4 takeaways from this year’s important Munich Security Conference
Dubbed the Davos of Defense, the Munich Security Conference attracts heads of state, generals, intelligence chiefs and top diplomats from around the world. With war raging in Europe, the world’s foreign policy elite is on edge, and Russia’s war in Ukraine dominated discussions.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine set the tone of the three-day conference by urging Western leaders to act rather than talk, calling via videolink for the speedy deliveries of weapons and warning of dwindling supplies on the battleground.
This year, the U.S. made its presence at the gathering felt with a record number of delegates, including significant bipartisan and bicameral representation from Congress.
But with delegations attending from every continent, beyond Europe and the members of NATO, broader geopolitical issues were at play, both on the conference stage and on the sidelines. Here’s what you need to know:
The US says Russian forces are carrying out crimes against humanity in Ukraine
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris used her speech to accuse Russian forces and their superiors of crimes against humanity in Ukraine, saying that was the conclusion of an investigation by the State Department.
The U.S. government has already formally concluded that Russian troops are committing war crimes in Ukraine. Now they have gone one step further by classifying Russian atrocities as crimes against humanity. The Vice President said that in response, “justice must be served” and “the perpetrators must be held to account.”
Harris described how Russian soldiers are deliberately targeting civilians, citing evidence of “widespread and systemic” rape, torture, execution-style killings, beatings, electrocution and deportation, including children who, she said, have been cruelly separated from their parents.
She urged delegates not to look the other way, saying: “Think of the four-year-old girl who the United Nations recently reported was sexually assaulted by a Russian soldier.”
The U.S. Secretary of State said in a statement released at the conference: “We reserve crimes against humanity determinations for the most egregious crimes.”
Hitting back, Russia’s U.S. ambassador Anatoly Antonov said the Americans were trying to “demonize Russia”.
China commits to peace in Ukraine conflict, but on Beijing’s terms
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi also dedicated most of his speech to the conflict in Ukraine, stressing he was “deeply worried” about the “long-term effect of this war” and warning against the return of a “Cold War mentality.”
Wang – who is heading to Moscow after the conference – called for peace talks and asserted that “some forces” have no interest in seeing the war end soon because of “bigger strategic goals than Ukraine.” He did not elaborate on who he meant, but the message chimes with claims from Russia that NATO is unwilling to enter into peace talks.
He appeared to issue a warning to Moscow, though, by repeating Xi Jinping’s recent condemnation of anyone who makes nuclear threats. Wang insisted that peace in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world is Beijing’s top foreign policy priority, as is respect for the sovereignty of independent nations. Within the same breath, he warned against international interference on the issue of Taiwan. Wang said that maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait meant opposing Taiwanese independence forces.
The U.S. remains concerned about Beijing invading Taiwan and about its blossoming relationship with Moscow. Washington and Beijing’s relationship is fraught and has deteriorated further in the wake of “balloon-gate.”
After much “will they, won’t they”, Blinken and Wang sat down together on the last night of the conference, in the first high-level meeting between the two countries since the U.S. shot down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that Blinken told Wang that the U.S. is not seeking conflict with China but warned him against Beijing providing any material support to Russia, or helping Moscow evade Western sanctions.
Europe commits to more weapons
While Wang Yi called for peace in Ukraine – without elaborating how to achieve it or what peace in the region means – Europe’s leaders committed to investing more in weapons.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said member states must work together with the defense industry to scale up the production of munitions for Ukraine which, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is using them quicker than Europe can replace them.
Conference host, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz firmly asked his European partners to follow up on their pledges to deliver battle tanks to Ukraine without delay. During a Q&A session, Scholz quipped it was ironic that he’s now having to urge others to deliver Leopard tanks quickly to Ukraine after they’d put pressure on him to do the same in previous weeks.
Scholz’s new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius continued in the same vein and pushed for higher military spending within Europe and NATO. He went one step further than Scholz’s promise to meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defense, and called on the NATO alliance to agree on 2% as a minimum commitment, aiming for higher. Germany currently does not meet the 2% target and is not expected to do so for another couple of years, despite Scholz’s additional €100 billion boost to the Bundeswehr budget.
Scholz remained tight-lipped about requests from Ukraine to send fighter jets, having publicly said no on several occasions. He said Germany’s support for Kyiv is resolute but warned against hasty decisions and the dangers of escalation.
Russia has no say in Munich
This year, for the first time since the nineties, Russian officials did not receive invitations to the conference. Prominent Kremlin critics — including exiled oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chess champion Gary Kasparov, and Yulia Navalnaya, the wife of jailed opposition political Alexey Navalny — were pointedly offered seats instead.
Organizers also excluded the Iranian government officials because of Tehran’s brutal suppression of protests. The Munich Security Conference is known for promoting dialogue, even between adversaries, but MSC Chair Christoph Heusgen says he did not want the conference to serve as a podium for Russian propaganda.
While some are wary the conference is becoming a one-sided club preaching to the converted, Heusgen says “he draws the line at war criminals.” Although they didn’t turn up, Russian officials were invited last year, despite the build-up of Russia’s troops on Ukraine’s borders.
Heusgen – who served as former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top foreign policy aide – admitted in an interview earlier this week that he left last year’s conference convinced Russia would not invade Ukraine. Four days later, the invasion began.
As the war enters its second year, it remains to be seen whether dialogue with President Vladimir Putin will be possible at next year’s conference. But as Vice President Kamala Harris announced Saturday, the U.S. administration is preparing to see Russian leaders stand trial for crimes against humanity.