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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