It's a new Cold War, say Russian top brass
US vows to stand up to Moscow's 'repeated aggression' as Nato alliance slams Putin's regime for Syrian bombings, intimidating its neighbours and undermining stability in Europe
Russia's prime minister yesterday accused the West of rekindling the Cold War, telling a meeting of top defence officials, diplomats and national leaders that sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea and new moves by the Nato alliance "only aggravate" tensions.
Dmitry Medvedev said Russian President Vladimir Putin told the same Munich Security Conference in 2007 that the West's building of a missile defense system risked restarting the Cold War, and that now "the picture is more grim; the developments since 2007 have been worse than anticipated".
"Nato's policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque - one could go so far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War," he said.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg threw the blame back at Moscow. "Russia's rhetoric, posture and exercises of its nuclear forces are aimed at intimidating its neighbours, undermining trust and stability in Europe," he said.
President Dalia Grybauskaite of Russia's neighbour Lithuania said Moscow "is demonstrating open military aggression in Ukraine, open military aggression in Syria."
"It's nothing about cold," she said. "It is already very hot."
This does seem to be the case. Lamberto Zannier, who heads the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which monitors the situation in eastern Ukraine, said the situation had "become difficult again".
"We see a multiplication of incidents, violations of the ceasefire," he told journalists at the Munich Security Conference. "We've seen cases of redeployment of heavy armaments closer to the contact line. . . and multiple rocket launchers, artillery being used," he said, referring to the heavy weaponry that is meant to be removed under the Minsk deal.
Medvedev, also speaking in Munich, accused Kiev of trying to shift the blame onto Moscow for the continued shelling in the industrial regions of eastern Ukraine now under rebel control.
"The Minsk agreements have to be observed by everyone. But we believe that it's first and foremost up to the Kiev authorities to do that," he said.
The West says it has satellite images, videos and other evidence to show Russia is providing weapons to the rebels and that Moscow has troops engaged in the conflict that erupted following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014.
Nato's Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove said Russia had the power to "dial up and down" the conflict as it wished to put pressure on the government in Kiev.
Russia denies such accusations.
Extended at the end of last year, the Minsk peace deal signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany aims to give Ukraine back control of its border with Russia, see all heavy weapons withdrawn, return hostages and allow an internationally monitored local election in the east.
Zannier said the vote could not happen until there was a ceasefire and even then it would be difficult to do by mid-year because international observers need to be in place.
Medvedev said Ukraine, not Russia, was in breach of the Minsk deal because Kiev was yet to change Ukraine's constitution to grant special status to eastern Ukraine.
Russia wants an amnesty for mainly Russian-speaking people in the east who seized government buildings during the upheaval of early 2014, when pro-European protesters toppled Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovich.
"Without this amnesty, these people won't be able to participate in the elections," Medvedev said.
Kiev's Western backers acknowledge the government of President Petro Poroshenko must speed up reforms, especially those tied to its US$10bn International Monetary Fund bailout, but say Russia must respect Ukraine's sovereignty.
"Neither the people of Ukraine nor their partners in the international community believe they have done enough," US Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The Munich Security Conference - an annual meeting - is one known for frank talk among top officials, and participants this year include the aforementioned John Kerry, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond, and many others.
Speaking after Medvedev, Kerry fired back that Europe and the United States would continue to "stand up to Russia's repeated aggression" and noted that in addition to a joint focus on Ukraine, Washington had quadrupled spending to help European security.
That will allow the US to maintain a division's worth of equipment in Europe and an additional combat brigade in central and eastern Europe.
"Those who claim our trans-Atlantic partnership is unravelling - or those who hope it might unravel - could not be more wrong," Kerry said.
Medvedev's comments came shortly after Stoltenberg told the group that in response to a "more assertive Russia. . . which is destabilising the European security order," the alliance does "not want a new Cold War but at the same time our response has to be firm."
Stoltenberg stressed the need for dialogue, but also defended Nato's move to strengthen defenses, including moving more troops and equipment to countries bordering Russia, and said at an upcoming summer summit in Warsaw he expected member countries "to decide to further strengthen the alliance's defense and deterrence."
He underlined that Nato's deterrent also included nuclear weapons, saying "no one should think that nuclear weapons can be used as part of a conventional conflict - it would change the nature of any conflict fundamentally."
Medvedev scoffed at what he said was a suggestion that Russia may use nuclear weapons in a first strike. "Sometimes I wonder if it's 2016 or if we live in 1962," he said, referring to the year of the Cuban missile crisis.
He called for sanctions on Russia imposed after it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 to be lifted, saying they were "a road that leads nowhere."
Earlier in the day, Medvedev suggested the West would harm itself if it did not lift the sanctions soon.
"The longer the sanctions continue, chances for the Europeans to keep their position at the Russian market as investors and suppliers are fading," said the Russian. "That's why one has to act quickly."
Kerry said if Russia wants an end to sanctions, it has the "simple choice" to fully implement the Minsk peace accord agreed upon last year.
"Russia can prove by its actions that it will respect Ukraine's sovereignty, just as it insists on respect for its own," he said.
Russia and the US also clashed over how to carry out a day-old cease-fire plan for Syria, underscoring the tenuous level of trust between the two powers as Kerry said peace efforts are at a pivotal stage.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the US is reneging on the agreement and put the chances of success at less than 50pc.
John Kerry, addressing the meeting separately, demanded an end to Russian bombing of groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"This is a hinge point in the conflict," Kerry told the conference. "We hope that this week can become a week of change. It is critical for all of us to take advantage of this moment to make this cessation of hostilities work.
"The Syrians who have rejected Assad have endured four years of shelling, barrel bombs, gas, Scud missiles, chemical attacks, torture," Kerry added.
"They may be pushed back here or there, but they are not going to surrender."
All major outside powers in Syria's five-year-old war - the US, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran - on Friday backed a truce that's set to start on February 19, with airdrops of humanitarian aid to begin as soon as this weekend.
Lavrov said that their agreement would fail unless there's constant military coordination between Russia and the US in Syria. "If we have a practical goal of a cease-fire, then without cooperation between our militaries, it won't lead to anything," he said.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko blasted Russia's actions in both Ukraine and Syria, saying they are "a demonstration that we live in a completely different universe with Russia."
He said that the main danger to Europeans now is an "alternative Europe with alternative values" such as isolation, intolerance and disrespect of human rights. Poroshenko added: "This alternative Europe has its own leader. His name is Mr Putin."