May 24. 2024. 5:54

The Daily

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Ukraine tensions and Chinese balloons to dominate Munich security conference

For 51 weeks of the year, the main attraction on Munich’s Promenadeplatz is a statue of Orlande de Lassus, a Franco-Flemish Renaissance composer which since 2009 has been repurposed – with photographs, flowers and trinkets – as an improvised shrine to Michael Jackson.

There is only a tenuous connection: the late touring king of pop once stayed at the adjacent Bayerischer Hof which, for the other week of the year, enters a high-security luxury bubble as the home of the Munich Security Conference.

With its concentration of political leaders and security wonks, some dub this the Davos of Defence, even though the Munich gathering– celebrating its 60th anniversary this year – predates the World Economic Forum by eight years.

The perilous state of the planet means there will be little appetite for cake and celebration at the three-day gathering in the Bavarian capital.

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Ukraine tensions and Chinese balloons to dominate Munich security conference


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From the conference’s Friday afternoon opening until Sunday, Russia’s year-old war in Ukraine will transform this corner of Munich into a hothouse of speeches, speculation and discreet diplomacy.

This year’s high-profile guests include German chancellor Olaf Scholz, French president Emmanuel Macron and, from Washington, US vice-president Kamala Harris, secretary of state Anthony Blinken and reportedly one third of the Senate.

Scheduled to speak on Saturday, Harris will restate US support for Ukraine ahead of a visit by President Joe Biden to Europe next week, where he will mark the first anniversary of the conflict with a speech in Poland.

“There is an enduring commitment on behalf of the alliance, but it’s not without sacrifice that each country is doing that,” acknowledged Ms Harris to Politico ahead of her Munich trip, where she will meet with British, Finnish, German and Swedish leaders.

Overseeing this year’s security conference for the first time is Christoph Heusgen, former foreign policy adviser to Angela Merkel and a one-time German ambassador to the UN.

A year after what he calls the West’s “rupture” with Moscow, Heusgen has attracted attention for the Munich gathering in interviews, by demanding Russia’s “dePutinisation” and uninviting Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister and security conference veteran.

“He is only Putin’s mouthpiece and our conference is too good to use as a platform for Kremlin propaganda,” said Heusgen, promising discussions instead with Russians who have fled their home.

The former Merkel aide has been denounced on Russian state media as a result; he has attracted ire in Berlin for criticising the refusal of the Scholz administration to consider following up its Ukraine tank pledges with fighter aircraft.

The robust Heusgen messaging is to the liking of Ukrainian officials attending in Munich, who will step up their demands for expedited deliveries of ammunition and more advanced equipment.

They will also press attending officials, in particular from Turkey, to lean on Russia to stop hindering Ukrainian grain shipments under the Black Sea grain deal.

Despite the focus on Ukraine, conference attendees will use their time in Munich to address other tensions.

Top of the agenda: an expected meeting between Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi amid an ongoing row over Washington claims that China has been using high-altitude balloons for espionage. China dismisses those claims but Blinken cancelled a visit to Beijing over the dispute.

The US delegation, along with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, hopes to sound out attending Turkish officials over Ankara’s ongoing veto on Sweden joining the defence alliance, amid fading hopes it will accede in parallel with Finland.

After Munich, Blinken will travel on to Turkey to inspect the earthquake devastation while, in Ankara, he will sound out Turkish officials on the Sweden stand-off and hold talks over Turkey’s purchase of advanced US fighter aircraft.

Aides to Macron saytough words are to be expected from the French president over how to “ensure Russia’s defeat” in Ukraine and create new future “mechanisms” to restore – and maintain – peace in Europe.

Russians aren’t the only uninvited guests: the Heusgen team has also ensured there will be no Iranian government representatives in Munich, in protest at Tehran’s crackdown on freedom protests.

The Russian and Iranian bans have attracted criticism from some quarters, who say it robs Munich of a unique selling point as a place for quiet talks between people who, in public, are not talking.

With Iranian nuclear talks frozen, Heusgen says “offering the mullah regime a platform” was not acceptable. Instead he wants to expand the conference’s focus to the global south and winning over allies for the rules-based order.

Not all high-profile European gatherings are excluding Russia: Ukraine has announced it will stay away from next week’s assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Ukraine’s OSCE delegation head Mykyta Poturajew said Kyiv feared Russia would use the Vienna gathering – on the anniversary of its invasion last year – to “justify aggression against Ukraine . . . and whitewash war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Ukrainians”.