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What emerging Europe learnt from the Munich Security Conference

Bringing an end to the Donbas war, forging stronger defence ties within the EU and finding a definitive settlement to the Nagorno Karabakh dispute are among this year’s key security challenges in emerging Europe.

The 2020 Munich Security Conference revealed different visions as to how leading European countries – Germany and France in particular – and the United States would shape the future of the continent’s security. Addressing the largest international forum of world leaders, military chiefs, security officials and defence analysts, European leaders loudly decried what they view as the US’s disengagement from ensuring the continent’s security under the administration of President Donald Trump.

“Our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community. Every country, it believes, should look after itself and put its own interests before all others,” Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in his opening speech on February 14, pointing at Mr Trump’s America First policy and lack of commitment to transatlantic ties. “Europe is already no longer as vital to the US as it used to be,” he stressed.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly dismissed the German criticism, arguing that such statements do not reflect reality. “Let’s be straight: the US is out there fighting for sovereignty and our friends.”

“The West is winning. We are collectively winning,” he said. However, he failed to convince Germany’s representatives, who are increasingly looking to France, whose leader Emmanuel Macron presented his own vision to make Europe a military world power on its own.

“We cannot always go through the United States. We have to think in a European way as well,” the French president said, emphasising that Europe would be able to achieve sovereignty and ensure its security with the assistance of its neglected nuclear capabilities. “Now we have to be able to say clearly that if we want a sovereign Europe, if we want to protect our citizens, then we do need to look at that aspect, also with a view to Germany,” he added.

Based on Europe’s scepticism towards the Trump administration and its commitment to transatlantic ties, the EU could see a new security project in the short term: Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas agreed that Europe should have a greater role in international security and called for setting up a European defence union in the next 10 years.

Both Mr Macron and Mr Maas highlighted that strengthening Europe’s own defence capabilities and ensuring a greater level of independence from the US would create a European pillar of NATO and would not downgrade the Western military alliance’s current position, with Mr Maas emphasising that NATO is “an alliance that works,” but which needs reform.

“Any attempt to distance Europe from North America not only weakens the transatlantic bond, but it also risks dividing Europe,” Mr Pompeo said, making a fair point Western European leaders should not forget: the prevailing position in European discourse – especially in Central and Eastern European countries – is that the US is the main guarantor of security in the continent and this should not change.

While French officials have repeatedly tried to reassure allies, saying that Mr Macron’s new initiative would be a mix of military deterrence and diplomatic dialogue, at present there is no reason to believe that the Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been conducting an aggressive foreign policy towards Europe including military, economic and information warfare, would be interested in a constructive dialogue that would restore ties between the EU and Russia.

The French president’s push for reengaging Moscow would certainly make more sense if Russia deescalated tensions in eastern Ukraine where it has been supporting rebel forces since the outbreak of a war in 2014. But it has not. Mr Macron’s speech came only days before pro-Russian forces launched a new offensive near the contact line in Zolote, hit civilian neighbourhoods and forced the Ukrainian army to retreat from their defensive positions, and a day before the Russian government announced that it had issued more than 125,000 Russian passports to Donbas residents.

Some observers point out that Mr Macron’s push is rather directed as a domestic political move to gain international benefits if he is unable to do so at home. However, his intention to renew European security structures would result in greater Russian influence in Europe if it is implemented in a way that will eventually see less US involvement.

The US government, which considers China a key enemy, has also clashed with European nations over the rollout of 5G technology that will involve Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, a company the US sees as a security threat.

Zelensky stands ready to reset relations with the US

As French, German and American leaders were debating the future of European security, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was busy reminding the audience in Munich that the war in Donbas is far from over and that he expects the US to commit to ending it.

“I want to draw your attention to the fact that it is not correct to say ‘war in Ukraine’. This is a war in Europe. And, along with the annexation of Crimea, it has already lasted as long as World War II. Imagine that,” Mr Zelensky said in his first international speech, noting that “for the first time in recent years, world experts note real progress in bringing peace closer and most importantly, they recognise that the new Ukrainian authorities are doing their best.”

Speaking in his first interview since the end of Mr Trump’s impeachment trial, the Ukrainian leader stressed that he was ready for a meeting with his US counterpart, something his administration has been lobbying for ever since he was inaugurated last May.

“We all are confident that President Zelensky does not want to be involved in US politics, and we hope that any pressure that existed in the past to do so is over,” said Chris Murphy, the Democratic vice-chair of the Ukraine Caucus of the US Senate following his meeting with the Ukrainian president. “We want to put this impeachment question behind us, and we want to be moving together, Republicans and Democrats, in supporting Ukraine,” he said.

Mr Zelensky also said that Ukraine would push for a new round of Normandy Format talks as soon as possible, possibly in April, signalling that his administration is aiming to put an end to the conflict by 2021.

The MSC also saw a new peace plan for Ukraine presented by the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group, an independent advocacy group that outlined “12 steps towards greater security” in Ukraine and Europe. The proposal, which includes “launching a new national dialogue” about Ukraine’s identity and a greater dialogue between the EU and Russia, was slammed by Ukrainian foreign minister Vadym Prystaiko, arguing that the plan does not reflect international law.

Mr Zelensky also rejected the plan, saying that the war is impossible to overcome without Ukraine being involved.

An unlikely Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue

The conference in Munich also brought together Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who sat down to discuss the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, an ethnic and territorial dispute between the two countries that started in 1988 and turned into a full-scale war in the 1990s, with both nations claiming the territory of Karabakh.

While Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders expressed hope that the event would bring some sort of a breakthrough between the Azerbaijani and Armenian governments, the discussion between the two leaders fell short of expectations and turned into historic contemplations about the disputed territory’s past.

Both leaders stressed the importance of easing tensions along the border line of the disputed area and using social media to connect with their citizens about the issue. However, they did not find common ground with regards to the settlement of the crisis.

With some in the audience calling for international arbitration, Mr Aliyev said that Baku still hoped to regain full territorial integrity over its former territory, with Mr Pashinyan stressing that any solution that could bring peace between the two nations has to be acceptable for the people of Armenia, Karabakh and Azerbaijan.

Photo: Official website of the president of Ukraine

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