The 2015 Munich Security Conference has focused like a burning glass on the dilemmas of Western crisis management in international security. While the desire to maintain a united position on the war in Ukraine was apparent, divisions over strategy and tactics run deep within Europe and between Europe and the United States. The Munich meeting concentrated harsh light on the stark divisions between Russian and Western policy makers. What Munich did not do was to present a way to put out the growing fire.
Crisis management after Munich will not differ in principle from that of the past months, but some illusions and well-meaning concepts have been destroyed by bitter realism. In this sense, the conference provided three significant takeaways for Europe, which will shape its foreign policy for the time being.
1. Russia has left Europe
Leaving aside a few hints in the Russian policy discourse of the 1990s, post-Soviet Russia thought of the country’s role as being with Europe but not of Europe. That chapter seems to be closing now, as the Russian leadership puts its own favourite brainchild aside, the “common European house” from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speech at Munich offered a clear illustration of this; he was obviously unwilling to be part of the common discourse. Russia has become the Anti-Europe, organised by geopolitics and bound by military power, and it seeks just one thing from the West: respect borne of fear for the harm it could create. With this attitude, Moscow’s quest for status is focused on Washington. In Vladimir Putin’s world, Europe is second-class, onerous but acquiescent. From Munich, Lavrov could report back that some in Washington also look at Europe this way.
2. There can be no leading from behind
The second sobering lesson from Munich has to do with the US. The Obama administration has kept a low profile on the Ukraine war, encouraging its European partners to take the lead. Pushing Europe from behind towards tougher sanctions against Russia worked in 2014; pushing for more robust support to Ukraine in 2015, which the US would then decide whether or not to provide, has not worked. But Munich made it clear that placing European leaders in the driving seat does not make them think like Washington – at least not when Germany is playing a central role. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel objected to pressure from US policymakers by defending her own leadership initiative. The costs of failure are now upon her shoulders.
3. Europe’s leaders want a bargain
The Munich conference has not only frustrated those in the US Senate and administration who believe that Russia will only give in to military stalemate or defeat in eastern Ukraine, it has also frustrated those in Europe who believe that Russia must be confronted with military strength. Merkel has ruled out the hard power option for Ukraine with a bluntness that must have been shocking to some. Her initiative, taken together with French President François Hollande, is built on a negotiated outcome, whatever it takes – a risky operation, which involves few carrots and fewer sticks. The Russian leadership may not see it as their last chance to get to an agreement, EU partners may not hold together on the decision to apply more and deeper economic sanctions, and Ukraine’s leadership may refuse to cooperate. Under the Franco-German approach, Ukraine will have to concede more. Kyiv will have to stop enforcing its right of self defence and the rebels might even gain a bit of territory. In return, Kyiv could receive an end to war, albeit under humiliating circumstances. This would also allow Ukraine to receive support for the long-overdue reforms now being held up by the war – which is important because Ukraine can only expect major assistance under the conditionality of reform.
On these terms, Putin could call the outcome a triumph of Russia’s will. He could well succeed in limiting the norms of civic international relations to the space of the EU. But, as Merkel made clear in Munich, she believes Putin will lose in the long term. Russia will have lost Europe, the best partner that a different Russia could have hoped for in the world. It will take a generation in Moscow to understand.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.