How Putin pushes the European Union towards a coherent Foreign Policy
It is a very German discussion that has been occupying the media of Europe's largest economy for the last few months. It started with a cover story in the leading news magazine Der Spiegel that called on policymakers to "Stop Putin. Now." The conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ( FAZ) followed suit with an op-ed demanding a new "double-track-decision" that would show Europe's "economic, political and military readiness to retaliate" against Russia.
In a largely pacifist country, this air of hawkishness that brings back memories of the Cold War could not pass uncontradicted. Garbor Steingart, Editor-in-Chief of the business weekly Das Handelsblatt rubbished these articles as "mental conscription calls," an accusation that led FAZ to speculate about the amount of pressure Mr. Steingart might face from the German business lobby: "Be nice to Putin, whatever he does, otherwise our economy will be in trouble."
A policy review The debate shows in a nutshell what is currently at stake in the Ukraine: the future of European foreign policy. The crisis not only reveals the centrifugal forces that are always at work within the European Union (EU): different economic interests and political cultures of its member states versus a growing need to speak and act as a unified player. It also shows a deep sense of insecurity of what a European foreign policy should be. But every crisis carries with it the seed of a chance. And this one is pushing the EU in the right direction.
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, it is clear to everybody that Europe cannot afford to remain divided and indecisive in a conflict at its own doorstep. The shooting down in July of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the Ukraine, widely believed to be by Russia-backed rebels, brought back memories of war to a continent that liked to believe that the age of wars - in this part of the world - is over.
Pictures of rotting bodies in the badlands of the Ukraine - all 298 passengers died - did not only prove the contrary. In an 'Open Letter' to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 21 German intellectuals from across the political spectrum claim: "The German government resists persistently to talk about Russia's war against the Ukraine. But every realistic policy has to call a spade a spade. The EU must not leave any doubt that the aggression against a state, with which it has an association agreement will come at a high political and economic price."
In the Netherlands, from where most of the victims of the ill-fated flight originated, the incident triggered a serious policy review: from business-oriented pussyfooting vis-à-vis Mr. Putin towards a more resolute stance against Russia. Like many other European countries, the Netherlands depends on Russian oil and gas imports for much of its energy needs and has one of the highest trade deficits with Russia. For Italy and Germany too, Russia is an important commercial partner and gas supplier.
That's one part of the problem. The other is that the relationship between the EU and Russia has not delivered on the promise of a genuine partnership that seemed to be possible after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. One might call that hope for an age of peace, prosperity and democracy as naive, but it has shaped public opinion in Europe after the Cold War at a large scale.
Instead, Vladimir Putin, who was once called a "flawless democrat" by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder, has proven an unpredictable neighbour, to say the least. In a drive to secure his own fragile power basis at home, he seems to be determined to bring the Ukraine back into Russia's orbit, at any cost. And here, the misunderstanding begins.
British journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard believes that Mr. Putin is "obsessed with an imaginary threat from an ageing, pacifist Europe in slow decline." But that underestimates the attractiveness of the European model that is obvious to everybody in its vicinity. And it underestimates the pull that a value-based foreign policy approach has for those who are lacking the freedoms and possibilities that the European Union promises.
Obviously, it has given incentives for political change in the Ukraine. "The majority of the people in the Ukraine want a European-style democracy, rule of law and free market economy. The Kremlin has understood very well that this is a threat to Putin's authoritarian and corrupt regime," says Doris Heimann, a German correspondent in Moscow, who has covered Eastern Europe for more than two decades.
While Mr. Putin might satisfy the demand for a strong Russian posture at home, he has little to offer even to his own people in the long run. Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, believes that Mr. Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, might have decided to avoid necessary economic reforms because they could destroy his authoritarian system. While prospects of a positive economic development in Russia seem to be bleak, former communist countries that joined the EU, like Poland, are flourishing economically.
The European right Europe therefore needs to take a closer look at the implications of its value-based foreign policy. The EU has taken the right decision to impose strict economic sanctions on Russia as a reaction to the Crimean crisis. Under the leadership of Ms. Merkel, Europe stands united in a major security crisis for the first time and it proves those critics wrong who prematurely assumed that "a shaken EU makes no real effort to confront Russia over Ukraine."
It should be added here that the European extreme right that has gained influence - especially the French National Front and even the German Euro-critical party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) - count among the staunch supporters of Mr. Putin. And it is clear why: both Mr. Putin and the populist parties of the right want to weaken the European Union, for different reasons. But so far, their influence remains limited.
The buck does not stop here. As Mr. Steinmeier put it, "sanctions alone are no policy." But what is? This is the background of Germany's heated discussion about "warmongering" or "appeasement" that rings so much like 1980s rhetoric.
Economic sanctions can only be one part of an overall strategy towards Russia. The role of the military is another element that needs to be reflected on. While the European public is largely pacifist as a result of two devastating wars in the 20th century, policymakers must be aware that "European values" become an empty phrase if nothing follows in case of their violation.
"Will Europe stand by and watch how a state is being destroyed that has opted for European values?" This is the question the signatories of the 'Open Letter' to Ms. Merkel ask. They suggest an expansion of the sanctions against Russia and large-scale financial support for the Ukraine. But do not mention the military.
That is the crux of European foreign policy at the moment. "In the European Union's world, things such as balance of power and armed intervention are simply not on the table, although individual member states such as France continue to undertake military interventions on their own," writes Kathleen McNamara.
In Germany, things are even more complicated because national interest hardly counts as a relevant element of foreign policy. Therefore, every action has to be justified on moral grounds. "The problem of German security policy is that it neither asks itself what German interests are nor does it explain these interests to the people," writes Alan Posener, correspondent at the conservative daily, Die Welt.
As a result, everybody who suggests an element of military deterrence in a European strategy towards Moscow, risks being labelled as "warmongering." That does not only weaken Europe's position, but also ignores the fact that European continent is still heavily militarised.
Other 'frozen' conflicts Apart from Russia's aggression against the Ukraine and Mr. Putin's plan for a neo-imperialist "Novorossiya" ("New Russia"), there are several "frozen" conflicts in South Eastern Europe and the Caucasus that remain unresolved and represent a continuing risk of military conflict: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, to name just a few. At the same time, thousands of nuclear weapons are still central to the security arrangements of the continent.
The Ukraine, under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994, gave up the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile that it had inherited from the Soviet Union. The memorandum that was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation included security assurances against threats or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. Europe sees the invasion of Crimea and Russia's interference in the Ukraine as a breach of international law and Russia's obligations of the Budapest Memorandum.
It is therefore more than justified that a discussion has started about a military component in the EU's strategy vis-à-vis Russia. The Nato Summit on September 4-5 in Wales discussed a plan of how to free the Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as well as the Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania from the fear of being threatened or even attacked by Russia.
For everybody who lived in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin wall, this is a mind-boggling return of "the enemy in the East." As German President Joachim Gauck put it in a much debated speech at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, Germany still believes that it is "surrounded by friends."
But this might not be the case anymore. "Russia cannot be seen as our strategic partner anymore," writes Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and asks: "When, if not now, is the right time to take steps towards a European Defence Union?"
Given this psychological situation of the German public and the strong economical interests in the German business community, one cannot expect that German foreign policy will be coming-of-age overnight. Neither will the European Union start acting as the "United States of Europe" any time soon. But driven by the dramatic events in the Ukraine, a far-reaching process has started, in Germany and in other European countries. For this time, the EU is on the right path.
(Britta Petersen was South Asia correspondent of the German Financial Times in India and Country Director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Pakistan. She is currently Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.)