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Munich Security Conference

Nina Werkhäuser / sgbFebruary 5, 2015

The Munich Security Conference starts Friday in the wake of escalating violence in Ukraine and in the Middle East. Some 400 politicians and experts will spend three days trying to find ways out of the current crises.

Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Hase

The world will be looking to Munich this weekend. Just as crisis diplomacy seemed to have ground to a halt, the Munich Security Conference, which opens Friday, potentially offers a way to restart diplomatic efforts.

With the barbaric war of conquest of the "Islamic State" (IS) terror militia in the Middle East and the raging conflict in eastern Ukraine that has left more than 5,300 people dead so far, the participants' determination to work towards a negotiated solution has seldom been stronger.

It was the experience of a "collapsing world order" that predetermined the agenda of this year's conference, director Wolfang Ischinger said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "The more serious the crisis, the more important the security conference will be for those diplomats who need to find solutions to conflicts."

Pressure mounts on Russia

There's more than enough for the 20 heads of state and government, 60 foreign and defense ministers and numerous specialists to talk about at the venerable Bayerischer Hof. And not only in official discussions, but also in the back rooms of the hotel, whose thick carpets and drapes have already muffled many a heated war of words in years past.

Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz
The informal, folksy venue of the Bayerischer Hof makes it easier to talkImage: imago/Eibner

This year, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - the antagonists in a conflict that has triggered a new Ice Age between Russia and the West - will meet face-to-face.

Undoubtedly, the recent escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine will be one of the central themes in Munich. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will come to the conference after she and French President Francois Hollande talk to Poroshenko in Kyiv and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Merkel has repeatedly, and emphatically, warned Putin he must back down. But she continues to hope for a diplomatic settlement and rejects arms sales to the Ukrainian army.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who will be leading a large American delegation in Munich, has also spoken out against supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, but has been a fierce critic of Moscow's intervention. He will likely push for further steps to be taken against the Kremlin. The US was willing to "increase the price for Russia's aggressive behavior," Munich's daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" wrote, adding nothing less than European security was at stake.

Wolfgang Ischinger Münchener Sicherheitskonferenz 22.01.2014
The 'collapsing world order' has determined the agenda of this conference, says Wolfgang IschingerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What role will Germany play?

The German government's vigorous efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict follow on from the major issues of the last Munich Security Conference. Then, the German president, foreign minister and defense minister together promised greater German involvement in international crises - making clear that meant arms sales to and military training for Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq.

But global bodies, such as the United Nations, think Germany could do even more: "It would be good if we could also see German resources in Africa," Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told Deutsche Welle, referring to UN peacekeeping missions.

"I would say that Germany, with its tradition, could play a role in all phases of a crisis: in prevention, during the crisis and post-conflict ," Eliasson, who will also be taking part in the conference, said.

Years in the making

The meeting in Munich - this year will be the 51st - has come to be regarded as the most important security conference in Europe, not least because of the large number of prominent participants. And with the media spotlight on the Bavarian city, many non-participants make their way to Munich to make their message heard.

The conference earned this reputation over several decades. It was founded in 1963 as a somewhat stuffy affair called the "Wehrkundetagung" - roughly, the "military discussion meeting" - and was especially preoccupied with the development of the West German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. The conference halls were dominated by men in uniforms. In the 1960s, there were demonstrations. As the German defense minister spoke, protesters outside the hotel raged against the "warmongers" within.

And while the conference's focus was for many years strictly transatlantic, in 1999 it opened to participants from other regions of the world. Ever since the Islamic terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the trouble spots of the world have dominated the agenda. Here the conference has come into its own. It is precisely because of its informal nature that the conference can often provide the impetus to efforts that can later be translated into real policy.