Russia’s showing at the most recent Munich Security Conference shows that Russia still has a long way to go in developing soft power and improving its public diplomacy capacity.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is seen speaking on display screen during the Munich Security Conference, at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel February 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters
The 50th Munich Security Conference was intended to celebrate the anniversary of the forum, which brings together key decision-makers and experts on foreign and defense policy from all over the world.
But the anniversary panel (featuring August speakers from former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt) was overshadowed by the political crisis in Ukraine.
On that panel, one speaker after another presented views on the recent events in Ukraine. Stefan Fuele, EU Commissioner for enlargement, played moderator.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbignew Brezinski stated he cannot be neutral, and applauded "courage of Ukrainian people." But he then elaborated on his point, which was that a solution for Ukraine’s problems can only work if Russia is on board.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara aptly explained in good English the multi-vector policy of Kiev, and tried to justify the government's handling of the protest movement. In the latter, however, he didn’t succeed.
Vitaly Klitchko, a boxer champion who recently turned into protest leader, made his first appearance before the crowd of global decision makers.
As the panel was reaching its climax, a representative from Russia took the floor. It was head of Parliamentary Committee on relations with CIS countries, Leonid Slutskiy.
While all other panelists were speaking in English (even Klitchko used some German to make his statement and then switched to English), Slutskiy started in Russian. He first addressed Brzezinski. But he referred not to Brzezinski’s statement, but to an often-quoted phrase from Brzezinski’s book, "The Grand Chessboard," about importance of Ukraine for Russia.
Slutskiy stated that "cynical geopolitical thinking" makes the EU attempt to destabilize Ukraine to prevent the country's entry into the Eurasian economic union, which he called "a mighty block, which will link declining Europe in its seventh year of recession with the vibrant Asia-Pacific region."
The language and message of his speech, along with his offensive tone, went far beyond the skillful message of Leonid Kozhara, who officially represented the government of Viktor Yanukovych.
The audience was silent at first. Then many couldn't hide their smiles. As Slutskiy spoke, many delegates sent tweets with the same core message: "Russia has shown its real face. It is now clear for the Ukranians why they should go west."
Nobody even bothered to argue with Slutskiy, who, towards the end of the discussion, switched to heavily accented French.
My first thought was that the organizers invited Slutskiy on purpose.
It turned out that it was a Russian decision approved in Moscow. People who decided to send Slutskiy as Russia's representative to the most important security conference in the world could be satisfied: He clearly delivered the same message that is being transmitted to ordinary Russians via state-controlled TV channels.
But in Munich, the message missed the audience completely. There was not even an attempt for dialog to engage Western and Ukrainian politicians and to present Russia as a constructive player.
The same could be observed in terms of the way Russian representatives treat the Munich Conference: They view it as just another platform to air official viewpoints. Meanwhile, everyone else is networking at receptions that the Russian officials and MPs don't attend.
In his address to the diplomatic corps in 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the need for Russia to develop soft power and improve its public diplomacy capacity. The country’s showing at the most recent Munich Security Conference shows that Russia still has a long way to go.
Alexander Gabuev is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Kommersant-Vlast Magazine and Munich Young Leader of 2011.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.