Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Saturday that relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to the point that they may have fallen into a new cold war and that sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea has served only to aggravate tensions.
"NATO's policy with regard to Russia has remained unfriendly and opaque," Medvedev said, according to CNN. "One could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new Cold War."
Medvedev's warning comes amid escalating violence in eastern Ukraine and accusations that Russian airstrikes in Syria have been indiscriminately killing civilians. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that over 1,000 civilians have been killed by Russian warplanes since Moscow launched its military campaign last September.
At a security conference in Munich on Saturday, Medvedev firmly rejected such allegations. "There is no evidence of our bombing civilians even though everyone is accusing us of this" Medvedev said. "Russia is not trying to achieve some secret goals in Syria. We are simply trying to protect our national interests." Medvedev added that it was in their interest to prevent militants from returning to Russia.
According to analysis from the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consulting firm, Russia had an estimated 2,400 citizens fighting alongside the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) or al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, in Iraq and Syria in December last year. Those estimates make Russia the third largest supplier of foreign fighters to the ranks of IS and other extremist groups.
Medvedev also noted an apparent global fear of Russia's nuclear capabilities. "Nearly on a daily basis we are being blamed for the most terrible threat to NATO as a whole, to Europe, to America, to other countries" said Medvedev. "They make scary movies where Russia starts a nuclear war. I sometimes wonder, are we in 2016 or 1962," the Prime Minister said, referring to the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
"Creating trust is hard," Medvedev added. "But we have to start."
Medvedev's invocation of the Cold War on Saturday was particularly relevant, considering that the annual Munich conference where world leaders were gathered was originally founded in 1963, at the very height of the decades-long tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Berlin Wall dividing east and west Germany had gone up two years previously. "The wall was a concrete indication of a new reality," said US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday. "Barbed wire was strung across the heart of the country — indeed the heart of Europe."
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, rebuked Medvedev's comments, and suggested there was good reason to be distrustful of Russia. "Russia's rhetoric, posture, and exercises of its nuclear forces are aimed at intimidating its neighbors, undermining trust and stability in Europe," said Stoltenberg.
The secretary general said that NATO, in response to a "more assertive Russia," does "not want a new Cold War, but at the same time our response has to be firm."
Kerry stressed the United State's "unwavering support for a democratic Ukraine" and lauded European powers for their "common purpose" in standing up to "Russia's repeated aggression."
Both Medvedev and Kerry underscored the need for military cooperation between the US and Russia to ensure Syrian civilians received the humanitarian supplies they need during the cessation of hostilities which is supposed to go into place next week. However, the broader consensus from foreign ministers seemed to place the onus on Russia to cooperate. Philip Hammond, British foreign secretary, said that the cessation of hostilities depended entirely on whether Russia would "stop or at least significantly scale back that bombing". If not, Hammond said, they should be excluded from the peacemaking process.
In response to the discussion about whether a new Cold War could be developing, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said that nothing about Russia's foreign policy was "cold". "It is already very hot" Grybauskaite said, referring to Moscow "demonstrating open military aggression in Ukraine" and "open military aggression in Syria."
Kerry also urged Russia to strive for a peace deal, noting that Moscow's ongoing alliance with Syrian President Bashar al Assad is complicating the fight against IS and would only serve to radicalize more civilians.
"The Syrians who have rejected Assad have endured four years of shelling, barrel bombs, gas, Scud missiles, chemical attacks, torture," Kerry said. "They are not going to surrender."
Kerry added that Russia had a "simple choice" if it wanted an end to the harsh economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea: to fully implement all the terms of the Minsk peace deal regarding the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and occupation of Crimea.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen