whole, against Europe, or against the United States, or other countries," he said.

"They make scary movies where Russia starts a nuclear war. I sometimes wonder -- are we in 2016 or 1962?" Medvedev added.

In a remark clearly meant to prompt listeners to imagine World War III, he asked: "Do we really need...a third world shake-up to make us understand that what we need now is cooperation and not confrontation?"

Cold War, Hot War

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that the Western alliance wants neither "confrontation" nor a "new Cold War," but that Russia's actions are forcing a "firm" response.

An "assertive Russia is destabilizing Europe," Stoltenberg said, adding that Moscow's "rhetoric and posturing" about its nuclear might is "aimed at intimidating its neighbors" and undermining trust.

He said that NATO's moves to strengthen defenses on its eastern flank are designed "not to wage war but to prevent war." He said he expects further moves to strengthen those defenses at a NATO summit in Warsaw in July.

He called for "more defense" as well as "more dialogue" with Russia.

Stoltenberg voiced concern about an increase in Russian references to the country's nuclear might. He said "nobody should think that" nuclear weapons can be used in a conventional war.

Reacting to Medvedev's comment about a new Cold War, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told the conference that the problem is far more serious.

"We are probably facing a hot war," Grybauskaite said. "Russia is demonstrating open military aggression in Ukraine, open military aggression in Syria. There is nothing cold about this; it is very hot."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP, and RIA
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