The transatlantic relationship could be in far worse shape than it is. This was clear during the February 6–8 Munich Security Conference, which put the relationship under the spotlight regarding an issue that dominated the three days of debates.
The issue was whether or not to provide Ukraine with defensive weapons to stop further land grabs by pro-Russian separatists supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some members of the U.S. delegation, including the Republican Senators Bob Corker and John McCain, had no reservations about arming Ukraine. They said it was a necessary and moral thing to do if the West really wanted to defend its values and the inviolability of borders and stand up to autocrats. If diplomacy were not backed up by hard power, why should Putin find any reason to stop at eastern Ukraine?
In Munich, there were many arguments for and against sending weapons to Kiev, with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, leading the No camp and McCain leading the Yes crowd.
Merkel will put her case for diplomacy to U.S. President Barack Obama, whom she meets in Washington on February 9. With no letup in her diplomatic efforts (or the fighting), on February 11 she flies to Minsk to hold a four-way summit with the presidents of France, Russia, and Ukraine. The hope is that the peace plan she presented to Putin in Moscow on February 6 will be accepted—and implemented. Failing that, calls to arm the Ukrainians will get louder.
What also emerged from the Munich Security Conference was the awareness that precisely because Putin wants to split the transatlantic relationship, it is all the more important for the Europeans and Americans to stick together.
Putin had already hoped but failed to divide the United States and the European Union over the sanctions they imposed after Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine. Merkel played a key role in keeping the Europeans together.
Putin has also failed to divide NATO. The alliance is now taking seriously the threats facing its Eastern members from Russia. NATO defense ministers, who met in Brussels on February 5, agreed to increase the alliance’s new Response Force to 30,000 troops. The force will be used to boost the defenses of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania.
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No wonder that in Munich, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, and Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, were keen to dispel any idea of disunity between the United States and Europe.
“Let me assure everybody, there is no division, no split. We are united, we are working closely,” Kerry told the conference participants. “The longer [the conflict in Ukraine] continues, the more we will be forced to raise the costs for Russia. No matter what, we will stand in support of Ukraine. International borders cannot be changed by force.”
Fabius had been in Moscow on February 6 with Merkel and French President François Hollande. Speaking in Munich, he said, “The parameters are clear: for Ukraine to feel safe from military threats from its neighbor through effective border control and to remain master of its own destiny.”
For the foreign minister of a country that had until recently shown little interest in Eastern Europe, Fabius was very clear about what was at stake for the West. Referring to Russia, he said, “On one side, you have a country with huge military capabilities, one leader who does not act on principles of democracy.” And on the other side, “there is a group of countries that act in accordance with fundamental principles of democracy, negotiations, and the rule of law. This explains why the situation is so tough.”
“We have to stick together, show our resolve, and not agree to concessions that would undermine the key foundation of European security,” Fabius added. Well, the foundations of European security have already been undermined. And the Ukrainians know that in return for a ceasefire and an end to the fighting, they will have to make concessions by ceding even more territory to the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Sticking together has become even more important for the transatlantic partners, not just because of what Putin is doing in Ukraine, but also because of the Islamic State. The jihadist group’s sheer brutality, including its terrorist attacks in France on January 7–9, is beginning to galvanize the West.
Kerry and Fabius were adamant about how the West, with support from countries under attack from the Islamic State and its proxy supporters, had to increase its intelligence, security, and military operations against the militants.
The West, the pair said, had to understand that it needed to provide opportunities and hope for young, disaffected people. But Western governments also had to counter the insidious propaganda of radical websites that incited hatred of and attacks against the West. In short, as McCain put it, the West had to explain and protect its values if it wanted to defend the liberal order.
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Russia and the Islamic State are now testing the durability of the West and its liberal order. Curiously, Putin should know that Russia’s real threat is not a prosperous, democratic, and stable Ukraine but the combustible southern flank in the North Caucasus.
As for Merkel and Obama, they have no illusions about the threats the West faces. The big task is agreeing on the means to counter them and accepting that it will be a very, very long haul.