Munich Security Conference: Ukraine crisis presents healing moment for US-Europe relations

But the spectre of major conflict hangs over Europe for the first time in decades

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US Vice President Kamala Harris attend the Munich Security Conference in Germany. AFP
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The clouds that hung over Munich at the start of the annual security forum on Thursday have lifted and the city is now getting ready for spring.

However, the metaphorical clouds of war have thickened to the east as the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders intensifies and American statements of an attack “at any time” add to the suspense and apprehension.

Despite a strong programme in Munich and the presence of key players from around the world there, Ukraine dominated the thinking of Western leaders at the conference

This afternoon, the Munich Security Conference wraps up and will go down in history as the place where the transatlantic relationship began to heal, where America reaffirmed it was “back” to diplomacy as US President Joe Biden promised upon assuming office and stressed the “unity of the West”.

However, it was also where Europe faced up to the clear need to adjust to a contentious relationship with Russia.

The conference was the first security forum to have a female vice president address it, as US Vice President Kamala Harris followed in the footsteps of Mr Biden, who was a regular visitor for years. It will also be remembered as the first major in-person global forum after the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to giving a rousing speech at the forum on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Ms Harris, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and a number of other officials. He was given assurances of support, especially after the G7 meeting, but was also told clearly that US soldiers would remain outside Ukraine’s borders come what may. And while Germany’s new government said it was ready for the results of sanctions on Russia, the Ukrainians expect more from the European leader.

The support of ‘5000 Helmets’ for Ukraine was mentioned a number of times – including by the Ukrainian President and the mayor of Kiev – in public sessions. Germany’s legal position on sending weaponry to Ukraine was questioned without clear answers.

The American delegations have now left Munich, and day three of the summit is largely a European Union affair, with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also back in Brussels. It is apt, as in the end it will ultimately be the Europeans who will have to contend with any potential war on their continent.

In addition to this morning’s discussions on European security, the Abraham Accords will be a major topic of discussion, with one session including Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE Presidential Adviser, participating remotely; Bahraini Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and Israel’s Minister of Defence Benjamin Gantz both in person.

There was a large African presence this year in Munich, partly because the Sahel now represents Germany’s largest and most significant military operation, but also because a number of African leaders were in Europe earlier in the week for the African Union-EU summit in Brussels.

Despite a strong programme in Munich and the presence of key players from around the world, Ukraine dominated the thinking of Western leaders at the conference. Concerns among those intimately connected to conflicts in other parts of the world, such as the Sahel or Lebanon, were discussed but officials did not come up with tangible solutions, as they were consumed by the current crisis.

As the conference is wrapped up, thoughts turn to whether the next time the world’s geopolitical actors and thinkers come together here next year, war will have returned to Europe after decades of peace.

Updated: February 21, 2022, 3:43 AM