UPDATED: Ukraine crisis takes centre stage at Munich Security Conference

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MUNICH, Feb 18 (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris will meet NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, a day after President Joe Biden warned the threat of Russia invading Ukraine was “very high”.

Biden on Thursday said the door to a diplomatic solution remains open but “my sense is this will happen in the next several days,” referring to a Russian invasion. 

Earlier in the day, pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine accused government forces of shelling a village on Friday while Russian media reported more infantry and tank units were returning to their bases in contrast to Western fears of an imminent Russian invasion.

During her three-day visit to the conference, Harris will also meet leaders of three Baltic States later on Friday and continue her visit with meetings with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other world leaders on Saturday. 

World leaders converge this weekend on Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference which will be dominated by the Ukraine crisis as major Western powers warn the Kremlin looks close to launching an invasion of the former Soviet state.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will be among the dignitaries attending the three-day event, known as “Davos for defence”, which kicks off on Friday at the luxurious Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich. 

No Russian delegation will attend the conference, the Kremlin said last week – the first no-show in years, underscoring how much East-West relations have deteriorated.

Even at the height of the Ukrainian revolution preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the forum had increasingly become biased towards the West, “losing its inclusivity, objectivity”.

Daniela Schwarzer, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said: “Russia has limited interest in dialogue and in particular an open conversation about security in Europe.

“The conference is an occasion for the political West to show unity vis-a-vis Russia and vis-a-vis authoritarian regimes more generally,” said Schwarzer, who is attending the event.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday there was now every indication Russia was planning to invade Ukraine in the next few days and was preparing a pretext to justify it, after Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels traded fire in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin accused him of stoking tensions and threatened unspecified “military-technical measures”. 

Schwarzer noted that the conference, while scaled back compared to pre-pandemic ones, would be the first physical meeting of the international security and foreign policy community in two years. In-person conversations were key to “building trust”, she said.

‘OVERLAPPING CRISES’

The Ukraine standoff is not the only crisis that will keep conference attendees busy. Roundtables on Saturday, the main day of events, will also address the fragile security situation in the Sahel and the revival of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal.

Both issues have flared up this week with the announced French withdrawal of troops from Mali after almost a decade fighting Islamist insurgents and reports of a new U.S.-Iranian deal taking shape. 

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger told reporters he could not recall a time when there were “so many overlapping crises”.

On Friday, the main program kicks off from 1230 GMT with speeches by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Over the weekend there will also be high-profile panels on cryptocurrency, climate change and the pandemic.

But much of the action is likely to take place on the sidelines of the main stage, said Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

One of these will be a meeting of the foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations set to address the Ukraine crisis.

“Important issues are discussed at these meetings behind the scenes,” said Franke, “and it’s only months later when something is announced that you realise what really happened in Munich.”

This will be Ischinger’s last time chairing the conference. After 14 years as chairman, he is set to hand over the reins to Christoph Heusgen, former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s adviser on foreign and security policy.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin and Sabine Siebold in Munich; Additional reporting by Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Photo – A police vehicle in front of the Bayerischer Hof hotel, the venue of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2022, in Munich, Germany. The 58th Munich Security Conference will take place from 18 to 20 February. EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK

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