John Kerry (C), Sergei Lavrov (L), Syrian Staffan de Mistura (R).jpg
Photograph: EPA/SVEN HOPPE

This weekend's Munich Security Conference will address rising global instability with a focus on Russia's role in two major conflicts: Syria and Ukraine. But in the absence of Putin, little can be done to solve what organizers call a "crisis in Western-Russian relations".

These are "two of the defining conflicts of our time," says the Munich Security Report 2016, published by the summit's organizers.

"A year ago, we observed that international and regional orders were at significant risk of disintegrating. Since then, this risk has only further increased," Munich Security Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger says in the report's preface.

The report warns of a "crisis in Western-Russian relations," with numerous close encounters and military incidents between Russian and Western forces presenting an undeniable risk of escalation.

Russia does not expect any breakthrough in Munich, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, said this week in comments carried by state media.

Russia's relations with the West have deteriorated to a post-Cold War low since Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula in early 2014 and then backed a pro-Russian separatist rebellion in Ukraine's east.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2007 used the Munich forum to deliver an inflammatory speech about NATO's eastward expansion, will not attend this year because it does not fit his schedule, according to his spokesman.

Two days before the conference was to begin, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western military alliance will increase its presence in the Black Sea, which surrounds Russian-annexed Crimea.

"Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria are pretty much going to be at the heart of Munich," said Mark Galeotti, a prolific author on Russian security issues. A distant second focus at the summit will be the terrorist group Islamic State, Galeotti told dpa.

In Syria's civil war, Russia's air force is supporting President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally, whereas Western and regional powers are backing rebels seeking to overthrow al-Assad, whom they accuse of crimes against humanity.

"Russia and the West have fundamentally different goals in the Syrian conflict, which makes compromises even more unlikely," said Maria Snegovaya, a columnist for Russian newspaper Vedomosti.

"Russia is currently somewhat succeeding in Syria in strengthening al-Assad's hold on power and hence will probably not be inclined to make concessions on Syria to the West," Snegovaya told dpa.

In Ukraine, this week marks the first anniversary of a fragile ceasefire deal agreed in Minsk between Putin and Ukraine's president.

Violations of the ceasefire are reported nearly daily, but the deal's implementation is imperative if Russia wants to remove crippling Western sanctions against its economy.

But nothing indicates that Putin is ready to give up eastern Ukraine, said Sergey Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister of Russia.

"Sanctions hurt the Russian economy, but Putin is ready to accept this price. Moreover, it helps him to consolidate his elite and gain popularity in the country," Aleksashenko told dpa.

While Russian and Western officials in Munich will seek to mitigate tensions, "without Putin in the room it's unlikely any major progress can be achieved," said Matthew Rojansky, head of the Russia-focused Kennan Institute in Washington.

Galeotti agreed: "Ultimately, whatever negotiations take place in Munich, Putin will have to make any decisions."

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will lead the country's delegation, which will include Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to state media.

Western officials will probably use the summit to present a consolidated stance against Russia's involvement in Syria and Ukraine, according to an opinion piece published by Russian state news agency TASS on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday she was outraged that a Russian-backed offensive in Syria was driving refugees into Turkey.

Under Merkel's open-door refugee policy, hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflict zones such as Syria have fled to Germany over the past year.

That policy has been harshly criticized by some senior German officials such as Horst Seehofer, the premier of the German state of Bavaria, whose capital is Munich.

Last week, Seehofer visited Putin in Moscow and called for an easing of the Western sanctions against Russia.

"Russia is currently bolstering its information campaign with a goal to change European - and especially German - public opinion regarding the anti-Russian sanctions, with a goal to discredit Merkel in light of the refugee crisis," Snegovaya told dpa.

Merkel is not expected to attend the Munich summit. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will lead talks with senior foreign officials.

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