US Vice President Kamala Harris makes a point at the Munich Security Conference, February 19, 2022. Photo: Twitter

MUNICH – This year’s Munich Security Conference, the largest event of its kind, was overshadowed by the potential for war in Ukraine.

Though the Munich Security Conference covered a whole range of issues over three days of intensive discussions, the prospect of war in Europe was front and center.

During her keynote speech at the conference, US Vice-President Kamala Harris warned of a “swift” and “severe” response to any Russian aggression against Ukraine, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on NATO allies to mobilize all strategic resources necessary to ensure that “Russia should ultimately fail and be seen to fail” if it launches a full-scale invasion.

Significantly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who attended the event virtually, chose to extend an olive branch to the West instead of offering categorical support to Russia amid the ongoing crisis.

The event also provided Germany’s new leader Olaf Scholz, earlier criticized for his perceived diffidence as the “silent chancellor”, an opportunity to project leadership and underscore his country’s solidarity with the Western alliance.

By and large, the conference served as a platform for the West to close ranks to head off a resurgent Russia and prevent the first major conflict in Europe since the end of World War II.

Over the weekend, US President Joseph Biden claimed during a White House press conference that he is “convinced [Putin] made the decision [to invade Ukraine]”, reinforcing a widespread sense of dread and anxious expectations among Munich Security Conference participants, who came from all around the world.

While on a visit to Lithuania, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reinforced  Biden’s assessment by stating that Russian troops are “moving into the right positions to conduct an attack…They’re uncoiling and now poised to strike.”

A notable absentee among the conference participants was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

In the past, top Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have regularly attended the Munich confab, which for decades has largely served as a barometer of Europe’s geopolitical orientation and Germany’s foreign policy direction.

Despite warnings from the US, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also flew out of Kiev to attend the conference in Munich, where he met with American, British and EU leaders to seek greater military protection.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a joint press conference with European Council President in Kiev on March 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Pool / Sergey Dolzhenko

In a particularly defiant speech, Zelenskyy declared, “We are going to protect our country with or without the support of our partners.”

“What are you waiting for? We don’t need sanctions after bombardment happens, after we have no borders, no economy. Why would we need those sanctions then?” exclaimed the Ukrainian leader, calling on the West to take more decisive action to deter Russian aggression.

“Has our world completely forgotten the mistakes of the 20th century?” he asked. “Where does appeasement policy usually lead to?”, he continued, warning European leaders against any major concessions to Russia over Ukraine’s geopolitical future, especially its prospective membership in NATO.  

In her anticipated speech, US Vice President Harris tried to rally NATO allies and reassure the world of American determination.

“Let me be clear: I can say with absolute certainty, if Russia invades Ukraine, the United States – together with our allies and partners – will impose significant and unprecedented economic cost,” she said during her address over the weekend.

“We have prepared, together, economic measures that will be swift, severe and united,” Harris added, warning Russia of “far-reaching financial sanctions and export controls”, which “will target Russia’s financial institutions and key industries, and we will target those who are complicit and those who aid and abet this unprovoked invasion.”

On his turn, British Prime Minster Johnson made a similarly fiery speech, which called on NATO allies to mobilize maximum punishment should 11th-hour diplomacy fail to head off Europe’s first war in over half a century.

“If dialogue fails and if Russia chooses to use violence against an innocent and peaceful population in Ukraine, and to disregard the norms of civilized behavior between states, and to disregard the Charter of the United Nations, then we at this conference should be in no doubt that it is in our collective interest that Russia should ultimately fail and be seen to fail,” Johnson added.

Standing in solidarity with Ukraine, the British leader warned, “I believe that in preparing to invade Ukraine, a proud country whose armed forces now exceed 200,000 personnel, considerably more expert in combat today than in 2014, President Putin and his circle are gravely miscalculating.”

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen echoed a similarly tough stance, warning of severe, coordinated and comprehensive punitive measures in the event of an invasion.

“We – the EU and its transatlantic partners – have been preparing a robust package of financial and economic sanctions, including on energy and cutting-edge technology,” the top EU official said.

Russian troops have massed on the border with Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

She warned, “If the Kremlin strikes, we can impose high costs and severe consequences on Moscow’s economic interests. The Kremlin’s dangerous thinking, which comes straight out of a dark past, may cost Russia a prosperous future.”

The Munich Security Conference is primarily a platform to gauge Germany’s foreign policy direction, a particularly important factor given the country’s huge trade and energy ties with Russia.

During a G7 foreign ministers meeting, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock signaled solidarity among transatlantic allies along with Japan, a top US treaty ally.

“We are facing the unimaginable concrete threat of a military conflict at the heart of Europe,” she said, though maintaining that she is unsure whether “an attack was a done deal.”

Germany’s chief diplomat also refused to clarify whether the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, designed to transfer Russian gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, would be part of a package of potential sanctions.

Nevertheless, German Chancellor Scholz wasted no time to strike a more assertive position on the ongoing crisis after facing criticism at home and abroad for being largely silent in his early months in office.

“The developments of recent months in particular show us how vital it remains to concentrate on the issue of collective defense in the North Atlantic area. We need to muster the capabilities required for this. And yes, that includes Germany, too,” the German leader said, now openly discussing his country’s role in the broader NATO alliance.

“Airplanes that fly, ships that can set out to sea, soldiers who are optimally equipped for their dangerous tasks — these are things that a country of our size, one that bears a very special responsibility within Europe, must be able to afford. We owe this to our allies in NATO, too,” he added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin could part ways on the Ukraine crisis. Image: Video Screengrab / Express

Acknowledging the Washington political establishment’s earlier criticism of Germany’s supposed soft-pedaling on Putin, former US Senator Joe Lieberman welcomed Scholz’s statements as “very reassuring and very encouraging. They were strong, they were clear and they were principled.”

“The timing was perfect — for all the wrong reasons because of Russia’s militarism,” Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, told the media.

“The collateral benefit of President Vladimir Putin’s threat of war is palpable: Western countries close ranks and NATO is seen as more vital than in a long time,” he added, reflecting Washington’s warming feelings towards the new German chancellor.

If Russia was expecting to get categorical support from China, it was likely disappointed. During his live virtual address, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang instead emphasized the need to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations.

Crucially, he clarified that “Ukraine is no exception”, signaling Beijing’s unease with a potential Russian invasion of its smaller neighbor.

The Chinese diplomat also struck a more conciliatory note by emphasizing the need for restoring frayed ties between Beijing and the West, including Washington.

“I still have confidence in our relationship. I believe we will be able to overcome the temporary difficulties through dialogue and communication,” Wang said, before an audience of top Western officials and strategists in Munich.