"A Matter of Willpower and Timing" – Report from the MSC Core Group Meeting 2018 in Minsk

Frictions between East and West have been on the rise in recent years. Offering a platform for informal dialogue in this tension-ridden climate for key stakeholders, the Munich Security Conference (MSC) assembled a select group of high-level decision-makers for its Core Group Meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on October 31 and November 1. Participants explored options for some of the region’s most pressing strategic challenges, including the erosion of arms control agreements and the persistence of regional conflicts.

View of a discussion session at the MSC Core Group Meeting in Minsk (Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann)

Mutual trust between East and West has eroded to the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. This has severe implications for countries in Eastern Europe – the so-called "in-between states" – and in the Western Balkans. Both regions are in many terms in limbo regarding their regional integration while the risk of escalation due to miscalculations or misperceptions is rising steadily. Accordingly, the state of the broader region’s security has major implications for international security. Maintaining open channels of communication, fostering mutual understanding and tending dependable personal networks at the highest political levels is therefore more important than ever.

Against this background, the MSC held this year’s Core Group Meeting in Minsk. The city is not only situated at the geopolitical centre of Europe, but also has a history of serving as a venue for international efforts to solve conflicts and crises: a "new Geneva", as some participants put it. The event was organized in partnership with the Government of Belarus and provided a neutral platform for a selected group of more than 100 prominent decision-makers from all sides – including representatives of governments, militaries, the intelligence community, business, and academia. Among the participants were Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus; Armen Sarkissian, President of the Republic of Armenia; Jacek Czaputowicz, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland; Thomas Greminger, OSCE Secretary General; Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiation; Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, and Gyde Jensen, Chairwoman of the Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid in the German Bundestag.

You can find a selection of photo impressions from the Core Group Meeting in our media library.

A region between conflict and cooperation

Unconstrained by the formalities of inter-state diplomacy, the Core Group Meeting encouraged constructive exchanges on a variety of pressing issues. Participants appreciated the frankness and candour of the informal conversations as it enabled them to explore new policy ideas. This was strikingly illustrated by an exchange between Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi. Both met at the Core Group Meeting for bilateral talks and underlined their commitment to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. They stated that the status quo of the frozen conflict was not sustainable but also stressed that there was still a long way to go to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.

During the conference, participants debated pressing strategic challenges in the East-West relationship and for Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans in particular. These so-called "in-between states" are facing a geopolitically volatile climate and are caught between rising tensions in the US-Russian relationship as well as the destabilizing impact of regional conflicts. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, addressing the participants in the President's Palace, urged all sides to work together more closely to address these international and regional threats: "We don't want to be in the epicentre of a military conflict. We have experienced this before."

The current prospects of the Minsk process were the basis for a further part of the discussions. Rather than just a regional conflict, some participants considered the contested status of eastern Ukraine as exemplary for the contested status of the European security order. Accordingly, doubts were raised about whether the Minsk agreements were still the right avenue to pursue, but overall participants expressed a strong willingness stay committed to solving the conflict in Ukraine along the lines agreed upon in Minsk in February 2015.

Roundtable discussions at the conference also addressed questions of energy security, intelligence cooperation and transnational threats in the region – a new MSC series launched at the Core Group Meeting. This series covers non-military threats such as organized crime, terrorism or human trafficking which transcend borders and threaten national as well as international security.

Concern about the state of international arms control

The current international arms control regime is severely weakened and some participants even believed that it is beyond saving. Many European participants were deeply distressed about the possible withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the return of Russian intermediate-range missiles to Europe.

The overall crisis of multilateralism, lack of political will, and rapid technological advances undermine not only the implementation of existing treaties but also render the conclusion of new agreements increasingly unlikely. While participants disagreed about what way arms control should and could go in the future, they agreed that at the very least military-to-military contacts should be strengthened to avoid dangerous misunderstandings and misperceptions.

"There is no such thing as an unresolvable conflict"

The ideas and ambitions expressed by many of the participants in Minsk will have to be underwritten by concrete action, although some challenges appear to be difficult to address. MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger encouraged participants that "there is no such thing as an unresolvable conflict." The upcoming Munich Security Conference in February 2019 will provide another opportunity to assess the progression of talks and the implementation of policy initiatives to address the region’s pressing strategic challenges.

01 November 2018, by MSC