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'We're In Trouble': Rancor Rules At Munich Security Conference

In his Munich address, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of deploying disinformation as part of a "world hybrid war."
In his Munich address, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia of deploying disinformation as part of a "world hybrid war."

MUNICH, Germany -- Sharp and often fierce rhetoric permeated this year's Munich Security Conference, which asked participants if the world could manage to dial down the geopolitical tensions that have been rapidly mounting in recent years.

Such was the fraught atmosphere surrounding this year's annual gathering of world leaders, diplomats, and other dignitaries that the conference chairman saw considerable symbolism in how he punctuated the title of this year's event: "To The Brink – And Back?"

"I was hoping when I opened this conference on Friday that, in concluding the conference, I would be able to say we can delete the question mark. In other words: 'We are back from the brink,'" former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger said in closing remarks at the three-day event on February 18.

"I'm actually not sure we can say that," he added.

From Kyiv's war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, to U.S. allegations of Moscow's election-meddling, to territorial disputes between ex-Soviet republics, to a rhetorical clash between Israel and Iran: geopolitical rancor pervaded this year's conference.

Transatlantic tensions surfaced in Munich as well, as top European officials appeared to question the stewardship of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has called Britain's exit from the EU a "great thing" and pressed NATO allies to boost defense spending.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the conference that his country had "eagerly learned" the value of democracy, rule of law, multilateralism, and human rights from the United States, but that "we no longer recognize our America."

Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, met with Gabriel following the German diplomat's speech and assured the conference later in the day that Washington was committed to its allies. He added, however, that "we must all share responsibility."

'Undermining' Western Democracies

Events unfolding across the Atlantic reverberated in real time at the swanky Munich hotel where the conference was held.

As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Russia in his February 16 speech of deploying disinformation as part of a "world hybrid war," U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced more than a dozen indictments of Russian citizens and firms accused of trying to "sow discord in the US political system," including in the 2016 presidential election.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gesticulates at the Munich Security Conference.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gesticulates at the Munich Security Conference.

Those allegations triggered some of the more memorable exchanges of the conference. Asked about the indictments following his own address on February 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed them as "claptrap" until Moscow can see what he called "the facts" of the case.

Russia rejects U.S. accusations that it carried out a Kremlin-ordered hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at helping elect Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to improve ties with Moscow that have become badly strained over the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

Speaking after Lavrov, McMaster said the United States was "becoming more and more adept at tracing the origins of this espionage and subversion."

"And as you can see with the FBI indictment the evidence is now really incontrovertible," he said.

When senior Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachyov asked McMaster from the audience about possible U.S. cooperation with Russian cybersecurity experts, McMaster joked: "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."

Asked about the exchange at a panel discussion later that day, Kosachyov demanded evidence for the charges and denied that the Russian government was involved in cyberattacks.

"Russia as a state is definitely not involved in any hacking attacks or cyberwars," Kosachyov said. "This is not our policy. Definitely not."

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested in June that "patriotic" Russian hackers might target individuals who criticize Russia, but that they have no connection to the government.

Speaking at the panel discussion, Kosachyov called the U.S. hacking allegations a "dirty game aimed at containing Russia in all areas."

Ukraine Peacekeeper Stalemate

The rhetoric between Russia and Ukraine in Munich was even sharper.

Heading into the conference, there had been indications of progress in talks on a potential UN peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine, though Kyiv and Moscow remain divided on the scope and mandate of such a mission.

The U.S. and Russian envoys for Ukraine talks sounded more optimistic about the progression of the talks last month than previously, and Putin and Poroshenko spoke by telephone days before the conference.

But Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said their bilateral meeting failed to produce progress on the issue. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters following his meeting with Lavrov that he also saw little progress and that "it remains to be seen if it's possible."

Kurt Volker at the Munich conference.
Kurt Volker at the Munich conference.

Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine who had noted more Russian "openness" on the peacekeeping proposal last month, told reporters on the sidelines of the conference that such a force "doesn't make any sense" if Russia does not "end the conflict and withdraw its forces" in eastern Ukraine.

Russia denies backing the separatists in eastern Ukraine despite substantial evidence of such support.

Planned talks at the conference in the so-called Normandy Format -- Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia -- aimed at bringing an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine were dropped. Klimkin said on Twitter that the Germans weren't able to make it happen.

Reuters cited a diplomatic source as saying that the meeting was canceled because Gabriel had to fly back to Berlin after Turkey released a German-Turkish journalist from prison.

Poroshenko, meanwhile, denounced Russia as a destructive force in the world, suggesting that the "Russian world" brings nothing but ruin and despair to anything it touches.

In Munich, he said returning Crimea -- the Ukrainian peninsula Russia seized in 2014 -- was Kyiv's "top priority." In his address to the conference, he called on the West to strengthen sanctions in response to Moscow's occupation of Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov said in his speech that the peace process was being "openly sabotaged by Kyiv."

Kosachyov took to Facebook on the second day of the conference to accuse Poroshenko of "creating an atmosphere of hysteria about nonexistent Russian aggression" that he said is stoking violence by nationalist groups.

The day after Kosachyov's remarks, dozens of far-right Ukrainian demonstrators attacked Russian banks and a Russian aid agency in Kyiv, smashing windows and burning a Russian flag.

'No One Has Any Solutions'

On the final day of the Munich conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened Iran to Nazi Germany and called Tehran "the greatest threat to our world."

Addressing the conference hours later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Netanyahu's speech as a "cartoonish circus."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during his Munich speech.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during his Munich speech.

Ischinger said in his closing remarks that the event had featured "excellent analytical work" and a handful of "great ideas" on transnational cooperation.

"The bad news is, we haven't heard enough -- at least as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Ian Bremmer, the founder of the Eurasia Group political-risk consultancy who hosted several panel discussions -- including the event's final one, held behind closed doors -- was more blunt in his assessment.

"We're in trouble," Bremmer said in a February 18 interview with Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper. "Because, you know, pretty much every geopolitical conflict out there is escalating, none of them are getting fixed, and no one has any solutions."

"This was not a good meeting," he added.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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