Security conference seen as a key test of west’s resolve to fight out a prolonged, expensive wa

Patrick Wintour

17 Feb 2023

The Guardian

The Ukrainian president, Volodymr Zelenskiy, will be the opening speaker on Friday at the three-day Munich security conference (MSC) as the west faces urgent calls to speed up ammunition production and supplies to Kyiv in the face of mounting fears that Russia is planning a new offensive.

The conference is expected to be attended by more than 100 world leaders, and diplomats, including the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, and the event will be seen as a key test of the west’s resolve to fight out a grinding, prolonged, expensive war. Few are expected to hold out hope of early peace negotiations.

The MSC has had a tradition going back decades of inviting senior leaders from states hostile, or ambivalent, towards the west, but this year has taken the unusual decision to exclude any representatives from Iran or Russia. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has responded to his exclusion by setting a Moscow foreign policy goal of ending the diplomatic monopoly of the west.

However, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, will be speaking at the conference and his speech will be watched closely to see how far he is willing to go both in distancing himself from Russia’s invasion and in seeking out a post-Covid new trading relationship with the west. He is expected to meet the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who is likely to urge him to do more to criticise the invasion of Ukrainian sovereign territory. A planned trip by Blinken to Beijing was cancelled over the Chinese spy balloon controversy.

Britain, which in recent years sent no one of note apart from the then cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, and then last year at the last minute extracted an invitation for Boris Johnson to send a warning about the imminent invasion of Ukraine, is this year taking no chances, sending the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the defence secretary, Ben Wallace.

Before the last MSC – held from 18-20 February 2022, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began – Johnson was expecting in common with other western leaders to expect Ukraine’s defences including around Kyiv to collapse within days, and much of his speech focused on the help the west could provide to a Ukrainian resistance movement.

Sunak will be hoping to brief European leaders personally on the progress he has made in breaking the deadlock over the Northern Ireland protocol. Labour is also sending a delegation including the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy. Plans for the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, to attend have been thwarted by an air traffic strike.

Britain’s security strengths, and longstanding links with the Ukrainian armed forces, have given Britain an entry point into European politics it might otherwise have lost due to Brexit, a point Lammy has been emphasising.

Zelenskiy is expected to impress upon the western allies the need to speed up Nato’s supply of weapons to combat Russian air assault and warn of the long-term implications for the security architecture of Europe posed by the Russian threat. Last year in his speech, the Ukrainian president spoke of the need for new security guarantees for Ukraine, an idea he has subsequently fleshed out.

The Élysée has said that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, will use his speech on Friday to set out how Ukraine can win the war against Russia. He will be preceded by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who wants to assure his audience that the German turning point signalled by his Zeitenwende speech in the immediate wake of Russia’s invasion is a long-term change in German defence thinking.

In the speech, Scholz committed to spend more on defence and give Germany a new, more prominent defence role. He later embellished that argument by saying majority voting should be introduced for foreign affairs at the European Union, reflecting on the slowness with which foreign and defence policy decisions including on sanctions against Russia are taken.

Both countries, always regarded as the natural motors of the EU, have been criticised by the Baltic states, Poland and some of the German coalition for showing a stuttering, ambivalent approach to the Ukraine war, and betting on their personal relationships with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to persuade him to rethink his strategy.

Scholz, criticised for hesitancy about the supply of German weapons, insists he can go only at the speed he judges German public opinion allows. He adds he must act in concert with Nato allies, especially the US, and be aware of the threat that Nato will be drawn into the conflict, risking the escalation of a nuclear war.

Apart from the set-piece speeches, world leaders at Munich will go through a lightning round of bilaterals, including a meeting between Sunak and Harris. It is the second year in a row that the US vice-president has been given the chance to showcase her international diplomatic skills at the Munich conference that used to be a natural venue for Joe Biden, as chair of the Senate foreign affairs committee. European leaders will be using the weekend to speak to the newly elected Republican leadership in the House.

It is expected G7 foreign ministers will also meet to discuss next steps in Ukraine and how to address the future of the Iran nuclear deal.

The US president is due in Poland on Monday.