Russia, Ukraine and Gaza dominate as world leaders gather for Munich security conference

By Isaac M February 17, 2024

Just minutes before the opening session of the world’s largest meeting for security policy, news broke of the sudden death of prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison in Russia.

A day before, Navalny had appeared in court, thin but ostensibly well and even joking about the absurdity of the Russian judicial system with the judge, who couldn’t help but smile at his joke.

Then on Friday, it was announced that the 47-year-old had collapsed after a walk in the penal colony in the Arctic Circle.

However, the reported death of such a prominent figure and public critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin cast a heavy shadow over the three-day Munich Security Conference, which his wife Yulia Navalnaya is attending. The meeting of world leaders, military officials and diplomats in the German city was always expected to focus on Russia and its bloody invasion of Ukraine.

That expectation has only heightened.

Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau said the reported death had reminded the entire world what “a monster” Mr Putin is.

US vice-president Kamala Harris pledged support for Ukraine and Nato. “Make no mistake, the American people will meet this moment, and America will continue to lead,” she told the conference.

Navalny’s newly widowed wife, who addressed the conference shortly after the news broke, held Mr Putin and his coterie responsible for the death, saying that the world needed to unite “and overcome that terrible regime that is currently in Russia”.

And so the news placed a searing spotlight on one of the biggest challenges occupying the global stage – the Ukraine war and the problem of Russia – at a time when Ukrainian officials have been worrying about global war fatigue as they have struggled to hold the front lines at enormous cost.

“The news [of Navalny] added a sober note to it all,” said Bronwen Maddox, CEO of British think tank Chatham House, who was present as a minute’s silence was held for Navalny at the opening sessions.

“There is a sense of great sadness, and a sense of reality about what Russia could mean for Europe, for everyone.”

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip


The backdrop to the conference already comprised the threat from Russia and concerns over the US’s increasing isolationism – whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is in the White House – with delays to fresh US funding to Ukraine, worth tens of billions of dollars, resulting from spats in Congress.

“There is a feeling that Europe is going to have to do more to look after itself,” said Ms Maddox.

“Part of the debate this morning has been trying to make the point to the US that Russia doesn’t just affect Europe, it affects the US and everyone.”

The annual global gathering, which is dubbed the “Davos of Defence”, is being attended by an estimated 60 heads of state including German chancellor Olaf Scholz, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, who said: “This is the European hour and we need to rise to the challenge. Defence matters, and the best way to show that is to spend on defence.”

This year, the stages and talks on the sidelines will likely be dominated by the Ukraine war but also the war in Gaza, as Israel has vowed to press ahead with its offensive into Rafah, the last refuge in the besieged enclave.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced an increasingly loud chorus of condemnation after he vowed to press ahead with his ferocious bombardment of the strip, which came as a response to a Hamas attack inside Israel on 7 October that killed around 1,200 people and saw another 250 taken hostage. Health ministry officials in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed during the conflict.

World leaders have said that a ground assault into Rafah, which is hosting some 1.5 million people – the vast majority already displaced – would be a bloodbath.

“The Rafah offensive is hanging in the air, as is the question of how to get a resolution to the wider situation in the Middle East,” Ms Maddox added.

The biggest questions will be around how to secure a ceasefire and a hostage release deal to pull the region back from the brink. But Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz said in Munich that Israel believed there was no choice but to go into Rafah, as it could not leave Hamas there.

When asked where refugees in Rafah would go, he suggested Gaza’s second city, Khan Younis – which has been the focus of an Israeli assault for weeks, forcing many who were sheltering there to travel to Rafah.

While two of the largest wars of this generation rage on, other issues at the conference include the devastating impact of the climate crisis on security. Ms Maddox said that leaders from Barbados and Ghana were at the summit and wanted to raise their concerns across a weekend of frenetic talks.


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