A New Phase of Russia and Ostpolitik Has Begun

This article is a translation of the original version in German. To read the German version of this article, click here.

A pan-European peace order including Russia should still remain the long-term goal for European leaders. However, with authoritarian developments in Russian domestic politics, the turning away from Europe, the annexation of Crimea, and the war-like conflict in eastern Ukraine, the general conditions of pursuing pan-European peace policies have changed. Thus, we are on the verge of a new phase of social-democratic policies toward the East and Russia.

The End of Détente and Communism

Détente, which was essentially framed by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr, presupposed a power and system conflict between the East and the West. Several agreements managed this power struggle while humanitarian agreements mitigated the consequences. Political system conflict was not in doubt. On the contrary, parallel to détente policies, West Germany’s “decree of radicalism” (Radikalerlass) drastically distanced itself from Communism, whereas the German Democratic Republic (GDR) highlighted its distance from social democracy.

The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process added another element. The CSCE Final Act of 1975 dealt with neither the common definition of principles of cooperative security in Europe nor with the respect of human rights and the freedom of information. East and West interpreted and practiced these shared principles differently. By nature, the human and freedom rights assigned in the CSCE’s Final Act threatened the basic ideological assumptions of Communist regimes. Therefore, the Final Act was not fully replaced after the end of the East-West conflict, but, rather, was complemented by additional agreements, such as the Charta of Paris.

The détente policies of the 1970s and 1980s did not end the power and system conflict between the East and the West—that was due to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev’s goal was a fundamental reform of the Soviet system; Yeltsin wanted to end the Soviet system and introduce a capitalist order. Yeltsin’s Russian leadership strived for a “Westernization” of Russia. These policies deprived the two sides of the basis of the systemic conflict that had influenced the history of the Soviet Union since its founding. The Soviet Union—and later Russia—now pursued common constitutional and democratic principles of all European nations, and Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1996 and ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998 were symbols of this new Russian policy. The accession of Russia and other former members of the Warsaw Pact transformed institutions and norms that were formerly limited to Western Europe into values and laws of the entire pan-European community.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and withdrawal of troops from Eastern Europe, the foundation of the West’s power struggle with the Soviet Union—and later Russia—disappeared. Russia accepted the agreements on conventional disarmament, military confidence-building, and the right to self-determination in terms of foreign and security policies of all nations; such agreements were inconceivable during the Cold War. Amid the successful end to détente policies, there was the impression of a period of major developments of a pan-European peace order that would include Russia. The basic conditions for social-democratic policies toward the East and Russia changed in a generally positive direction.

Integrating with a New Russia and Eastern Europe

Integration alongside cooperation shaped this new phase of policies toward the East: integration wherever desirable and possible, and cooperation wherever integration was not possible or desirable. For the first time in history, the Baltic States and the countries in both eastern and south-central Europe became a zone of security and—with reservations—democratic stability. The common integration into European and transatlantic institutions now connected Germany’s eastern and western neighbors. Some of Germany’s former Ostpolitik now became institutional, economic, and political parts of former policies toward the West.

The Eastern expansion of the European Union (EU) and NATO produced a new pan-European reality. However, the goals of social democrats went further: they wanted to connect Russia with the remaining European countries and institutions beyond its membership in the Council of Europe and the OSCE. At first, these policies seemed to resemble the goals of Russian policies.

Initially, Russia valued the Eastern expansion of the European Union, particularly because Russian cooperation treaties should supplement these. The Russian resistance to European association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are more recent developments. Both Russia and the European Union were striving for similar agreements with each other.

Yet, Russia evaluated the eastern expansion of NATO as negative early on. Still, the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security” in 1997 and the founding of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 were able to limit the negative consequences of the eastern expansion on Russia’s relationship with NATO. Even though the negotiations respected Russian concerns, key points diverged from their interests: from an equal say within NATO to a factual veto in their decisions.

The members of NATO and the EU were also unwilling to guarantee Russia a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, which would not be possible without violation of the foreign and domestic right to sovereignty and self-determination of each and every European state. Unlike the “concert of powers” of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the United States and larger European nations did not want to make decisions over the heads of smaller states regarding their foreign policy orientation, their security, or even their borders. Politics in terms of a “concert of powers” would have violated well-established European principles and treaties. They would challenge the very basics of cooperation among equals within the EU and NATO.

Members of the EU pursued a close cooperation with Russia, but not at the expense of eastern and southeastern European countries. If the EU had ignored the interests of smaller eastern and southeastern European nations because of cooperation with Russia, uncertainty and distrust would once again have arisen in this region. Concerns about another “Yalta” would have spread. Russia is the most important country east of the EU and NATO borders. But policies toward the East are not exclusively, and not always predominantly, policies toward Russia—contrary to the times of the Cold War.

Whenever treaties with Warsaw, Prague, or Budapest were negotiated during the Cold War period and the decades of détente, European policies toward the East always had to confirm with policies toward Moscow. Now these central and southeastern European countries participate in discussions with the EU and NATO on Russia. In Moscow, as well as in Brussels, many have not yet understood that the basic conditions of European policies toward the East have changed fundamentally since the beginning of the 1990s.

Moving Forward with Persistent Mistrust in Russia’s Neighborhood

Russia’s policies toward its Western neighbors is nowadays both positively and negatively shaped by its fixation on the United States. Russia pursues the role of an equally powerful player alongside the United States. At the same time, it is aware of the fact that the role of a world power well exceeds its political and economic resources. Russia did not manage to build up mutual trust and cooperation with its smaller Western neighbors after the Cold War. I see the most important foreign policy reason of the increasing alienation between Russia and the members of the EU and NATO in this deficit. Russia, for its part, views U.S. policies as the most important source of negative international developments in recent years.

I do not deny the foreign policy reasons of the alienation from Russia. Yet, the Russian domestic developments appear equally, if not even more, important to me. Russia is alienating itself more and more from the democratic nations of Europe through its increasingly authoritarian development, the resort to symbols and policies of the czar period, and the diminishing willingness to deal with its Soviet past critically. Through its claim to “Eurasian” and “traditional” values, the Russian leadership distances itself from shared European values.

The recourse to pre-democratic values and the EU criticism find approval with right-wing Europeans, such as the UK Independence Party in Great Britain, the Front National in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Jobbik in Hungary, the Alternative for Germany, as well as in large proportions of the German leftist party. At the same time, the democratic left parties of Europe increasingly criticize Russia because of its heavy violations of European treaties and international law.

Russia’s use of its energy supply to exert political pressure undermines the trust that has been the basis of cooperation between Russia and Western Europe since the beginning of the 1970s. The annexation of Crimea violated the principles of inviolable borders and peaceful resolutions of conflicts, which were agreed upon in the 1973 CSCE Final Act. Even worse, it violates the treaty that made Ukraine abdicate nuclear weapons. France, Great Britain, and the United States had also signed this treaty. This annexation hence undermines the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As if this were not enough, it is the declared goal of Russian policy to “protect” Russians and Russian-speaking citizens in other nations well beyond Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In my opinion, there was no discrimination against Russian-speaking citizens in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. If Russian leaders had truly been interested in protecting Russian-speaking citizens from discrimination, they could have sought to resolve this issue through negotiations with the Ukrainian government. Russia did not even attempt this. This reinforces fears of Russia’s neighbors that the Russian leadership does not actually care about the protection of “Russian minorities,” but that it use them as instruments of Russian power politics. This does not necessarily mean that Russia will make use of military means to guarantee the safety of “Russian minorities”—even if most of the Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine consider themselves Ukrainians. However, they do not explicitly rule out military means as well.

Due to the objectives of Russian policies and the experiences with the reality of Russian policies toward Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many neighboring countries feel understandably threatened. Russia’s behavior toward Ukraine—and even previously in the conflicts in Georgia and Transnistria—raise doubts about whether Russia accepts the status quo of its borders. Many of Russia’s neighbors perceive it as a revisionist power these days. Given these threats, all members of the EU and NATO must be able to rely on the solidarity of their partners and allies.

The trust in Russian policies has been heavily disrupted. A generally positive phase of policies towards Russia is now coming to an end. We are not facing another Cold War. But it will take a longer period of time before new trust can be build. The basic prerequisite for this is a change in the policies of the Russian leadership. In the foreseeable future, our relationship with Russia will not be guided by the principle of “cooperation, wherever possible.” Instead, the future axiom seems to be “cooperation, wherever possible and reasonable, risk provision and danger aversion, whenever necessary.” This strained juxtaposition of policies, which are based on cooperation, as well as risk provision and danger aversion, represents a step back from the developments of the last years and decades.

Measures Toward Increasing Regional Stability and Trust

The insight that a European peace order is only permanently stable with Russia being part of it remains true. If Russia violates key points of these agreed norms, this is no reason to abandon these principles. On the contrary, this is about making Russia return to these principles and norms to make it an equal member of the European peace order.

We should continue pursuing an active dialogue with the Russian leadership and the Russian society. To try to understand Russian policies does not necessarily mean that we agree with it. On the contrary, especially during a crisis, intensive communication is an indispensable prerequisite to the peaceful resolution of conflicts. The willingness to continue cooperation with Russia, whenever possible and reasonable, is part of our realism. Despite its current policies, Russia remains the most important country east of the borders of the EU and NATO.

Unlike previous years, we have to accept the fact that the EU and NATO have to take precautions whenever Russian policies pose risks and dangers for Russian neighbors, for the members of the EU or NATO, and for European security in its whole. This changed environment renders the efforts for a peaceful resolution of conflicts—as in the case of eastern Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia—the call for arms control, disarmaments, and trust building more important. Russia has been a partner on the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, the fight against international terrorism, and Afghanistan. It was effectively involved in the resolution of conflicts, and such areas of cooperation should be maintained and—as far as possible and reasonable—expanded. Unfortunately, Russia would rather be a counterpart than a partner in other conflicts, such as the efforts to stabilize the economy and democracy in Ukraine. Nevertheless we should, in accordance and cooperation with the government in Kiev, pursue conflict-mitigating arrangements and treaties.

We are not on the verge of another Cold War with Russia, but we are facing times of limited cooperation and conflict. It will be the task of social democracies to analyze differences in opinions and interests during this new phase of policies toward the East. At the same time, we should support cooperative policy approaches on the basis of our own values and principles and we should solve conflicts peacefully. Even if it might take a longer period of time, this might open up the chance to a more positive phase of policies toward Russia and the East.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.