US presses Berlin to arm Ukraine

German defence minister warns military support could be ‘fire accelerant’ in region

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich security conference. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/EPA

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen at the Munich security conference. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/EPA

 

Germany has risked a stand-off with the US on arming Ukraine in its fight with Russia, warning that a concentration of weapons would act as an “fire accelerant” in the region.

With all eyes on Moscow, delegates in Munich for this year’s security conference joked grimly that the 51st annual gathering should have been renamed the “insecurity conference”.

Chancellor Angela Merkel stops off in Munich today to brief 400 delegates on her Russian mission and meet US vice-president Joe Biden.

On his way to Munich, to take soundings on providing defence capabilities to Ukraine, Mr Biden warned in Brussels not to allow Russia to draw new borders to divide the European continent.

Republican senator John McCain was more outspoken, attacking Dr Merkel’s visit to Moscow on German television as “appeasement” politics that reminded him of “the politics of the 1930s”.

Leadership

Sensing US pressure on Ukraine, German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen insisted Berlin was prepared to provide leadership in the world – but “from the centre”, not out front, and not by shipping weapons to hot spots.

“A concentration of weapons [in Ukraine] could act as a fire accelerant that would push us further away from our sought-after solution,” she said, pointing to a “potentially unlimited” stockpile of weapons available on the other side to separatists through Russia.

A year after she promised Munich delegates a Germany more engaged in world affairs, a new state television poll shows Germans are divided over Nato’s role in Ukraine, with 49 per cent of people favouring greater involvement and 46 per cent opposed.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov will attend the Munich gathering today, holding talks with US opposite number John Kerry and Ukrainian president Petro Poroschenko.

Besides the Ukraine stand-off, delegates will discuss progress in the nuclear stand-off with Iran, Syria, the global refugee crisis and the threat posed by Islamic State.

Cracks in world order

Conference president Wolfgang Ischinger noted that the IS threat was not even on attendees’ radar a year ago.

“We are facing serious cracks in the world order and dangerous flaws in what we thought were reliable collective security structures,” he said.

In the opening session, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg agreed that 2014 had been a “black year” for global security and 2015 had not started much better. He singled out the “dangerous pattern” in Russian behaviour to destabilise its regional neighbours, saying “nobody forced Russia to annex Crimea and nobody is forcing Russia to destabilise Ukraine”. Nato member states could yet counter an “age of disorder”, he said, if they were prepared to act – and pay – for security.

The conference had its first mini-scandal when Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pulled out in protest, saying he didn’t want to attend a joint session with Israel.

Ahead of Dr Merkel’s visit on Monday to Washington, Mr McCain attacked German hesitancy on supplying weapons to Ukraine. “I would ask the chancellor how many people have to die in Ukraine before we help them defend themselves,” he said on German television.