International Security // Analysis

17 february 2016

Snow is Still White in the Fields…Personal Notes on the Margins of the Munich Security Conference

Andrey Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
MSC2016 Opening ceremony

Snow is still white in the fields
but spring is in the water’s voice.
Running, the waters wake the sleepy banks.
They run, they glisten, they rejoice…

Surprisingly, one of Fyodor Tyutchev’s best known poems was written not in Moscow or in his family estate, but in his beloved Munich, where he spent the best years of his life. And it was not inspired by the March landscapes of central Russia, but by the awakening spring in the Alpine foothills of the Kingdom of Bavaria. The chances are that most of the people attending the 52nd Munich Security Conference have not read or even heard of Tyutchev, but one could feel a whiff of change in the air in the crowded lounges and corridors of the Bayerischer Hof hotel.

Syrian Hopes and Doubts

Adding to the sense of expectation was the meeting of the foreign policy chiefs of Russia and the United States, Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry, which took place the day before the conference. The long-awaited statement on the Syrian truce prepared by Lavrov and Kerry, together with the United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, was unanimously approved by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG).

U.S. Department of State
John Kerry

Reactions to the Syrian accords ranged from total rejection (“all this talk about a ceasefire is just another Russian tactical ploy”) to ill-disguised enthusiasm (“at last, things are moving”). The air was thick with questions: Will the ceasefire extend to Aleppo? Will a list of terrorist organisations be agreed on? Are the main regional players ready to observe the ceasefire?

Both “heroes of the day” had a chance to share their thoughts at the conference. John Kerry, in my opinion, painted an overly optimistic, almost picture-perfect vision of how things would develop in Syria. Clearly, he was speaking more like a public politician than a diplomat. Sergey Lavrov, looking tired after long hours of talks, was more guarded in his forecasts, noting that there were still many unsolved issues. The German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, acting like a true German, rated the chances of success in Syria as somewhere between 49 and 51 per cent, and his British counterpart Philip Hammond sighed and said that in the end everything depended on Moscow. Thus the sceptics and the enthusiasts were able to stick to their respective opinions.
Sergey Lavrov and Frank-Walter Steinmeier

“The Ukrainian Issue” and Moscow’s Critics

The Ukrainian issue, though still on the agenda, has visibly lost its status and urgency. Like the year before, President Poroshenko made a passionate plea to the West not to abandon Kiev in the face of the Russian Mordor. I got the impression that Ukrainian President’s English had improved greatly over the past year, but he had not changed the old “heroic” image of the champion of “European values”. Mikhail Saakashvili, who had visibly put on weight, was spotted again and again in the company of important Western politicians. However, the Ukrainians failed to generate anything like the former emotional pitch of discussions about Donbass and Crimea. Even the still relevant topic of the sanctions against Moscow did not seem to stir the participants’ imagination as much as before.

The Ukrainian issue, though still on the agenda, has visibly lost its status and urgency.

The Ukrainian leader, who played on the threat to “European values” from the East, had to answer boring questions about the progress of reform, the fight against corruption, and the state of the country’s economy and finances. John Kerry turned out to be an unexpected, though benign, critic of the Ukrainian leaders, noting that Kiev should speed up compliance with the Minsk agreements and accelerate social and economic reforms.

Poroshenko, however, was supported by a dissonant, but loud chorus of Central European leaders. As expected, the uncompromising Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė was particularly vocal in condemning Russia. She even said there was a high probability of a military conflict in Europe between Moscow and the West, drawing rumblings from the Europeans in the audience who are not used to such apocalyptic assessments of the situation on their continent.
Dmitry Medvedev and Manuel Valls

Newly elected President of Poland Andrzej Duda, for his part, startled the audience by expressing open dissatisfaction by Germany’s policy vis-à-vis his country. The German President of the European Parliament Martin Schultz, who was sitting next to him, was clearly rattled by the criticism from the East and challenged the Polish leader to present a concrete list of complaints to Berlin. However, Duda failed to present any such list, other than citing the treacherous German intention to build a new gas pipeline from Russia (Nord Stream 2), which, in his opinion, would bring harm greatly the Central European countries. The Finnish President Sauli Niinisto urged calm and restraint, a call that the audience massively ignored, thus stirring the measured pace of the discussion.

Russia and China Falling Off the Radar?

Dmitry Medvedev rekindled interest in the Ukrainian crisis. Making a speech early on the second day of the conference, he said Russia was ready to be “reasonably flexible” in fulfilling the Minsk agreements, without of course compromising their general spirit and principles. The Russian Prime Minister did not say exactly how Russia was ready to be more flexible, leaving those present guessing as to what Moscow’s new steps could be.

Although the Russian delegation’s status had been upgraded, Russia got less attention than the year before.

In general, Medvedev spoke with drive and clarity in short sentences, with Putin-like steely notes creeping in now and again. At times, you got the impression that the Russian Prime Minister’s speech, if not actually written for him by the Russian President, was certainly the result of Putin’s hard work. Having said that, the Russian Prime Minister’s tone was conciliatory rather than bellicose, focusing on the common threats and challenges facing Russia and the West. He greatly exceeded his time limit, covering a wide range of international problems, from the cause of the global economic crisis to the roots of the Syrian conflict.
Fu Ying (Chairwoman of the Committee on
Foreign Affairs of the National People’s
Congress, People’s Republic of China) and
Robert Corker (Senator, Chairman of
the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,

Although the Russian delegation’s status had been upgraded, Russia got less attention than the year before. Moscow was seldom mentioned outside the Ukrainian and Syrian contexts. And when it was, it was after a comma along with other active global players. It seems that throughout 2015 the members of the European and American political elites resigned themselves to the fact that the development trajectories of Russia and the Atlantic world were diverging seriously and for a long time, and that last-year’s talk (“How could you? We had put so much trust in you”) is totally irrelevant.

China too got less attention than a year or two ago, either because there has been little change in the conflicts in the East China and South China seas, or because fears of the relentless rise of the Chinese superpower have subsided somewhat due to the slowdown of the Chinese economy and problems in the Chinese financial market.

China too got less attention than a year or two ago.

Of course, there was a “Chinese section” at the conference, and the panel saw the brilliant Chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the National People’s Congress Fu Ying easily and elegantly outplay the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Robert Corker. On the whole, however, China was not such a hot topic at the conference. From conversations with the few Chinese delegates present, it was clear that lack of attention did not worry them in the least.

The Middle East as the “Season Trend”

As one might have guessed, the big headline stealers were the Middle East and international terrorism, which, along with the migration crisis, were constant topics of conversation. King Abdullah II of Jordan, President of Afghanistan Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Tani, and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon all took their turns on the stage.
Mohammad Javad Zarif

They spoke about what they see to be the causes of the rise of international terrorism and the problems their countries face. They assured those present of their commitment to eradicating that evil, asked for increased international support of their efforts on the national level and proposed upgrading the level of coordination in countering terrorism. The message of all their speeches boiled down to this: their countries bear the brunt of the fight against terror; and their close and not-so-close neighbours must answer serious questions in this regard.

Perhaps the highlight of the string of somewhat self-congratulatory “reports on the work done” was the speech of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran Mohammad Javad Zarif, who once again demonstrated the superior class of Iranian diplomacy. Mohammad Zarif raised the fundamental question of creating a collective security system in the Middle East which would provide a long-term multilateral unifying project for today’s opponents and rivals.

As one might have guessed, the big headline stealers were the Middle East and international terrorism.

Unfortunately, the conference did not pursue the issue further; apparently the Iranian minister’s proposals were thought to be premature or not concrete enough. Hopefully, the issue of collective security in the Middle East will be brought back to the agenda in the near future.

Why are We Waiting? Who are We Waiting For?
Javier Solana and Igor Ivanov

The hosts of the Munich Conference studiously kept a low profile. To everyone’s disappointment, Chancellor Angela Merkel did not show up this year, and party leaders and captains of German industry were also conspicuous by their absence. Those present had to content themselves with the remarks of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his dazzling colleague, Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen, and the Chairman of the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs Norbert Röttgen. And, of course, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Conference for the past seven years.

However, what struck me most was not the small number of German speakers. I had a feeling that the voices of the conference hosts sounded somewhat less confident than last year or the year before. I got the impression that Germany has not yet recovered from the shock caused by the migration crisis. And new problems have arisen in relation with its partners within the European Union. As one speaker noted, “everyone is waiting for Germany to lead, but few are ready to accept its leadership.”

I would describe the general atmosphere at the 2016 Munich conference as one of uneasy expectation. Some are waiting until the new administration is installed in Washington. Others want to see compliance with the Minsk agreements on Ukraine by all the parties. Others want to see the removal of the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus. Others still are waiting for the stabilization of world oil prices. Yet others want the flow of refugees to Europe to subside. There is a rationale behind the wait-and-see position. But the waiting mode is not conducive to the generation of new ideas and fresh proposals that are pro-active and not merely reactive. That applies in particular to the countries and statesmen who claim to be leaders in world politics.

I would describe the general atmosphere at the 2016 Munich conference as one of uneasy expectation.

P.S. To go back to Tyutchev, I have to note that today the fields of Bavaria are not covered in snow. Global warming has not spared the Munich environs so cherished by the poet. However, as the discussions at the Munich Security Conference have shown, it would be premature, to say the least, to expect an early spring warming in world politics.

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Andrey Kortunov, “Snow is Still White in the Fields…Personal Notes on the Margins of the Munich Security Conference,” Russian International Affairs Council, 17 February 2016,

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