Brussels Playbook Munich Security Conference Special Edition: Balloon talk — The dissident delegations — Taiwan ‘war games’
Presented by Google
By MATT KARNITSCHNIG
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FOR THE LAST TIME — Guten Morgen, Grüß Gott and Servus from Bavaria. Welcome to the second and final edition of our special Munich Security Conference edition of Brussels Playbook.
It’s another gray day in Munich. And after 48 hours in the Bavarian capital, most of us have had our fill of roast pork, beer, sausages, sauerkraut, knödel and kebab and just want it all to end. The good news: The Munich Airport, which effectively shut down on Friday due to a strike, is back in full operation. Let’s dive into the latest before everyone heads home.
US-CHINA HOLD BALLOON BABBLE
Tête-à-Tête: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, breaking weeks of icy silence between the superpowers over a suspected “spy balloon” Washington shot down over the Atlantic.
Blinken made clear the U.S. would not tolerate violations of its airspace, but he received no apologies from Wang, who earlier in the day mocked Washington for what he called its “absurd and hysterical” reaction to the balloon.
**A message from Google: Nearly one year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, and we continue to see cyber operations play a prominent role in the war. Read this week’s special report ahead of the Munich Security Conference, “Fog of War: How the Ukraine Conflict Transformed the Cyber Threat Landscape.”**
Chinese whispers: More important than the balloon flap, which American officials privately acknowledge is diplomatic theater, was the two diplomats’ discussion of Ukraine amid speculation that Beijing is about to become more involved.
“We are very concerned that China is considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine and I made clear that that would have serious consequences in our relationship,” Blinken told U.S. broadcaster NBC in an interview after meeting Wang.
Blinken warned Beijing there would be “implications and consequences” if China sends weapons or helps Russia evade sanctions.
TOP GUN UKRAINE
Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. general in Europe, is quietly telling American lawmakers that giving Ukraine advanced Western equipment — such as F-16 fighter jets, drones and long-range missiles — could help Kyiv rule the skies and bolster its own offensives against Russia, our colleagues Alex Ward and Paul McCleary write in this exclusive report.
Cavoli told a closed-door briefing with more than 10 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives that providing the gear — which the Biden administration has so far been reluctant to do —would help Ukraine win the war against Russia.
Munich — The edge of war: Is it 1938 all over again? That’s what some MSC attendees fear, as they look nervously from Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait.
UKRAINE, THE HUMAN FACTOR: While the war in Ukraine keeps devastating its society, the number of people fleeing the conflict zone and entering the EU has stabilized in recent months, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told POLITICO in Munich. “What I didn’t expect is that since late April last year, we have had a totally stable situation when it comes to entries and exits between Ukraine and the EU.”
Winter came: “I was expecting, and the Ukrainian government called me, they were expecting more people to flee during winter, with the bombing of electricity supply, water supply,” said Johansson, who oversees the EU’s migration policy. “This has not materialized. At all,” she added, praising the resilience of Ukrainians throughout the war. “This resilience, this is really part of what Putin didn’t expect.”
POWER IN NUMBERS: U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday made his own pitch for why his country’s support has been critical to Ukraine’s war efforts. But the real power balance was on display in the room, as plenty of attendees ducked out after Sunak’s warmup act, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, finished. The U.K. leader was left addressing some emptying rows in the back. Blimey!
What he said: Sunak pushed back on the perception that the U.K. delegation had punched below its weight at the Munich gathering. “James will correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m told that this is the biggest delegation that we’ve had,” he said, seeking a nod from his foreign minister, James Cleverly, in the crowd.
Never-ending Brexit: He also got drawn into the U.K.’s simmering Brexit dispute with the EU, downplaying rumors of an imminent deal on Northern Ireland border issues: “There is no deal that is done. There’s work to do.” He said the two sides “will work through” their sticking points, “but we are by no means done.”
MOBILE MASTS — KEEP YOUR HEAD UP: POLITICO’s report that Huawei is providing equipment for mobile masts near the Hotel Bayerischer Hof — which houses the conference — was still buzzing here on Sunday. The specific nugget that the Hof itself could potentially have a Huawei mast right on top of its roof had some of Playbook’s interlocutors raising their heads and inspecting ceilings. (Revisit our story here.)
Trigger fingers: The news didn’t stop U.S. officials from old-skool texting, we can tell you. But one person close to the U.S. administration did say some of Washington’s officials got extra security guidelines on the use of mobile phones while in Munich. (POLITICO could not confirm which authorities provided the guidance, and to whom.)
China has some thoughts on masts, too. An article in the state propaganda publication Global Times late on Saturday lashed out at U.S. government officials voicing concerns in POLITICO’s reporting. “In addition to strategically blocking China’s high-tech development, it is also trying to completely ban Chinese high-tech products in the European market and replace them with American products,” it wrote. (Mind you the U.S. doesn’t actually have competing products, much to the despair of China hawks in Washington.)
ALSO ON CHINA’s MIND? POLITICO participated in a “war game” on Saturday that hypothesized a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2025, after a more confrontational politician takes power on the self-governed island. As depressing as any scenario was, the outcome that a dozen participants around the table imagined suggested the U.S. would be more measured in its response than sometimes expected — and that Europe could very well be an idle bystander when the war over the Asian island turns hot. The U.S. consultancy Silverado organized the exercise.
‘NOT DISSIDENTS, PEOPLE’
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT: MSC organizers did not invite either Iran or Russia to this year’s conference but they did host some of the most vocal critics of both brutal regimes, including Masih Alinejad and Garry Kasparov.
The Berlin Wall: In a discussion on the repression of women in Iran, Alinejad compared the Islamic regime’s law requiring women to wear a headscarf to the Berlin Wall, saying, “If we tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic will be gone.”
Meet the Russian shadow delegation in Munich: “I’ve discovered I’m popular with Munich taxi drivers,” Mikhail Khodorkovsky tells POLITICO’s Jamie Dettmer.
WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL: Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Karim Khan is still insisting The Hague-based ICC is the appropriate judicial venue to hold Russia accountable for war crimes in Ukraine: “It’s clear. We have that jurisdiction, and we are being very active,” he told Jamie on the MSC sidelines.
SPOTTED: A one-person Taiwanese delegation roaming the halls of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof — surely hoping to avoid a run-in with top diplomat Wang Yi and his entourage.
Also spotted: Wall Street Journal scribe Bojan Pancevski raiding the MSC cake table.
TIP OF THE CAP: It’s easy to poke fun at the German military, the Bundeswehr, which has been plagued for years by underfunding and low morale. But they do put on a good conference. One of the secrets of the government-sponsored MSC is the degree to which it relies on the Bundeswehr for logistical support. The contribution of Germany’s men and uniform in keeping the MSC running and secure was once again on display this weekend. Danke!
CRONIES CORNER: Like in any fairytale kingdom, titles are the currency of the MSC realm. The conference has not just a chairman (Christoph Heusgen) and a president (Wolfgang Ischinger), but two vice chairmen, one of whom also holds the titles of chief executive officer and executive director and even gets a uniform.
They get advice from both a 25-member advisory council (populated by the likes of Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, and John Kerry, the former American secretary of State) and a 22-member “security innovation board.” With so many bold-faced names to accommodate, organizers have had to get even more creative and established a “foundation council” and board of trustees.
All in the family: The point of it all isn’t just ego, it’s access. Kurt Lauk, for example, the chairman of Agora, a “geopolitical” advisory firm he co-founded with Ischinger that has worked closely (and controversially) with the MSC over the years, sits on the security innovation board. German PR-man Christoph Walther, another Agora co-founder, belongs to the foundation council, alongside the likes of Wolfgang Schmidt, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s closest advisor, and Helga Maria Schmid, a senior German diplomat who is currently general secretary of the OSCE.
So why does Berlin allow its premier international showcase to be run like a Gulf emirate? I’ve put that question to a number of senior officials in Berlin and the simple answer is because it works.
Germany lacks a strategic culture of its own but over the years MSC has proved adept at bringing together key figures from the U.S. and Europe to discuss some of the world’s most pressing problems. So what if a few people earn a few bucks on the back of it or if McKinsey is quietly running the show behind the curtain?
At the end of the day, the conference is good for Germany’s image. And besides, if history is any guide, some of the very people in the German government with oversight of the MSC will one day be running it themselves.
In other words: Auf Wiedersehen and until next year!
OUR MUNICH PLAYBOOK wouldn’t happen without Laurens Cerulus, Cory Bennett, Heidi Vogt, Dave Brown and Jones Hayden.
**A message from Google: To provide more insights into the role of cyber ahead of the Munich Security Conference, this week we released a new report Fog of War: How the Ukraine Conflict Transformed the Cyber Threat Landscape. The report, based on analysis from Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) and Mandiant, now part of Google Cloud, finds a 250% increase in phishing attacks targeting Ukrainian people and an over 300% increase in attacks targeting users in NATO countries last year, more destructive cyberattacks in Ukraine during the first four months of 2022 than in the previous eight years, and relentless attempts to sow disinformation at home and abroad.**
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