This publication is part of the “Global Challenges” series, a registered trademark of DvH Medien. The Institute wants to advance the discussion of geopolitical issues through publications by recognized experts. Jürgen Trittin, the foreign policy spokesman for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, writes today. Other regular authors include: Prof. Dr. Ann-Kristin Achleitner, Sigmar Gabriel, Prof. Veronika Grimm, Dr. Werner Hoyer, Günther H. Oettinger, Prof. Dr. Bert Rürup, and Prof. Dr. René Schubert.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine marks a break in time. Vladimir Putin’s aggression is the return of the war of conquest to Europe, 80 years after Germany brutally invaded its neighbors. The Russian president’s war is wreaking havoc in a country that sacrificed eight million people in World War II.
With this campaign, the Soviet Union finally perishes. Leonid Brezhnev signed the CSCE Final Act in 1975. Putin now walks this security architecture on earth in combat boots. He cynically ignores the renunciation of the use or threat of violence agreed in Helsinki and does not even rule out the use of nuclear weapons.
Putin’s nuclear threat was directed against NATO, and against Ukraine, which renounced the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in 1994, relying on the guarantor powers of Great Britain, the United States and Russia. For Putin, even the first nuclear attack against a country free of nuclear weapons is not taboo. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 has the threshold for nuclear conflict been as low as it is today.
Relaxing romance and Cold War nostalgia
We now know that wanting to continue the detente policy of the 1970s with Putin’s Russia was just as unwise as the neoconservatives’ strategy of working for a return to the Cold War. The romanticism of détente and the nostalgia of the Cold War, despite their contradictions, are based on the same fundamental error: Russia is like the Soviet Union. But that’s wrong.
Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is not interested in maintaining the status quo. Changing it peacefully with a “change through trade” policy led to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1990. In the end, it was the economic soft power of democratic capitalism that made the difference, not the number of tanks and warheads. Even then, the Soviet Union had more tanks than NATO. Putin’s government can only be understood in the context of the failure of the USSR. His policy points to revision. For Putin, the cold war was and is the prelude to a hot war, just as he heats or cools the “frozen” conflicts in Georgia, for example, as he sees fit.
The United States and Europe are now taking a toll on the belief that greater material prosperity would automatically lead to the rule of law and respect for human rights. For a long time, this approach shaped the Russian policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his successor Angela Merkel. The most visible expression was close energy cooperation.
What was overlooked was that Putin is anything but an “impeccable democrat.” Already in 1999 he enacted a state of emergency after the bomb attacks on residential buildings in Moscow. He had troops march into Chechnya and reduce his capital, Grozny, to rubble. Putin’s office has always been the state of emergency that he orchestrated. And that requires escalation.
Moscow’s disaffected middle class
This is all the more true since Putin, unlike China’s leadership, does not even think about permanently increasing the prosperity of the population. The dissatisfied middle class of Moscow and Petersburg demonstrated in 2012 against his third presidency. In 2014, Putin sent Russia into a nationalist frenzy with the annexation of Crimea.
It was not NATO’s eastward expansion, based on the NATO-Russia Founding Act, that made it attack Ukraine in 2014. It was the Ukrainians’ rejection of the Eurasian Economic Union and their request for association with the European Union. Russia’s soft power had lost out to the EU’s. Putin responded with hard power. Meanwhile, the Russian people are getting poorer. Everything that entered the country in terms of income from commodity trade flowed into the military and the pockets of the oligarchs. Since Crimea’s annexation, gross domestic product per capita has fallen below $10,000, which is lower than China and the EU’s poorest country, Romania.
It is now clear that Putin’s blitzkrieg concept does not work in Ukraine. He may win the battle for kyiv, even if that is far from certain. But he has already lost the war against the rest of the world. His economic and financial resources are unlikely to be sufficient for a permanent occupation of Ukraine, especially in view of the devastating effect of Western sanctions. They economically send Russia back to the Soviet Union of the 1960s.
That is not good news. A system of government that knows only escalation through hard power as a way out of crises becomes all the more dangerous the more desperate its situation appears. This is why NATO is advised not to become a war party. Not because we care less about the fate of Ukraine, but because entering the war would cause the death toll to skyrocket.
The burning of money has to end
Now it is necessary to rectify the Bundeswehr’s equipment shortage. During Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship, the German arms budget rose almost to the level of Russia’s, but that was not enough to provide warm underwear for Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in Lithuania. Both are necessary: better financial resources and an end to wasting money on acquisitions. But Europe’s security is not limited to the military. Europe must become more resilient.
Germany, in particular, must reduce its dependence on fossil energy imports. It is possible to reverse the ratio of imported and domestic energy so that we only have to import a quarter of our primary energy. The key to this is accelerated decarbonization and a quick end to imports from Russia. Some are afraid to go cold turkey, literally. Continuing to drink for fear of a hangover has always been bad advice.
We can stop buying oil and coal from Russia at the end of the year. In addition, complete gas storage facilities must be secured and liquefied gas contracts released on the world market must be secured. The installation of heat pumps instead of gas heaters should be prescribed, renewable energies expanded and hydrogen production increased. In view of the nuclear threshold lowered by Putin and the precarious situation in the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, we should be happy with all the nuclear power plants in Europe that have been closed.
Russia is not the Soviet Union. At the UN General Assembly, 141 countries recently called on Putin to end the war immediately. Only five states endorsed it. The USSR has never been so isolated. The war in Ukraine also does not correspond to the economic interests of Putin’s partner, China. Now it is important for Europe to rebalance the relationship between hard power and soft power. Strategically, soft power will win.