Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech in Brisbane following the G20 meeting made headlines for two main reasons: for publicly confronting Putin in the toughest manner to date, and for signaling the need for all of Europe to stand with her against Russian aggression. The top European political leader, who has spent the most time with Vladimir Putin, was clearly fed up. In tandem with other leaders attending the G20, including President Barack Obama, Merkel accused Putin of trampling international law, violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, and threatening to undermine Europe’s stability and security. She even referenced the centennial of World War I as a warning about the danger of a regional conflict turning into a continental war costing millions of lives.
Merkel repeated her criticism of Putin last week in the Bundestag with the same ferocity, stating that nothing justifies Russian annexation of Crimea or its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
For all the evident impatience or outright anger directed at Putin, it has not slowed down Putin’s assault on eastern Ukraine or intimidation efforts elsewhere in Europe. Putin’s propaganda is ratcheting up by accusing the EU and the United States of wanting to achieve regime change in Moscow. The fact that the Russian government is now investing enormous sums of money in its state-run television programs, including a new German language program, underlines its aggressive campaign to reach European audiences and drive a wedge between publics and leaders. There are some willing to buy the Russian propaganda—if for no other reason than to protest against their own governments or Washington. The poster child for that trend is Marine le Pen and her party in France.
In contrast to some arguments about Putin’s motives being puzzling, the truth is that we have known his intentions for years, since the speech he gave in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference signaled this Russian strategy.
The Ongoing Standoff in Eastern Europe
Today when it comes to Ukraine, some say Putin has a plan to build a land bridge to Crimea and permanently divide the country. Others argue that he is not finished with Ukraine and will push further in Moldova, Georgia, and perhaps even threaten the Baltic States in his dream to restore Russian grandeur. Evidence that he was prepared to move into Crimea well before last February is amplified by the continuing incursion of Russian troops into eastern Ukraine. We should have seen this coming.
So far the European Union remains united in its implementation of sanctions, but less so when it comes to the duration and severity of this action. The ability to sustain the sanctions at this point is greatly dependent on Merkel’s ability to lead that effort. Merkel must sustain not only the commitment of twenty-seven partners in the EU, but also support within Germany itself. There is grumbling beneath the surface at both levels about how the sanctions are either going to hurt European economies, including Russia, or drive Putin further into a corner. Some argue that Putin has created new realities on the ground in Ukraine and they need to be recognized, be that in Crimea or in eastern Ukraine in the interest of peace and stability. Others argue that the sanctions are only in the U.S.’ interest, given its distance from the conflict. “We cannot change geography” is a refrain often repeated, noting that Russia has to be continuously engaged and negotiated with to retain an open door for Putin to respond when he is willing.
Russia stands to suffer more economic loss from sanctions than Europe. However, economic impact does not mean immediate vulnerability. The strength of Putin’s hold on his administration and how its responsiveness to public sentiment is critical. Putin has the means to repress dissent and the ability to arouse a nationalist response. Propagating the feeling that Russia is being disrespected by foreign powers can strengthen the collective resolve not to give in to economic sanctions, regardless of the price. That is happening now across Russia and Putin has managed to associate himself with that message
This makes the challenge of creating and maintaining unity in Europe when it comes to Russia harder. There is no single effective leader in Europe—aside from Angela Merkel—who can confront Putin. But even if the chancellor does not want that European role, Germany is the primary interlocutor with Moscow now, like it or not.
The Return of Hard Power Politics in Europe
Putin has done something which most Germans thought was a legacy of the past: he has essentially re-surfaced the raw power politics of military force, threats, and intimidation. This is illustrated most dramatically in Crimea, as well as with suggestions that he could project that force anywhere at any time. While this is unacceptable to the majority of Europeans, who thought that such power politics ended with the Cold War, the sense that there is little one can do to prevent this aggression—aside from sanctions—is widespread.
After the Berlin Wall fell, most Europeans believed that Russia and Europe were going to gradually grow together in a post Realpolitik world. Indeed, the United States also engaged in that same strategy with its so-called “reset” approach, which clearly proved ineffective in the face of Putin’s plans.
At this point, responses in Europe and the United States to Putin’s aggression seem to be a mix of long- term hopes and short-term uncertainties. In the long term, the hope is that sanctions will weaken the Russian economy and sober up Moscow sufficiently to encourage a path to stop the destabilization of Ukraine and return to negotiations. The short-term uncertainties are what to do to deter further Russian threats and aggression in Europe beyond the current tool of choice: economic sanctions. Another uncertainty is the challenge of holding firm on sanctions, which also requires rethinking the need for signals requiring non-symbolic military deterrence. If Putin comes ready to play hardball, so should Europe and the United States.
The Original Double Track Decision
All of this comes during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many thought that the future of Europe was going to be peaceful. But there is another milestone to consider in 2014: that some thirty years ago Europe and the United States, and particularly West Germany and the United States, were caught up in a debate on how to deal with Soviet aggression. During that time there was a U.S. effort to deter a Soviet military build-up in Eastern Europe by engaging in what was then called a “double track” decision.
To recall, in the late 1970s, Russia was building up its missile defense system in Eastern Europe—a development that then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt had labeled a dangerous trend that had to be countered.
The response from NATO was to offer Moscow a mutual limitation of medium-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles but linked with the threat that NATO would deploy more middle-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe should negotiations fail. That was the double track approach.
Over the next several years there were massive debates and demonstrations, particularly in Germany, against the deployment plans. The main argument was that this was going to contribute to the spiral of increasing conflict and the danger of nuclear war on the European continent. In Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, the demonstrations were primarily against the deployment of the U.S. arsenal. Mixed in with this debate was the lack of consensus of what constituted the main threat. The focus was on the fact that if a military confrontation did occur, Europe would be the theater of that conflict.
In the end, that debate subsided when Helmut Kohl was elected chancellor in 1983 and his administration supported the NATO deployment. Less than a decade later, the Soviet Union no longer existed.
A Double Track Decision for the Twenty-First Century
The current debate about how best to deal with Russia echoes some of those arguments. In response to the invasions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the continuing military support of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and statements from Putin that Moscow has the right and the obligation to protect Russians anywhere in the world, previous questions involving the strategy of deterrence and containment are back in circulation. While no one in Europe or the United States is proposing declaring war on Russia over Ukraine, and reassuring nervous countries on the Russian border, some of which are NATO members, has taken on a high priority and requires the need to demonstrate an effective defense against temptations in Moscow to test that resolve. That was the case thirty years ago and that is the case now.
The United States is essentially backing the EU on this effort under the NATO umbrella. Both the EU and the U.S. are also maintaining a position that Russia still should be engaged in negotiations concerning the continuing violence in Ukraine. The fact that Russia remains important on several other fronts is demonstrated in the ongoing negotiations with Iran, the battle against ISIS, nuclear disarmament efforts, and the continuing instability in Afghanistan, among others.
Although the Ukraine crisis is not the same standoff that occurred in the early 1980s in the double track framework of nuclear disarmament in a Cold War paradigm, it is a similar platform for discussing how the European and American interests are aligned in dealing with threats to their national interests and goals. The echoes of the arguments of thirty years ago replay as to what was in fact the decisive influence on dealing with the conflict with the Soviet Union. Double track policy was a culmination of using hard military strength—and primarily U.S. resources—and an offer of negotiations. That combination is needed now again. The question is, how does the hard side of that equation now get operationalized?
Moving enhanced NATO military units into the eastern member states can serve as a trip wire even if the geography of the continent lends clear advantages to Russia’s capabilities. That presumes that NATO members have the will and the wallet to produce the capability needed.
For now, most of the power tools take the form of economic sanctions in Russia. Yet keeping the heat on Moscow’s economy does not assure Russian readiness to negotiate. After all, sanctions on Iran have been in place for years without moving Tehran off its course to secure nuclear capabilities.
And even though Germany is effectively leading the sanctions effort, there is a widespread unease in the public about the effectiveness of the policies—and skepticism and outright criticism of them among some members of the EU.
While the latest polls in Germany reflect a strong dislike of Putin, German attitudes toward Russia are split between this outright dislike of Putin and a more ambivalent feeling about the country he leads. There is a widespread argument, which Russian propaganda popularizes, that Russia was treated badly after the demise of the Soviet Union to the point of accusing both Europe and the United States of bearing the responsibility of the current conflict. By not engaging Russia earlier, it is said, we put Putin in a defensive position. The annexation of Crimea is seen as part of the reaction in Moscow to alleged Western encirclement. This runs parallel to a condescending attitude toward the powers in Kiev who are depicted as battling oligarchs steeped in corruption and fascist politics.
Against these views, the arguments that there is a need to reassert the commitment to NATO alliance members and to pronounce the Russian involvement in Ukraine as unilateral aggression are often labeled left-over Cold War tactics. Yet the challenges facing Europe now are no less in need of a demonstration of political will and defense commitment. That means that important political signals need to be sent to Moscow. That will include clear refutations of the dissembling efforts Moscow is making to rewrite history. There was no lack of engagement with the Russian leaders after 1991, nor was there any betrayal of alleged agreements concerning NATO enlargement. Ten nations previously under Soviet control opted independently to join an alliance. And more nations now want to join the EU and NATO. That need not be the zero sum game Moscow portrays it to be. But any negotiations must begin with the assumption that a sovereign nation has the right to decide its own direction.
The double track decision in the early 1980s was part of the final stages of the Cold War when there was a clear political and military division running through Europe.
Today, the framework of conflicts is more diffuse. Russia is not the Soviet Union and the threats we all face are multidimensional and not framed singularly by the Berlin Wall. The challenges we face today are framed around the conflict over human rights, the rule of international law, and consensus on securing a stable and peaceful order. That is all threatened by groups like ISIS and other terrorists. It is also undermined by nationalist aggression whether it be in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. In the case of Ukraine, Russia violated the consensus that changing borders by force is not only unacceptable in international law, it undermines the peace and stability of Europe by attacking the sovereignty of a nation—the basis of European security and indeed the framework of the United Nations. This is not only about Ukrainian sovereignty and stability.
The Third Track: Remind Europeans and Russians of Core Values
The potential unraveling of a consensus around these cornerstones of stability is looming larger and we are all too aware—drawing on the lessons of two world wars in the past century— of the price if it is lost.
There is no alternative to the need for a double track approach to securing stability in today’s unstable world. The capability of force and the use of negotiations are not mutually exclusive. But the critical basis for both remains in the political commitment to using them.
Yet there can be a third track in this effort, one that involves the recognition that the confrontation with Putin is not only about deterrence and sanctions. It is a confrontation we have seen before—one over ideas. And it was illustrated most clearly in the division of Germany. Despite all the power the East German apparatus used to control its side of Germany for four decades, including the Wall itself, it was the power of East Germans who overcame the control by demanding the freedom to choose for themselves how to live their lives. That same power was applied in Poland and spread all over Eastern Europe, and indeed eventually into the Soviet Union. That power was on display in the Maidan in Kiev and was just illustrated this week in elections in Moldova. It is also present in Russia despite the efforts to repress and contain it. Putin may fear that more than any economic sanctions.
The third track is one with the tools to reach out to the same groups today who were uncertain but also impatient with their predicaments thirty years ago in Leipzig, Prague, and throughout Eastern Europe. They are also elsewhere around the globe today.
Hence, the third track in dealing with Russia now is one on which a competition of values is presented. It is a track that has always existed and has become stronger and stronger with the rise of the kind of technology that allows individual to connect and disseminate their views and experiences directly to other citizens without governmental regulation. Accordingly, this third track represents interconnection between people. The impossibility of sealing a populace off entirely from the rest of the world is hopeful, as it ensures that a connection (even if it is thin) with the Russian public can be maintained regardless of the extent of political hostilities.
The catalyst of Putin’s aggressive challenges—and similar threats elsewhere—ought to be an occasion to assemble a strong and articulate response, one that is as coherent and consistent as any sanctions policy. Indeed, we are in a much stronger position when presenting positive alternatives than negative consequences in arguing the case for the values we represent. And the arguments can be delivered most effectively not as we did in the Cold War era, through vehicles like Radio Free Europe. We have a whole range of platforms that exist today to connect millions of individuals with each other. This open window into Russia should not be ignored or underestimated, as it has always been the people inside the regime that have ultimately brought about change.