Violent confrontations in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law have undermined the foundations of peace in Europe. Trust, the renunciation of force, and rules have been disregarded only to be replaced by capriciousness, provocations, and stoking of fears. Nobody can legitimately say yet whether this represents a historical turning point comparable with the end of the Cold War or the attacks of September 11. But the Ukrainian crisis undoubtedly has the potential to escalate further and that is always extremely dangerous. For that reason, the German government’s highest priorities are to de-escalate the situation, reinforce the few operable lines of communication, integrate the conflict participants, and compel European institutions to joint action. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are working closely together on this in good faith. The partners in the coalition government agree in their assessment of the events and on the use of political tools and actions. Agreement may not be enough, but it does establish the conditions for addressing the conflict peacefully and diplomatically.
In recent weeks, the impression has grown that a large number of Germans as well as the German political class approve of the Russian government’s behavior or can at least understand its actions. Surveys appear to confirm this and the words of certain former chancellors speak for themselves. At the same time, we cannot overlook the fact that many German citizens are deeply concerned. Some fear military conflict, a recurrent arms race, new border walls, or, in mundane terms, the loss of Russian gas and oil supplies. And when opinion pieces and talk shows make sensational and flippant comparisons with World War I, uncertainty follows. That has to be taken seriously. But this in no way implies that Germans endorse the Kremlin’s actions. We understand the consequences and most of us fear that this might only be the prelude to a decade of new territorial conflict between peoples and major powers. The majority of the German populace is aware that German troops have committed acts of murder and devastated the land on Ukrainian territory in the past century. But we also know that Russia and Germany have continually vied for control over Ukraine. Given that history, our neighbors’ mistrust is understandable. We can only counter it with actions based on partnership and solidarity.
The lessons to be learned now are obvious: Cool heads have to reduce tensions, starting with on-site actors in Ukraine, as well as those who continually intervene from the outside. First among those is Russia, but it applies to Western governments as well, including the United States. Ukraine is a sovereign state. After the Cold War ended, it was a society in the making that wanted to rediscover its own identity and history after centuries of foreign domination and oppression. It would be good if we were to recognize and respect that. The idea of offering Ukraine an association agreement with the European Union was intended to assist and reinforce that path. It was not an attempt at a new sphere of influence—on the contrary, the association was conceived as an alternative to accession to the EU. We made a mistake by not sufficiently explaining and communicating that. On those terms, collaboration would even be possible between the EU and Putin’s Eurasian Union for the purpose of linking and modernizing that economic region. The Russian president was apparently afraid of such a prospect, which would have included liberties and minority rights.
The Cold War is definitively over and resorting to its toolbox is foolish. Russia no longer represents a system in competition with the capitalist West. The authorities in the Kremlin are instead drawing on the tools of the nineteenth century and, in doing so, can depend on the partisans and followers of Europe’s nationalist parties. The revival of their cynical calculations, nationalism, and chauvinism and the resulting discord within the European Union is another danger that we currently have to contend with. What all of these groups fear most is democratic welfare states, such as emerged on both sides of the Atlantic after World War I, albeit without ever having come close to full implementation.
To those who see in the Ukrainian crisis evidence that social democratic de-escalation politics have definitively failed, we can only say that Russian aggression has not compromised the politics of de-escalation but rather proved its unaltered necessity. It is precisely in times of new tensions that we need a new de-escalation politics; it takes two to make that happen.
Dr. Rolf Mützenich has represented Cologne as a Member of the German Bundestag for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) since 2002. He is the Deputy Parliamentary Leader for Foreign Policy, Defense, and Human Rights in the SPD Parliamentary Group.