Russia and the West – Do We Need a New Ostpolitik?

© Zentrum Libe­rale Moderne

On January 17 the Centre for Liberal Moder­nity held its second inter­na­tio­nal Russia con­fe­rence. This year’s topic was if Germany’s policy of detente of the 1970s can offer any gui­d­ance for the right Western policy versus Moscow. 

Ost­po­li­tik is one of the few German words that have made it into English and other Euro­pean lan­guages. It is also one of the few stra­te­gic initia­ti­ves of German foreign policy in the decades fol­lowing World War II. Ost­po­li­tik is inse­pa­ra­bly linked to the cha­ris­ma­tic per­so­na­lity of Willy Brandt, who was Chan­cellor of West Germany between 1969 and 1974 (having served as Foreign Minis­ter from 1966 to 1969).

The term resur­fa­ced last summer, when German’s Foreign Minis­ter Heiko Maas, a Social Demo­crat, began advo­ca­ting a new Euro­pean Ost­po­li­tik. Accord­ing to Maas, the “dan­ge­rous lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between Washing­ton and Moscow” makes it necessary to open new paths of coope­ra­tion with Russia in the inte­rest with all Euro­pean countries.

But does the impact of the 1970s Ost­po­li­tik justify its resur­rec­tion? Is a new Ost­po­li­tik the right answer to the chal­len­ges that emanate from Vla­di­mir Putin’s Russia? This was the topic for intense and at times con­tro­ver­sial debate at the con­fe­rence “Russia and the West – do we need a new Ost­po­li­tik?” held by the Center for Liberal Moder­nity in Berlin. It was the second in an annual series of con­fe­ren­ces, that aims to bring tog­e­ther Russia-wat­chers and experts from all over the world.

The short answer is that it depends. Prac­ti­cally all of the more than 80 par­ti­ci­pants from Russia, Europe and the US agreed that re-upping German foreign policy of the 1970s is neither desi­ra­ble nor ade­quate. The world and Europe have simply changed too much. But opi­ni­ons differ over what exactly should con­sti­tute a new Ost­po­li­tik – and if the term is fitting at all.

Willy Brandt’s Ost­po­li­tik was aimed at redu­cing ten­si­ons, to over­come the par­ti­tion of Germany and to find a lasting peace­ful order for Europe. It led to the Hel­sinki Final Act of 1975, whose “three baskets” survive as the three dimen­si­ons of the Orga­niz­a­tion for Secu­rity and Co-ope­ra­tion in Europe (OSCE) – poli­tico-mili­tary, eco­no­mic-envi­ron­men­tal and the “human dimen­sion”, which inclu­des human rights. It is important to remem­ber the rules-based cha­rac­ter of Ost­po­li­tik, even though its ori­gi­nal idea of “change through rappro­che­ment” eroded over time, leaving lots of rappro­che­ment and little change. The „Big Bang“ of 1989 – the fall of the wall and the implo­sion of the Soviet empire – was much less a result of detente policy but of the demo­cra­tic revolt in Central-Eastern Europe.  It came unex­pec­ted and even against the status-quo-ori­en­ted thin­king of West Germany’s poli­ti­cal elites.

No man ever steps in the same river twice

The dif­fe­ren­ces between the 1970s and today are a no-brainer. Germany is united, the former Soviet satel­lite states have joined NATO and the EU. A German “special rela­ti­ons­hip” with Russia, a regular demand from those on the left and the far right, would be a fatal signal to Germany’s allies. And, as par­ti­ci­pa­ting his­to­ri­ans pointed out, Brandt’s Ost­po­li­tik was by no means iso­la­tio­nist but firmly based on Germany’s mili­tary and poli­ti­cal mem­bers­hip in the Western alli­ance. Poli­ti­cal dia­lo­gue and mili­tary deter­rence were both part of it. NATO allies agreed at the time that it was necessary to talk with Moscow in order to achieve peace in Europe. Chan­ging the status quo seemed pos­si­ble only with and not against the Soviet Union. After all, the Prague Spring of 1968 and pre­vious upri­sings in Hungary 1956 and in east Germany in 1953 served as evi­dence that Moscow was ready to use force in order defend its sphere of influ­ence in Europe.

This is a strong par­al­lel with the crisis about Ukraine, which is basi­cally about the foreign policy align­ment of Europe’s biggest country by ter­ri­tory. A popular thesis at the con­fe­rence was that Putin would support a new Ost­po­li­tik because he likes spheres of influ­ence. Accord­in­gly, par­ti­ci­pants con­dem­ned a fresh divi­sion of Europe as a his­to­ric setback to the times before 1989. A new Ost­po­li­tik would be immoral, one Russian par­ti­ci­pant said.

What sort of a country is Russia?

Moreo­ver, Putin is not Brezhnev and Russia is not the Soviet Union – this was one of the conference’s recur­ring themes. Com­pa­red to Putin, Brezhnev was rela­tively pre­dic­ta­ble, more inte­res­ted in sta­bi­lity and less inte­res­ted in per­so­nal enrich­ment. By con­trast, Putin’s elites possess a high degree of ideo­lo­gi­cal fle­xi­bi­lity and make poli­ti­cal decisi­ons with their per­so­nal for­tu­nes in mind.

Others pre­sen­ted the thesis that the foreign policy agenda of Putin and his inner circle aims to restore Russian great power status and regain as much of the Soviet empire as pos­si­ble. Ukraine plays a key role for these people’s hold to power and for their impe­rial ambitions.

Thus, while the Moscow elites of today are more reck­less than their Com­mu­nist pre­de­ces­sors, their country lacks the weight wielded by Soviet leaders. While Russia is a nuclear great power and has a stan­ding army of more than one million men, it is just a middle power in eco­no­mic terms. In 2017, its annual GDP of 1.5 tril­lion US dollars was less than half of Germany’s (3.68 tril­lion) and just one eighth of China’s (12 trillion).

Last but not least, the Kremlin elites are ent­an­gled with the West much more than Soviet leaders were. They need Europe as a place to safely park their assets, as a market for natural resour­ces, as a source for high tech­no­lo­gies and as a play­ground for Russia’s “golden youth”. Hund­reds of thousands of Russian citi­zens already live in Europe per­ma­nently or tem­pora­rily and their number is growing every year. While going to lengths in desta­bi­li­zing Euro­pean demo­cracy, Putin also needs the eco­no­mic ties with Europe to keep his regime in power.

Be more assertive!

Despite all this, the EU shows few signs of an asser­tive policy versus Moscow. Espe­cially in Germany there is a ten­dency to believe that Russia has more leverage and to over­esti­mate the strength of Putin’s regime.  Accord­in­gly, many par­ti­ci­pants found it hard to iden­tify western suc­ces­ses vis-à-vis Russia. Most agreed that Chan­cellor Angela Merkel has managed against many odds to keep in place the EU sanc­tions, which were imposed after the annex­a­tion of Crimea and the inva­sion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

However, the effec­ti­ve­ness of the mea­su­res has been rece­ding since 2016, when the Russian economy retur­ned to albeit mode­rate growth. Many par­ti­ci­pants warned that the EU con­sen­sus for the sanc­tions is fragile, not least thanks to Putin’s allies in Europe, who can be found in every member state and have even joined some governments, like in Italy and Austria.

In this respect, 2018 was an annus mira­bi­lis for Putin – an excep­tio­nally lucky year. Not only did he win the managed elec­tion for his fourth term, he might also be happy about gains for right-wing popu­list parties across Europe. Italy’s Lega, Hungary’s Fidesz and the Sweden Demo­crats all made signi­fi­cant gains in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions last year.

Trans­at­lan­tic turbulences

Pes­si­mism was espe­cially pro­noun­ced with regard to the role of the United States. While Washing­ton recently incre­a­sed its sanc­tions against Russia, it did so without coor­di­na­ting with Brussels. The threat of sanc­tions against Nord Stream 2 carries the risk of fresh con­flict between the US and Germany. Prac­ti­cally all con­fe­rence par­ti­ci­pants cri­ti­ci­zed the planned gas pipe­line through the Baltic Sea – because it divides the EU, makes Ukraine lose bil­li­ons in transit revenue every year, making the country even more vul­nerable than before. While the US cri­ti­cism is princi­pally jus­ti­fied, both Washington’s and Berlin’s uni­la­te­ra­lism was seen as counterproductive.

Moreo­ver, recent talk about the US pos­si­bi­lity of the US leaving NATO high­ligh­ted the growing mistrust of the Trump admi­nis­tra­tion. What would be a stra­te­gic dis­as­ter for Europe would be a dream come true for Putin – the end of the trans­at­lan­tic alliance.

Nobody is making pre­dic­tions about a stra­te­gic-level US-Euro­pean coope­ra­tion versus Russia, not least because Pre­si­dent Trump is likely to remain embroi­led in the Russia affair. “Expect more chaos, inves­ti­ga­ti­ons and sub­po­e­nas from Washing­ton,” said one pro­mi­nent US participant.

Under these cir­cum­s­tan­ces it is likely that the Kremlin is going to lay its eyes on a divided Europe:  “Putin is not a chess player but a judo fighter. In order to be suc­cess­ful, a judo fighter must anti­ci­pate his oppon­ents‘ actions, make a decisive, pre­emp­tive move and try to disable him”, a Russian par­ti­ci­pant warned.

No German special rela­ti­ons­hip but a common Euro­pean policy

Despite all this, there are some hopeful signs, too. Recent elec­tions and opinion polls suggest, that the Putin con­sen­sus is wea­ke­n­ing. In the regio­nal elec­tions in autumn 2018, four Kremlin can­di­da­tes failed to win guber­na­to­rial seats. And polls­ters detect waning support for the expen­sive expan­sive foreign policy. At the same time, there are growing grass root pro­tests against social grie­van­ces and eco­lo­gi­cal ills, some­thing that con­fe­rence par­ti­ci­pants inter­pre­ted as con­fir­ma­tion that Russian civil society is alive and well.

Other studies speak of chan­ging values. Despite the pro­pa­ganda of Russia’s own way, a majo­rity of young people – mainly in large cities – see them­sel­ves as Euro­peans and seek a modern way of life. Genera­tio­nal change in busi­ness and poli­tics opens new chances for rappro­che­ment between Russia and the West. This is why ever­ything should be done to support the deve­lo­p­ment of a demo­cra­tic civil society in Russia.

One tool sug­gested at the con­fe­rence would be an EU-funded Russian-lan­guage TV channel that offers an alter­na­tive to Kremlin propaganda.

However, no one at the con­fe­rence was ready to predict an immi­nent end of the “Putin System”.

Which is another reason to cam­paign for a common Euro­pean policy. Because the EU’s chances to be a strong coun­ter­weight to Moscow are actually not that bad. More than 500 million citi­zens (446 million after Britian exits the bloc) who enjoy ade­quate eco­no­mic growth are a force that no one should unde­re­sti­mate. If they speak with one voice, as a German foreign policy veteran stres­sed at the conference.

A good task for the German government and German foreign policy, accord­ing to a par­ti­ci­pant from Poland. Germany’s mission is not to build a special rela­ti­ons­hip with Russia but to hold Europe tog­e­ther and to enable it to become a player in global poli­tics, he said.

The con­fe­rence was held under Chatham House Rules, meaning that quotes are not attri­bu­ted in order to enable a freer debate.


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