Dia­logue yes, appease­ment no

How should the West counter Russian threats of war? We doc­u­ment Ralf Fücks’ OP ED at DIE WELT, 21.12.2021.

A group of veteran diplo­mats and mil­i­tary offi­cers from Germany has called for con­ces­sions to Moscow in response to the renewed Russian troop buildup around Ukraine. In a joint appeal, they propose a two-year con­fer­ence in the tra­di­tion of the CSCE process, during which no steps toward NATO and EU expan­sion should take place. Gernot Erler (SPD), who was the German government’s Russia coor­di­na­tor from 2014 to 2018, has praised the paper and called for re-engag­ing in dia­logue with Moscow.

I am per­plexed by this mantra. “For dia­logue with Russia” — yes, who would be against that? Angela Merkel had a ded­i­cated line to Putin, Biden con­ferred with him, Macron courts the Kremlin, Russia is one of the Big 5 in the Secu­rity Council, a member of the Council of Europe and the Orga­ni­za­tion for Secu­rity and Coop­er­a­tion (OSCE).

There are city part­ner­ships, cul­tural exchanges, the Com­mit­tee on Eastern Euro­pean Eco­nomic Rela­tions, Nord Stream 2 as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of German-Russian special rela­tions, various dia­logue forums, the Nor­mandy format for mod­er­at­ing the Ukraine con­flict: no lack of dia­logue, anywhere.

What the sig­na­to­ries of the appeal do not want to admit is Putin’s strate­gic deci­sion to go on a con­fronta­tional course: from mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Georgia and Ukraine, the sta­tion­ing of nuclear mis­siles in Kalin­ingrad to infor­ma­tion warfare on all chan­nels. This also includes the Kremlin pulling the rug out from under the dia­logue with Russian civil society by pushing the demo­c­ra­tic oppo­si­tion and the crit­i­cal public below the water­line step by step.

Demand­ing “con­crete steps toward de-esca­la­tion” from the West, while Putin is in the process of build­ing a new mil­i­tary threat against Ukraine, turns things upside down. Diplo­macy toward an aggres­sive power only works on the basis of firm­ness and strength.

This was also true of Brandt’s policy of détente, to which the “more dia­logue” advo­cates like to refer. It was firmly inte­grated into NATO and left no doubt about its capac­ity for deter­rence — the share of the defense budget has never been higher. For Helmut Schmidt, that was true anyway. Brandt had no illu­sions that the Soviet Union was an oppo­nent of the demo­c­ra­tic world. It would be good if this realism also char­ac­ter­ized the foreign policy of the traffic light coali­tion. Limited coop­er­a­tion, con­tain­ment, and deter­rence go together.

Nothing against con­ven­ing a new Con­fer­ence on Secu­rity and Coop­er­a­tion in Europe. But on what basis? Should the Helsinki prin­ci­ples and the Charter of Paris still apply: Equal sov­er­eignty, renun­ci­a­tion of force, democ­racy and human rights as the basis of the Euro­pean peace order?

Or should we put these fun­da­men­tal values up for grabs in order to appease the Kremlin? Back to Yalta, to the concert of great powers, to the divi­sion of exclu­sive zones of influ­ence and to “limited sov­er­eignty” for Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus? Let those who want it say so.

The Kremlin’s latest package of demands, thrown at the feet of the United States and NATO, speaks a clear lan­guage. Moscow wants a fun­da­men­tal revi­sion of the Euro­pean peace order. NATO’s east­ward expan­sion of 2007 is to be effec­tively reversed, and the U.S. is to be forced out of Europe.

A poi­soned offer

Moscow claims a secu­rity zone in its extended neigh­bor­hood from which the West must stay out. For the former Soviet vassal states in Central-Eastern Europe, their freedom of alliance is sus­pended; for them, the prin­ci­ple of limited sov­er­eignty is to apply again.

This poi­soned offer is not nego­tiable. There must be no going back behind 1989/​90, behind “Europe united & free”. If Russia wants to be part of it, welcome! But as long as the Kremlin pursues ter­ri­to­r­ial revi­sion and polit­i­cal roll­back, it needs polit­i­cal firm­ness and mil­i­tary strength from the West.

If Putin were only con­cerned with secu­rity for Russia, the con­flict would be rel­a­tively easy to resolve. Mutual secu­rity guar­an­tees, con­crete dis­ar­ma­ment steps, con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures are in the West’s inter­est. But the Kremlin’s poli­cies and rhetoric say oth­er­wise: it is about revis­ing the post-Soviet Euro­pean order and pre­vent­ing demo­c­ra­tic change in Russia’s neighborhood.

This is at the heart of growing ten­sions between Moscow and the West. Calling for “de-esca­la­tion” without clearly stating what can and cannot be nego­ti­ated with the Kremlin blurs the line between dia­logue and appeasement.

History does not repeat itself. But a few his­tor­i­cal lessons can be drawn: Those who threaten war to enforce their demands should not be rewarded. In the face of Russian saber-rat­tling, a clear message to Putin is needed: Any renewed mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion against Ukraine will have serious polit­i­cal and eco­nomic consequences.

The Russian lead­er­ship cannot have it both ways: Energy part­ner­ship with Europe, invest­ments to mod­ern­ize the Russian economy, mul­ti­fac­eted rela­tions with the West and an aggres­sive mil­i­tary power policy.

Secu­rity and coop­er­a­tion in Europe are based on the equal sov­er­eignty of all states, renun­ci­a­tion of force and peace­ful con­flict res­o­lu­tion. The Kremlin wants to under­mine this nor­ma­tive order. There­fore, the secu­rity of the Euro­pean com­mu­nity of states must be guar­an­teed against Russia.

This requires a mil­i­tary deter­rence capa­bil­ity and joint polit­i­cal action by the EU and the USA. If the West brings its polit­i­cal and eco­nomic poten­tial to bear, we can put Putin in his place.

Moscow’s latest “treaty offer” is a shady maneu­ver. If the West accepts it, it will lead to the erosion of NATO and to a divi­sion of Europe in terms of secu­rity policy. If the EU and NATO reject this impo­si­tion, the danger of a mil­i­tary takeover of Ukraine by the Kremlin will grow. Thwart­ing this maneu­ver is the key test for the EU and the transat­lantic alliance. If the West allows itself to be divided by Putin, every­thing will start to slide.


Ralf Fücks is direc­tor of the Center for Liberal Moder­nity, a think tank and dis­cus­sion plat­form for the defense and renewal of liberal democ­racy based in Berlin.

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