Sometimes you can see more clearly from a distance. A few weeks ago I spoke with Chinese Ukraine and Russia specialists. Their analysis: the conflict in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine will lead to a greater turning point in European and international politics than the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. I disagreed because it should be our goal to establish a pan-European peace order that includes Russia. But the negative experience of the last few months indicates that this goal is less likely. The break in our relations with Russia is deep. The negative developments in recent months and years resulted not so much from Western policy, but rather from a change in the domestic and foreign policy of Russian leadership.
After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the mainly peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, pan-European cooperation deepened and accelerated; Russia was accepted into the Council of Europe and became a partner of the European Union and NATO; Trade and cultural exchanges increased, and the network of pan-European relations became denser. The goal to incorporate Russia as a full member into the European Union and NATO was never realistic, but the West made an effort, though not consistently enough, to foster closer cooperation. In the fall of 2013, the Grand Coalition began with the intent to deepen the cooperation with Russia through new initiatives. But Russian policy has changed in recent years. Russia’s leadership now claims that its foreign policy reorientation is a reaction to Western—and especially American—policy. Yes, the United States and the EU have made mistakes in dealing with Russia. But these errors do not justify the annexation of Crimea, or the political, military, and financial support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Similar to the United States, the reasons behind Russia’s foreign policy reorientation lie in domestic policy. President Vladimir Putin considers the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet communism not as an historic opportunity for building a modern and democratic Russia, but as “the largest geo-strategic disaster of modern times.” Putin’s Russia does not want to be recognized internationally as the country that it is today, but as what it once was: a powerful empire. The nostalgic memories of Russian greatness at the time of the Tsars, Stalin, and Brezhnev are becoming more popular. The pursuit of preservation and reclamation of zones of influence is perceived by most neighbors as Russian revisionism.
In contrast, the Westernization of the country is viewed as a threat. This connects the current Russian leadership spiritually and politically to the anti-Western left and right fringe of the European political spectrum. As long as Russian leadership is marked by this worldview, its policies will remain a problem for the rest of Europe. That is the reality, which we must assume, but our constructive pan-European objectives remain valid.
Our sympathy and solidarity should therefore be given to the forces striving for democracy in Russia, even if they are currently a minority. The country cannot be changed from the outside against the will of its political leaders and certainly not against the will of the majority of the Russian people. The methods of foreign and security policy can counteract the negative effects of today’s Russian policies in international relations. But before a profound turning point in Russian politics can happen, years—but hopefully not decades—will likely pass. In the period that lies ahead of us, it will no longer be about a policy of cooperation and integration, as has been previously practiced. Instead, the motto regarding the now necessary policy on Russia could be: collaboration, as far as possible; defense, as far as necessary.
Russia, the EU, and the U.S. should continue to work collectively, as they have in negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program or a joint action against international terrorism. If the Russian leadership follows the agreements of Minsk, the economic sanctions should also be lifted. Ukraine, Russia, and the EU are only able to carry out the security provisions of the Minsk agreement together, and together they must communicate about possible negative economic consequences of the Association Agreement.
The war in eastern Ukraine should be reason enough to expand the OSCE, to make it more effective and provide it with additional rights. It should be examined whether OSCE Blue Helmets can be used in eastern Ukraine, with equipment that enables them to continue their mission in a fragile security situation. The existing arrangements regarding the announcement and monitoring maneuvers have proven to be inadequate. Whether the Russian leadership is willing to improve the existing rules and transparency in arms control should be explored, at the latest, during the German OSCE Chairmanship in 2016. As a result, members would be strengthened by cooperative security in a world characterized by mistrust and conflict environment.
Because of its behavior, Russia is now regarded by most of his neighbors as a security risk. This skeptical view is understandable and will only change when the Russian leadership changes not only its rhetoric, but also its behavior. Above all, they must end their attempts to destabilize Ukraine. This is the only way to gradually rebuild trust. In a political environment thus positively changed, negotiations between the EU and the Eurasian Union could be successful.
Today, many speak of a new Cold War. It is understandable that public debate reverts to using categories of an earlier conflict constellation. However, it would be better if we also developed new terms and concepts for today’s conflict. First, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is not a cold war, but a hot war, which would have been over had the Russian leadership not supported the separatists. Second, in contrast to the Cold War, we are interconnected, at least on paper, by a common peace policy and democratic values and norms, such as the Charter of Paris.
Because Russia breached international law and European values and standards toward Ukraine, it was right that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has suspended the voting rights of the Russian delegation. We should not put institutions, contracts, and agreements, which continue to link the West to Russia, at risk lightly. On the other hand, if Russia in turn damages this network of relationships, we cannot fix the damage solely from our side.
Moreover, the military, economic, and political situation in Europe today is fundamentally different from the one during the Cold War. Today’s Russia still has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that is comparable with that of the United States. While it did modernize its military capacities over the last years, if we compare all the capacities that are at the disposal of NATO with the Russian capacities, there is a clear superiority on the side of NATO. This superiority would take effect in the event of conflicts with NATO countries, which are in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. On the other hand, Russia’s smaller neighbors, which are not NATO members, cannot rely on this kind of security guarantees. This was already the case during the Georgia war (which the Georgians started because of their flawed assessment of the situation), and it is similar in the case of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
This is where Russia’s regional military superiority, from which the Separatists benefit, is effective.
In the light of this situation, we can come up with valid reasons for and against the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. However, it is undisputable that the Ukrainians rightly feel threatened. Germany vetoed a potential NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine—all the more reason for Germany and its partners to strive for a non-military stabilization of Ukraine. This requires a willingness to provide economic aid to Ukraine and to impose economic sanctions against Russia.
However, I dare to predict the following: If the Russian government and the Separatists do not comply with the Minsk agreements, the United States and some European NATO countries will begin military support for Ukraine. After assessing all the risks, Germany could be against military support of Ukraine. However, one cannot deny that Ukraine’s aspiration for an improvement of its defense capabilities is entirely legitimate. The argument over tactical means should not jeopardize the common strategy toward Russia.
During the Cold War, Germany’s eastern neighbors were tied to the Soviet Union in terms of security. The diplomatic paths to Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest often went through Moscow. Both of these things have changed fundamentally. Today, some of our eastern neighbors behave as if they were located closer to Washington than Brussels. This is not so much a result of American strategies as it is a consequence of Russia’s behavior. Henceforth, Germany should continue to avoid policies where the interests of its eastern and western neighbors are ignored.
During the Cold War, Russia was already only really competitive in raw materials and the export of arms. The worldwide financial crisis and the euro crisis led to a weakening of the EU and the United States in the past years. Russia, on the other hand, showed substantial growth rates and its monetary reserves increased. In light of this situation, the Russian government overestimated its own strength and underestimated the strengths of the United States and the EU.
The consequences of this miscalculation are going to become increasingly evident in the next months: Russia’s economy and monetary reserves are shrinking, whereas the United States is experiencing high growth rates and the EU and the euro zone is slowly recovering, despite the difficulties with Greece. The worsening of the economic situation in Russia is only partially a consequence of the economic sanctions imposed by the West. The missed opportunities for modernization of the Russian economy during the last few years, as well as the fall of oil and gas prices, are of more significance here. Even if the sanctions were lifted, Russian policies could not rectify these two negative factors in the short term.
During the Cold War, the communist ideology represented by the Soviet Union claimed universal validity. Its attractiveness diminished over the decades, but the global ambition remained. Today, Russia’s government is once again resisting the universalistic entitlement of “Western” values. But contrary to the time of the Soviet Union, the Russian government is now adopting a defensive approach, even though it is propagated offensively through the media. Its ideological stance bears a certain appeal for political groups from the left and the right wing: They polemicize together against the West, particularly against the United States and, of course, against European integration, the euro, and globalization. This undoubtedly also finds support within the EU, and sometimes even reaches deep into the center of society.
However, none of the concepts that emerged from this smorgasbord of resentments is appropriate to solve the problems of the twenty-first century. This is why the children of Russian elite prefer to study in the United States or in EU member countries. The ideology of the Russian leadership is only effective in places where Russia is exerting power, and not because its model of society is attractive. This, and not some wide-ranging American or European strategy, is the most important reason that Russian-speaking Ukrainians also support a European orientation for their country. Their European orientation is not ethnically, but politically and economically warranted. Because the Russian government is aware of this fact, it decided to bet on military power and destabilization within Ukraine. The EU should, by contrast, participate in the stabilization of Ukraine and invest in a policy that would strengthen the attractiveness of Europe in the eyes of the Ukrainian citizens.
Karsten Voigt is the former Coordinator for German-American Cooperation in the German Federal Foreign Office.
Translated from Germany by Alix Auzepy and Amin Nagazi. This article originally appeared in German in Berliner Republik.