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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