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MSC: Mulling Ukraine in Munich

Michael KniggeFebruary 6, 2015

The Munich Security Conference is very different than in past years, writes Michael Knigge. The conflict in Ukraine has not only altered the mood in Munich, but given the meeting a strong purpose.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase

There is strong sense of urgency in the air at the Munich Security Conference this year that gives this gathering of world leaders a very different flavor than that of previous meetings. When one considers that recent conferences have dealt with revelations of widespread wiretapping by the US National Security Agency and the civil war in Syria - hardly light fare - it is no small thing to say that the mood is relatively heavy this year.

Before this year's event officially even kicked off on Friday, the short-notice shuttle diplomacy to Ukraine and Russia by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande had drowned out all other issues that were being discussed in the various sideshows to the main meeting.

Many participants feel that the situation in Ukraine must be extraordinarily grave in order to push Merkel, generally not prone to rash action, to fly to Kyiv and Moscow to make progress toward a solution to the conflict.

"I fully support her effort," former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel told DW. He added that it was important that Hollande accompany Merkel and that the chancellor meet US President Barack Obama on Monday so that the whole focus of the conference does not fall on Germany's efforts alone.

Everything must be done to avoid any further escalation that could turn the conflict into an all-out war. "This is exactly the right timing," Schüssel said, adding that "there must be something cooking." Asked whether the efforts by Merkel and Hollande could succeed, Schüssel replied: "Let's wait and see."

On the brink

With steady advances by Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian forces and Kyiv's plea for military support in Washington, many here in Munich feel that Europe may be on the brink of a hot war.

A high-ranking European diplomat who did not want to be named said that, looking at the situation in Ukraine, the general sentiment was indeed very gloomy and that many are now afraid of war. A former German diplomat noted that this could be interpreted as a final effort to avoid full-scale war between Ukraine and Moscow. That Merkel and Hollande are ready to embark on such a high-risk mission highlights how critical they must regard the situation, the diplomats agreed.

Many in Munich are skeptical as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, could agree to any compromise at all. Whatever the German-French plan looks like in detail, many participants feel that it must help end Russia's military support for separatists and keep Washington from supplying Ukraine with arms. Only such a nexus and the clear monitoring that no new arms are provided to either party will prevent a new cycle of violence. This is of course a mostly European perspective. Whether it is fully shared by Americans who are mulling arming Ukraine remains to be seen here in Munich and beyond.

Given the many previous failed efforts to bring Ukraine closer to a sustainable peace, optimists who believe that this time it will be different are hard to find in Munich. But, at least for now, the Merkel-Hollande initiative has given the Munich Security Conference very profound purpose.