MUNICH, Germany -- Tensions between Russia and the West over the war in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election were on full display during the second day of a high-profile security conference in Germany featuring world leaders and top diplomats.
There were few signs of progress on the issue of a potential United Nations peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference on February 17, while the envoys from Russia and the United States delivered barbs over fresh election-meddling accusations by Washington.
Meanwhile, talks in the so-called Normandy Format -- consisting of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia -- aimed at halting fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv’s forces in Ukraine’s east failed to materialize in Munich as of February 17, reportedly due to a scheduling conflict.
In his speech opening the second day of the conference, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that a UN peacekeeping mission could lead to a “step-by-step lifting” of sanctions against Russia over its interference in Ukraine.
The European Union and the United States hit Russia with several waves of sanctions in response to Moscow’s role in the conflict and its 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, however, said a day earlier that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were unable to come to an agreement on the issue of peacekeepers during their meeting in Munich.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on February 17 that he discussed the proposed UN peacekeeping mission with Lavrov during their meeting earlier in the morning but that he saw little movement.
“It remains to be seen if it’s possible,” Stoltenberg said.
“The situation in Ukraine is the main reason for the deterioration of the relationship between NATO and Russia and also the main reason why NATO has adopted its military posture in the eastern part of the alliance," Stoltenberg said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in September proposed sending a peacekeeping force along the “demarcation line” separating Ukrainian forces from the separatists in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.
At the time, Ukrainian officials were lukewarm to the proposal, objecting to putting the peacekeepers along the front line of combat rather than at the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Kyiv fears deploying peacekeepers along the demarcation line would cement separatists’ control over the territory they hold, leaving Russia unencumbered to keep sending troops and arms across the international border.
Gabriel told the conference that “all options” should be explored to end a war that has killed more than 10,300 since April 2014.
He said earlier on February 17 that it was “not realistic” to insist on Russia’s full implementation of the Minsk accords -- September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict that have failed to hold -- in order to ease sanctions targeting Moscow.
In a fiery address to the conference on February 16, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called on Russia to agree to a peacekeeping force across areas of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists and “the uncontrolled part of Ukraine on the Russian border.”
At a February 17 lunch sponsored by Ukrainian tycoon Viktor Pinchuk on the sidelines of the Munich conference, Poroshenko repeated his accusation from the previous day that Russian is waging a “global hybrid war.”
‘Claptrap’ And ‘Incontrovertible’
In his speech to the conference on February 17, Lavrov delivered a laundry list of Russia’s grievances against the West, including what he called the European Union’s support of a “coup d’etat” against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally.
Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014 following months of street protests that swept in a pro-Western government.
The speech came a day after U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced charges against 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including one widely referred to as an Internet “troll factory," for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Responding to questions from the audience after his speech, Lavrov said he had no reaction to the U.S. indictments, but called the accusations nothing but “claptrap” until Moscow sees the facts in the case.
Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to Washington, called the U.S. allegations "fantasies."
"I'm not sure that I can trust American law enforcement to be the most precise and truthful source of information about what Russians do," said Kislyak, who denied he or his embassy conducted any effort to disrupt the U.S. elections.
Speaking after Lavrov's comments, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said the FBI indictments show Russian meddling in the U.S. election “is now really incontrovertible."
Asked by senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov, who was in the audience, whether the United States should begin a dialogue with Russian cybersecurity experts, McMaster quipped: "I am surprised there are any Russian cyberexperts available based on how active most of them have been in undermining our democracies in the West."
Iran, Syria, Brexit, and Britain’s future relationship with the EU were also on the Munich conference agenda on February 17.
McMaster warned that Iran is creating and arming a powerful network of proxies in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
"What’s particularly concerning is that this network of proxies is becoming more and more capable, as Iran seeds more and more...destructive weapons into these networks," McMaster told the conference.
"So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran," he said.
McMaster also said that public reports “clearly show” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are continuing to use chemical weapons.
Assad’s government rejects accusations that it deploys chemical weapons.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, meanwhile, told the conference on February 17 that there was no going back on the result of the June 2016 vote on Britain’s exit from the EU.
"We are leaving the EU and there is no question of a second referendum or going back and I think that's important," May told top European and U.S. officials.
She called for an urgent agreement with the EU on a post-Brexit security deal that would capture “the full depth and breadth of our existing relationship.”
"We cannot delay discussions on this," May said.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed a "security alliance" with Britain, saying the matter should remain separate from "other questions relating to Brexit."