Are Security Dialogue’s Drifting Away From Their Principles?

Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during the session “David on the Dnipro: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” (MSC/Kuhlmann)

From Munich to Singapore: how security conferences viewed the Ukraine War.

Security conferences are known for being forums where the conflict or the crisis of the moment is debated, and where diplomatic initiatives often have their genesis. These weighty issues are discussed in panels or roundtables made up of noted academic experts, heads of state and politicians, foreign ministers and military leaders, honoured statesmen and also – increasingly – celebrity CEOs.

The late US Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) was a perennial participant at these events and a tireless advocate of their utility. Over the years, the numbers of US Members of Congress attending the two largest such events – the February Munich Security Conference (MSC) and the late May/early June Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore – were constantly increasing in importance thanks to his leadership.

In 2017, which was McCain’s last MSC before he passed, he offered an explanation as to why he had participated in it religiously for more than three decades. “We come to Munich,” he said, “year in and year out – to revitalise our common moral purpose, our belief that our values are worth the fighting for.”

These are noble principles – and the Naval Aviator who was one of the longest-serving prisoners of the Vietnam War before he became a Senator embodied them with his words and actions. In the previous decade, McCain had also become one of the most vocal advocates for US providing military assistance to Ukraine. It was not the most emotionally satisfying battle.

Congressional resolutions he sponsored after Russia’s 2014 illegal seizure and occupation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas – resolutions that authorised Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin ATGMs and other advanced weaponry to be sent to Ukraine – were sat on by President Obama’s White House. About the best the Republican caucus could get out of the Susan Rice National Security Council were deliveries of MREs and other non-lethal aid.

“The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we’re sending blankets and meals,” McCain said at the time. “Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks.”

McCain died in August 2018, a full three and half years to the day before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Had he been alive at this year’s MSC it would have been an “I told you so” moment. As former EUCOM commander and retired US Army LtGen Ben Hodges has said repeatedly since 24 February 2022, “this is what failed deterrence looks like.”

This year’s MSC did feature a few panels in which the largest land war in Europe since 1939 was the focus of the discussion, but there no end of other agenda items that would make one suspect that this conflict which features cities being levelled, civilians in torture chambers, mass graves and constant threats of nuclear retaliation was of no more importance than any of the world’s more trendy and fashionable problems.

A list of some of the other panel topics at MSC would include: Hungry for Change: New Visions for Food Security; Power Shifts: Geopolitics of the Green Transition; Resetting Migration: Moving Toward Opportunities; Doctor’s Prescription: Strengthening the Global Health Architecture; Protectonic Shifts: Global Trade Under Pressure; Spotlight: Geopolitics of Carbon Border Adjustments; Hydrate Threats: Advancing Water Security; Woman, Life, Freedom: Visions for Iran; Navigating Breakup: Freezing Politics and Thawing Landscapes in the Arctic; Spotlight: Women, Peace and Security; To Greener Pastures: Advancing Joint Climate Action.

Very worthwhile subjects in a normal time, but with his country being bombed into the Stone Age is it no wonder the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, shared his dismay at a special Ukraine luncheon as to what was not being talked about.

“I’ve spent around, about 24 hours here in Munich and I was involved in some very focused and detailed conversations about European security architecture, global security architecture, China-US relations, etc.,” he said. “But, I did not hear anyone talk actually — maybe I missed some meetings as there is a lot happening here — but I did not hear anyone going into details in trying to find a simple answer: What kind of Russia do we need to live in peace and how do we get there? We have to start talking about that.”

In the end, there was one, single panel that broached the “future of Russia” (which Kuleba also participated in), but there was apparently no room left on the agenda for any further exploration of the topic.

About four months later in Singapore at Shangri-La Dialogue – and despite the fact it is an Asia-Pacific Security Conference and not a European event – there was counterintuitively a greater level of substantive discussion about how the conflict in Ukraine might end. There was also an increase in the anxiety about what Russia might do next. Despite the war being thousands of miles away from any spot in Asia there was nonetheless interest by Asian nations building stronger ties with NATO.

During a panel session on the second day of the conference, the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who at the time was a candidate to become the next General Secretary of NATO, commented on the decision to open a Liaison Office in Tokyo. It “is in the interest of NATO” and “important for a number of issues,” he said, and commented on the benefits of having the Japanese Self-Defence Forces “share [their] knowledge of the threat.”

But on the same day the Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto blindsided the participants by suddenly announcing a peace plan for the Russia-Ukraine war. His proposal included a ceasefire, creation of a demilitarised zone and proposed both sides withdrawing around nine miles (15 kilometres) from their current front-line positions.

General (Retd) Prabowo Subianto, Minister of Defense, Indonesia. (IISS)
General (Retd) Prabowo Subianto, Minister of Defense, Indonesia. (IISS)

In his plan, the newly-demilitarised zone would be monitored by a UN peacekeeping force and a UN-sponsored referendum would “ascertain objectively the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of the various disputed areas. I propose that the Shangri-La dialogue find a mode of…voluntary declaration urging both Ukraine and Russia to immediately start negotiations for peace,” he said.

Ukrainian officials present in Singapore were quick to criticise the Indonesian initiative for failing to include any condemnation of Moscow’s invasion or references to – what are by-now thousands of documented cases of – Russian war crimes and other atrocities. A Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman also dismissed holding referendums in the occupied areas, telling media that “there are no disputed territories between Ukraine and the Russian Federation [within which] to hold referendums.”

“In the occupied territories, the Russian army commits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.” By having Indonesia float this trial balloon of a peace plan Russia was attempting “to disrupt the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” he stated.

Later in the day Ukraine’s Defence Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, stated that Prabowo had neither consulted nor discussed any of this plan with Ukraine before making it public and that “this sounds like a Russian plan – not an Indonesian plan,” he said. “He did not discuss it with us.”

“Our position is the first step in any negotiations will take place when the Russians have left every piece of Ukraine territory,” he continued. “When they have left all areas – including Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk. Then when the war is over, we will sit at the table with our partners. Then we will discuss ‘peaceful coexistence’ along with the subjects of reparations and a war crimes tribunal.”

In other words, this peace proposal had little to with what is good for Ukraine and was mostly about what is good for Prabowo’s future career aspirations of running for president of Indonesia.

In the decades before 24-hour news channels, smart phones, high-speed internet and politicians looking for the best camera angle these security conferences were criticised as being too cerebral, too academic and dominated by topics too complicated to be reduced to three-second sound bites. Given how far they have today ventured from the noble objectives they were founded on perhaps returning to those simpler times might be a good idea.

by Reuben F. Johnson