Reflections from the Munich Security Conference and on Russia’s Recent Actions

February 22, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: Drop of Light /
Writing about events related to Ukraine and Russia is a fool’s errand at the moment.

Just as you place a series of rapidly unfolding events into context, the crisis shifts dramatically. But this moment is historically significant and requires us to memorialize things as best we can as we witness yet another Russian violation of international law, another “declaration of independence” of its neighbors’ territories, and the unprovoked movement of Russian military forces across international borders. 

Munich, the Ghost of Appeasement and “Unlearning Helplessness”

The atmosphere at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) was serious and tense but also interspersed with a spirit of alliance unity as well as joy—the simple joy of seeing transatlantic colleagues in person after two long years. Pandemic restrictions had strictly limited conference attendance, making the venue feel more intimate and important. The number of senior government officials—including Vice President Harris, Ukrainian President Zelensky, Prime Minister Johnson, Chancellor Scholz, as well as Secretary Blinken and a 40-member bicameral US Congressional delegation to name but a few—all lent the conference additional historical weight.   

By far, the most important intervention of the entire conference was an impassioned speech by President Zelensky. Despite strong concerns that he should not leave Ukraine at this uncertain moment, Zelensky made the absolute right call in coming to Munich. His words were undiplomatic and not pleasant to hear, but they were very clear.   

“What do attempts at appeasement lead to? As the question ‘Why die for Danzig?’ turned into the need to die for Dunkirk and dozens of other cities in Europe and the world. At the cost of tens of millions of lives. … The architecture of world security is fragile and needs to be updated. The rules that the world agreed on decades ago no longer work. They do not keep up with new threats. They are not effective for overcoming them. This is a cough syrup when you need a coronavirus vaccine. The security system is slow. It crashes again. Because of different things: selfishness, self-confidence, irresponsibility of states at the global level. As a result, we have crimes of some and indifference of others. Indifference that makes you an accomplice. It is symbolic that I am talking about this right here. It was here 15 years ago that Russia announced its intention to challenge global security. What did the world say? Appeasement. Result? At least —the annexation of Crimea and aggression against my state.”

In the hallways, side events, and bilateral meetings at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, US analysts and officials frequently discussed the dramatic shift of that “architecture of world security,” whether that was the February 4 Putin-Xi statement inaugurating a dynamic alignment between the two powers or preparing for Russian cyber and other forms of retaliation after the United States and EU likely impose more punishing sanctions against Russia. European interlocuters, however, largely remained in a somewhat stunned state of denial about both the magnitude and impact these events will have on Europe.       

The title of this year’s MSC was “Unlearning Helplessness” and in a previous year the conference title was “Westlnessness.” These titles, unfortunately, do not convey Western strength. But thankfully, there was an ample amount of Western and democratic strength on display throughout the conference. I attended several events on supporting democracy and fighting autocracy, whether that was a discussion focused on countering disinformation or transnational repression or how to prevent democratic fatigue. Noted one senior European opposition figure, whom GMF’s work supports, “We don’t have the right to be tired. We have to fight for our democracy every day.” 

Immediately before departing Munich, I was asked to speak to a private roundtable that was examining the transatlantic response to the Russia crisis, specifically on the role of the United States in the crisis. I answered that the United States was doing what it has always done: to help Europe see that which it does not wish to see and do that which it does not wish to do.   

Putin’s Theater, Donbas “Independence,” and What Awaits in the Coming Days

Back less than 24 hours from the Munich Security Conference and, on the 8th anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity, the crisis again dramatically intensified. The day began with initial indications that another possible summit between Presidents Biden and Putin might be held in principle, facilitated by France’s President Macron, leading some to believe there was still some space for diplomacy. However, the curtains were only just beginning to rise on a series of Kremlin-staged theatrical events—beginning with President Putin’s televised “meeting” with members of his National Security and Defense Council and concluding with a long, dramatic televised speech in which Putin declared the independence of so-called “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,” noting that Ukraine was an artificial construct by Lenin. A few hours after Putin’s speech, the Kremlin announced that Russian forces were being deployed to these two “republics.”  

Although NATO and many of its members immediately denounced this latest Russian violation of international law, initially only very limited sanctions were imposed on individuals and companies that interact with these so-called republics. There was also initial US confusion as to whether the new deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine constituted an invasion or was in fact a “minor incursion.” Twelve hours later, Germany’s government announced a halt to the Nord Stream 2 certification process. The United States clearly stated that it was “the beginning of an invasion” and announced much more significant sanctions against Russia to include cutting it off from US financing of its sovereign debt and sanctions against Russian bank VEB as a “first tranche.” The United States is also moving additional military forces to the three Baltic states due to Russia’s forces in Belarus. Members of Congress are working on additional measures to support Ukraine.  The Kremlin also provided clarification that its independence recognition went beyond the areas currently controlled by the Russian separatists, which suggests that Russian forces could be deployed into Ukrainian government-controlled territory.     

With an estimated 150,000 to 190,000 Russian forces amassed to the north, east, and south of Ukraine, the next several hours and days will dictate how quickly the crisis will escalate, potentially toward a full Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With an estimated 150,000 to 190,000 Russian forces amassed to the north, east, and south of Ukraine, the next several hours and days will dictate how quickly the crisis will escalate, potentially toward a full Russian invasion of Ukraine. Should Russian forces move toward Ukrainian-held territory, Kyiv will have a decision to make: Fire back and provide Russia with a pretext for a full invasion or not fire back and continue to take devastating military hits, potentially weakening the Zelensky government (and certainly weakening Ukraine’s economy) further. Will the United States and the European Union be able to agree on more devastating sanctions?  Do thousands or hundreds of thousands of refugees begin arriving in western Ukraine and Poland? Does NATO decide to substantially increase its forces posture along its eastern flank in response to a full invasion? How impactful will Ukrainian forces—both regular and volunteer—be against formidable Russian air and naval powers?  Russia’s indiscriminate use of military force against Syrian citizens does not give one comfort in this regard. 

My assessment is that, should Russian forces move beyond the existing Line of Contact in Donbas, the Ukrainian military will be deployed, which in turn will trigger the movement of Russian forces in the north and south and a full-scale invasion. Should Russian forces remain within the existing territory held by Russian separatists, great pressure will continue to be applied politically and economically on the Zelensky government as well as the continuation of subversive tactics to topple the current government.    

As President Biden noted in his address today, this is a time for “unity, clarity and conviction.”