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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 3: The End of German Illusions

by Thomas Risse

№ 40/2022 from Feb 28, 2022

What Putin contests most is democracy and freedom, i.e., the liberal script. Now that the German government has apparently realized the calamity of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, its foreign policy did a turnaround. But its containment approach is not sufficient, argues Thomas Risse. Germany needs a thorough reassessment of its foreign policy. And the West needs to help prevent further aggression against states in Eastern Europe.

Shattered illusions

Shattered illusions
Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

To understand the significance of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we need to have a sense of what this is all about. Two counterfactuals are telling in this regard. First, what if the Euromaidan of 2013/14 had not happened and Viktor Yanukovych were still in power? Putin’s Russia would certainly not have invaded. Second, what if Russia were a fully democratic state? Would it have invaded Ukraine? Of course not. What “threatens” Putin and his cronies are neither NATO nor the EU, but democracy and freedom, i.e., the liberal script. The invasion of Ukraine represents the culmination of autocratic Russia’s efforts to turn back the clock in Eastern Europe (and possibly in the Southern Caucasus) and to install illiberal regimes in Russia’s periphery. Let us remind ourselves of Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, when it brought Abkhazia and South Ossetia under its control. In a similar vein, Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014 and installed two puppet regimes in the Donbas region. The ultimate goal of these violent acts has been the domestic survival of the autocratic Putin regime to ensure that there is no spill-over from democratizing countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus into Russia.

While the Putin regime is still in power, these aggressions did nothing but bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO and the EU. The same holds true for Moldova with its breakaway republic of Transnistria. Moreover, during the past decade, NATO gradually reinforced its Eastern borders in order to deter Russian attempts at destabilizing the Baltic states, but also Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. And thanks to the Biden administration, Western unity has so far stood its ground against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Imagine what would have happened – my third counterfactual – if Donald Trump had won the 2020 U.S. presidential elections? [1] Finally, German foreign policy did an almost complete turnaround on Feb. 27. Chancellor Scholz who had gone out of his way to avoid the word “Nordstream 2” until just before the invasion of Ukraine, announced a serious rearmament of the German Bundeswehr and committed Germany to comply with NATO’s 2% GDP goal for defense expenditures for the coming years. [2]

Belatedly, the German government seems to have realized that Putin’s aggression against Ukraine marks the utter failure of German foreign policy toward Russia of the past decade. Germany – from former Chancellor Merkel, Federal President (and former foreign minister) Steinmeier to Chancellor Scholz – had engaged for years in endless negotiations with the Russian government to avoid further bloodshed in Eastern Europe – to no avail. As to Ukraine, the Normandy format to implement the Minsk agreements never worked. At the same time, Germany did very little to reduce its energy dependence on Russian oil and gas, thereby actively contributing to the stabilization of the Russian rent economy and, thus, the material basis of Putin’s regime. [3]

Some even argued “change through trade” as if increasing the ties with Gazprom and building Nordstream 2 would somehow help democratize Russia. For years, German policymakers encouraged Gazprom and other Russian energy companies to strengthen their economic and socio-political networks in Germany – including the sponsoring of soccer clubs. Last but not least, German leaders told the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian governments time and again that membership in the EU (and in NATO for that matter) would not be in the cards any time soon. Olaf Scholz even repeated this point jokingly when he met Putin on February 15.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ends all illusions in Berlin and elsewhere that one can somehow accommodate Russia’s concerns and convince the current Russian government to return to the post-Cold War European peace and security order. This order – enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the subsequent OSCE, and in various documents of the 1990s – is dead as long as Putin and his cronies are in power. But the return to the containment policies of the Cold War, which Chancellor Scholz announced and which always included not only deterrence, but also offers of détente and arms control [4], is not sufficient. Germany also needs a thorough reassessment of its foreign policy strategy including the political, military, economic, and cultural means at its disposal. In the immediate future, we need to seriously think about how further aggressions against Moldova and Georgia can be credibly deterred and how to react if Putin succeeds in establishing an autocratic regime in Kyiv. This includes credible accession perspectives to NATO and the EU for countries in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. Time is running out on Germany and Europe as a whole: In two and a half years, there will be U.S. presidential elections again – who knows what will happen to the liberal script when Trump comes back?

[1] Trump called Putin „very smart“ when commenting on the invasion, see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/world/europe/trump-putin-russia-ukraine.html; ; accessed February 27, 2022.

[2] https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/aktuelles/bundeskanzlers-olaf-scholz-im-bundestag-regierungserklaerung-am-27-februar-2022-2008356; accessed February 27, 2022.

[3] Fortunately, only 8% of Germany’s energy mix (or 50% of the natural gas) depend on Russia’s deliveries as a result of which a study by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy estimated that a complete stop of Russian gas deliveries to Europe would hurt Russia much more than the European including German economies, see https://www.ifw-kiel.de/de/publikationen/medieninformationen/2022/mit-diesen-sanktionen-trifft-der-westen-russlands-wirtschaft-am-staerksten/. On how to deal with the challenges to the European energy markets see https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2022-02-27/kremlins-gas-wars. All sources accessed February 27, 2022.

[4] It was in 1968 when NATO adopted the so-called Harmel Report advocating both deterrence and détente.

Last edits for this blog entry were on 27 February 2022, 7:51 p.m. CET.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Risse is Director of the Berlin International College of Research and Graduate Training (BIRT) at SCRIPTS and Professor for International Relations at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science (OSI) at Freie Universität Berlin.