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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