AS ITS name indicates, the annual GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava tries to take on security challenges and debates that encompass the entire world, but Russian policy in neighbouring Ukraine – and the question of how to respond – cast a long shadow over the ninth edition of the event on May 14-16.

“The Europe we have known since the end of the Cold War has suddenly changed,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák said on May 14. “Ukraine should be a wake-up call for all of Europe.”

More than 1,100 participants from 61 countries including five prime ministers, nine foreign ministers and four defence ministers attended GLOBSEC this year. The event is organised by the Slovak Atlantic Commission (SAC), and for the first time included public events at the Old Market Hall in the city centre. Much of the rest of the conference was held at the Kempinski Hotel on the banks of the Danube.

Panels ranged from a discussion on the proper balance between security and privacy, Afghanistan, the agenda for this year’s NATO summit, energy security and Visegrad cooperation, among other things. Still, many of the discussions inevitably turned toward the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula and unrest continues in the eastern part of the country.

“When you have a Russia that will decide that it can use force to take a chunk of its neighbour and can continue to use force to pressure that neighbour, where does it end?” asked Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

“And where does it end when we allow that kind of behaviour within the global system to go unchecked,” Nuland asked.

Among the high profile guests were NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, historian Timothy Snyder and Michael Chertoff, the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. All four prime ministers from the Visegrad Group took part in a single panel discussion on May 15.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk used the occasion to push his trademark energy union plan, which seeks to create a single market for oil and natural gas within the European Union.

“Everyone says as far as principle, ‘we agree.’ As far as details, ‘we need to think about it,’” he said, before noting that he considered this a promising first step.

Presently, individual countries or companies sign contracts with suppliers. Those contracts often include limitations on what can be done with that fuel afterward. Tusk and others are increasingly concerned about their dependence on Russian natural gas and oil, and see the common energy market as a way of weakening Moscow’s influence – as it would allow gas to move where it is most needed once inside the EU and lessen Moscow’s ability to target individual countries.

“We welcome his initiative,” said Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. “Part of it is a proposal for concrete measures and it corresponds with Slovak priorities.”

Rasmussen spoke May 15. Many believed that “so-called spheres of influence were now left to the history books,” he said. Russian actions in Ukraine indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not feel the same, he said, adding that Russia was “in defiance of international law and fundamental agreements that Russia has signed”.

Rasmussen urged NATO members to stick to their pledge of dedicated 2 percent of annual GDP to defence spending. In recent years many European NATO members have cut spending during times of economic and fiscal struggles. Slovakia spends about 1 percent of GDP on defence and earlier this week Fico said that there are no plans to increase that share anytime soon.

“Cuts have been particularly deep in central and eastern Europe, and this is not sustainable,” Rasmussen said.

The volume of spending must increase, but matched by a shift in priorities, the NATO chief said. Instead of spending on personnel, investments must target “equipment, skills and training”.

Other conference events included a Gala Dinner, at which Rasumussen and former Czech representative to NATO Karel Kovanda received Czech and Slovak Transatlantic Awards. The so-called GLOBSEC City Talks were new this year, drawing the general public on the evenings of May 14 and 15.

The event’s signature panel discussion, however, remained the one comprised of the Visegrad prime ministers. Organisers were wary of a clash between Tusk and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, so much so that a joint press conference was cancelled to minimise the possibility of confrontation. The pair had traded barbs in the press in previous days as Orbán expressed vague support for the idea of granting greater autonomy to ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine. Tusk viewed this as poorly timed given similar arguments made by the Kremlin and pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine.

Pressed on the issue by the moderator, Orbán switched from his native Hungarian to English and softened his earlier statements but insisted that his expectation was for Ukrainian democracy to progress in the direction of European Union democracies that respect minority rights.

“If the new Ukrainian government is not able to integrate the community,” Orbán said, there would be real reason for concern.

Asked directly what he thought of Orbán’s comments, Tusk disarmed the controversy with a joke.

“It sounds better in English,” he said.

Roman Cuprik contributed to this story