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Russia, West face a deep divide

Nina Werkhäuser / hegFebruary 8, 2015

Russian and Western views clashed full force at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday. But it wasn't just about the Ukraine crisis - mutual distrust runs much deeper. Nina Werkhäuser reports from Munich.

Lawrow auf der Sicherheitskonferenz in München
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On this cold winter morning in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (above) sat alone on the podium, welcomed by scant applause. Only former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, was with him. With a stony demeanor, he began to castigate the West for what it has done, in his opinion, at the expense of Russia. And not just since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis over the past year, but also in the past quarter of a century - meaning since the end of the Cold War.

Lavrov spoke of "deep systematic problems," referring to Russia on one hand, and the EU and United States on the other. "We do not understand the US obsession with missile defense systems," he argued. From NATO's eastward expansion to differences of opinion in international arms agreements: everything has been just one insult after another to Russia, according to Lavrov.

Ischinger is taken aback. "It seems that we have a different history book than the Russians," he said, speaking of a "great discrepancy between the narratives," the stories from which a society shapes its identity.

'The US is at fault'

According to Lavrov, the US has intentionally destroyed the mechanisms for cooperation which have evolved since the end of the Cold War. He points to the NATO headquarters in Brussels as example: Russians there are barely able to find any office space for their work. The NATO-Russia Council has indeed been put on hold for the time being, a consequence of the Ukraine crisis.

Lavrov said that the "commotion" over Russia's relations with the West, which dominated the second day of the conference, was incomprehensible.

Kämpfe in der Ostukraine Separatisten 4.2.2015
Russia maintains that none of its troops are fighting in eastern UkraineImage: Reuters/M. Shemetov

He justified the annexation of Crimea last March as an expression of the peoples' legitimate right of self-determination, according to the UN charter. "Read up on that," he told an EU parliamentarian who strongly criticized Russia's interpretation of the international law. Lavrov pointed out that the EU and the US actively supported last year's "coup d'etat" in Kyiv.

The mood in the room cooled considerably when Konstantin Kosachev, head of foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament's upper house, explained that not a single Russian soldier is fighting in Ukraine. He called the fighting in eastern Ukraine a purely domestic matter.

"We have done nothing in Ukraine. A civil war is under way," said Kosachev. But a short time later, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko took the stage and held up a collection of passports which, according to him, were confiscated from Russian officers in his country.

Ukraine demands weapons

A hush fell over the room when Poroshenko spoke of the many victims among Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Poroshenko's English was a bit broken, but he wanted everyone to understand his message. He demanded an immediate ceasefire from Russia, calling it "a simple demand."

Poroschenko mit russischen Pässen
Offering what he called proof of Russia's involvement, Poroshenko asked for arms from the WestImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Poroshenko said that without arms from the West, Ukraine cannot win this war. "This aggression has opened Pandora's box for international security," he said, taking a brief moment to look back at last year's Security Conference. He was not yet president then, but a supporter of the Maidan protest movement that eventually toppled the government of former President Viktor Yanukovych. He was proud of his country; now, part of it is buried in rubble.

Ukrainian demands for weapon supplies found great acceptance among American politicians, like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. "Ms. Merkel, you are making a big mistake," he said Saturday, commenting on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's clear "no" to supplying Ukraine with deadly weapons. Merkel wants to continue down the rocky road of diplomacy. "You cannot win with the military, that is the bitter truth," she said, adding that patience and perseverance are necessary.

Merkel had just returned from Moscow, where she, along with French President Francois Hollande, had met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks. She didn't want to say whether she had been successful, or even if some small progress had been made. "It is uncertain," she said, matter-of-factly. But she wasn't disheartened - every effort counts.

Attempts at peace over?

Merkel will once again speak with Putin by phone on Sunday evening, in an attempt to save the Minsk ceasefire agreement, agreed to in September. Poroshenko and Hollande will also join the conference call. And on Monday, the German chancellor will travel to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss the ongoing crisis.

Deutschland Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz 2015 MSC
Merkel will speak with Putin and Poroshenko on SundayImage: Reuters/M. Rehle

Speaking at the conference, US Vice President Joe Biden said Putin has the power to influence the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine - definitively bringing to an end the official "fresh start" of US-Russia relations which he had enthusiastically presented at the same conference just six years ago. Instead, deeply rooted distrust now prevails on both sides, as seen by the discussion in Munich. A ray of hope is, for the moment, nowhere to be seen.