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Ukraine, Islamic State key issues at Munich Security Conference

Gen. Philip Breedlove, U.S. European Command chief and NATO’s top military commander, speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 6, 2015.

TOBIAS KLEINSCHMIDT/MSC

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 6, 2015

MUNICH, Germany — Participants at a conference here on global security issues agreed Friday that the Islamic State group and the conflict in Ukraine are among the most pressing threats, but ideas diverged on the best way forward, especially over possible lethal aid to Kiev.

“States are breaking up and conflict is at our borders. This conference has a dramatic backdrop,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the opening Friday of the annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together policy-makers, business leaders and security experts. “Does this mean the international order is on the brink of collapse? My answer is no. Not as long as the guardians of the international order remain ready to act.”

The question, however, is how to act.

In Ukraine, a key issue that is up for vigorous debate is whether the U.S. and its allies should begin arming Ukrainian forces with lethal defensive weapons in their fight against well-armed Russian–backed separatists in the country’s east. Ashton Carter, the defense secretary nominee, has indicated an inclination to support such a move, and the matter is under close review at the White House. It would mark a sharp turn for the U.S. and could put it at odds with its allies that have staked out an opposite position.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, cautioned that sending weapons to Ukraine could only worsen the violence, which has raged since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last March .

“There are already far too many weapons in Ukraine and the region. Are we sure we will improve the situation for the people in Ukraine if we deliver the weapons?” she asked. “Are we sure Ukraine can win against the military machinery of Russia?”

With sanctions pressuring a weak Russian economy, the West has leverage without sending in arms, von der Leyen argued. Meanwhile, the emphasis should be placed on bringing all sides in the conflict to the negotiating table, she said.

As she spoke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a day after the two leaders met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a push for a peaceful solution.

Numerous high-level officials are expected to participate in the Munich conference, where closed-door meetings will touch on issues such as the crisis in Syria and Iraq, and several bilateral meetings will be held on the sidelines. Among those attending are Merkel, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Poroshenko, who will likely make his case for getting arms to his troops.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, U.S. European Command chief and NATO’s top military commander, suggested during a panel discussion Friday that arming Ukrainian forces shouldn’t be rejected outright.

“As we look at Ukraine, some say there is not a military solution,” Breedlove said. “And others at the same table would argue there is a military solution and Putin is prosecuting that solution in Ukraine.”

Allies, he said, should keep all options on the table. And if measures now being taken aren’t achieving desired results then “conventional means should not be outwardly discounted,” Breedlove said.

Other discussions centered on how to contend with Russia’s use of so-called hybrid warfare tactics, which the West has accused Russia of deploying in Ukraine. Hybrid warfare involves a mix of tactics short of a conventional invasion, such as propaganda campaigns, utilization of proxies and economic pressures to destabilize a country.

While hybrid warfare might not be new, Breedlove said, Russia’s ability to “put together all the elements of national power — diplomatic pressure, information campaign, economic coercion — and then taking the military element and shrouding it in the lie,” poses a unique threat, he said.

“It’s put together in new and potent ways,” he said. “What we face is the speed and the power of the lie.”

But achieving consensus among allies in answering such threats could be complicated, particularly if they disagree on whether such actions — often murky and hard to attribute — should require a collective NATO response.

What NATO needs to do is get better at recognizing such patterns in the early stages and be able to attribute them to a specific actor, “to close the political gap,” Breedlove said.

Meanwhile, German officials reiterated a pledge made at last year’s conference to boost its engagement in dealing with security threats on the global stage. But while von der Leyen said Germany has lived up to last year’s pledge, she cautioned that Berlin also has its own view of leadership.

“It is leading from the center,” she said. “Leading from the center as we understand it is to enable others to make vital contributions.”

“No nation, whatever its size, even the biggest one, can successfully resolve conflicts on its own,” she said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com