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Munich Security Conference debate on future of NATO turns attention to Russia

What was intended as a debate about NATO at the Munich Security Conference became one about Russia. DW's Michael Knigge reports from the Bavarian capital.

Antagonistic remarks by Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (photo with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) in Munich earlier on Saturday created a sense in the air that their statements had not been met with the appropriate response. Or, put differently: What many perceived as factually incorrect remarks by the Kremlin's emissaries had not been debunked or had not received the necessary pushback.

Whoever may have shared that notion should have watched the debate about "the future of NATO," which - with few exceptions - was essentially a discussion about how to deal with a single country: Russia.

Interestingly, the most irenic comment in the discussion was probably made by the chairman of NATO's military committee, General Petr Pavel, who said that "containment is not our aim with Russia: Deterrence is."

Unsurprisingly, Polish Defense Minister Witold Waszczykowski was more outspoken and decried Russia's aggression vis-a-vis Ukraine as well as what he described as Moscow's efforts to redefine the international order.

Non-NATO Sweden

Waszczykowski was seconded by Peter Hultqvist, defense minister of Sweden, a country that is mulling NATO membership in light of Moscow's increasingly aggressive stance. Hultqvist delivered an unusually blunt assessment of Russia.

The Kremlin's goal, Hultqvist said, was to keep the illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region off the international agenda. Hultqvist added that "Russia is the biggest challenge to Europe's security" and that "we cannot accept what Russia has done."

Hultqvist's strongest point, however, was made via a rhetorical question: "Why does Russia continue to bring up its nuclear capabilities?"

Perhaps wisely, Russia's ambassador to NATO, who was in the audience and later posed a question himself, chose not to answer Hultqvist's question.

Defending both flanks

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg agreed with the sentiment expressed - by Poland's defense minister especially - that NATO should consider the defense of its eastern flank just as important as the defense of its western flank. The alliance, she said, must "ensure security for all allies."

But she was less willing to accept that improving NATO's eastern defense capabilities required deploying permanent troops and building new installations there.

"The biggest threat is hybrid warfare," Solberg said. "You don't address that threat with more military bases."

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