03 September 2014
The escalating war in eastern Ukraine puts the current foreign policy of Germany in a bad light. The focus on dialogue with Putin has not prevented Russian aggression and perhaps has even encouraged it. Another side effect is the rising anxiety of Germany's neighbours, such as the Baltic States and Poland, which are increasingly concerned about their security. They do not distrust the good intentions of Germany but they doubt their effectiveness.
Berlin has tried to find a formula by which Putin could stop the war and save face. But now it is Germany which is busy trying to save face and restore confidence in it among its partners. This was one of the impressions of a speech by President Joachim Gauck at Westerplatte on 1 September 2014, in which he tried to explain Germany’s policy towards Russia but also announced that its partnership "was terminated by Moscow”. So perhaps we are witnessing a change in German policy towards the east. It will not be easy, however.
Germany has by now had a long tradition of “change through rapprochement”, a strategy according to which intense trade and investment, backed by various formats of political cooperation, would turn Russia into a democratic and peaceful country. In this hope, Berlin was able to turn a blind eye to the obvious setbacks in Russia’s modernization and ignore the concerns of other Eastern Europeans who accused the Germans of pursuing a policy of “Russia first” or even one of “Russia only”. Another argument for leniency towards Moscow was the interests of German companies, of which more than 6,000 had invested in Russia. Germany gained access to cheap gas and paid for it with €35 billion in exports of modern goods. Today, however, it is clear that Russia has used the economic boom after 2000, high oil prices and its great relationship with Germany not to make the dream of “change through rapprochement” reality, but to start thinking about re-building structures lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Expectations that Germany will break relations with Russia are unrealistic. Nevertheless, Berlin needs a counterpoint in its eastern policy to refresh the policy’s image as a tool for modernisation and democratisation. This counterpoint could be Ukraine, which still has a chance for a successful transition and which has citizens who have shown they are willing to pay a high price for their European ambitions. There are at least a few arguments in favour of an Ostpolitik that contains a “Ukraine-first” policy.
First and foremost to recognize is that Russia has developed a new type of hybrid warfare, one which aims at destabilising fresh democracies that have social problems and multi-ethnic compositions. The chaos instilled by Moscow can make reforms and consolidation impossible, and thus diminish the transformative power of the EU in the east and open up a chance to change the existing European order. If Central Europe is seen through Putin’s eyes, as full of democracies in statu nascendi, even the success of the recent EU enlargements cannot be seen as irreversible, not to mention the association projects. So Ukraine is not the only country at stake, but success there can be part of a winning strategy.
Second, determined German efforts to bring Ukraine closer to Europe would ease the security concerns of Poland and the Baltic States. Since the Crimean crisis, these countries have loudly demanded new NATO military bases be established on their territories, which surely would start a local arms race. From the German perspective, this is a worrying scenario because it may invite further Russian escalations. But exactly this concern pushes Central Europeans towards closer cooperation with the U.S. and may diminish German influence in the region. A new Ukraine-first policy might restore confidence in the region and offer relief for all.
Third, a focus on Ukraine can be a good business opportunity for companies from Germany. An enterprising person driving a car on the overcrowded M12 between Lviv and Vinnitsya will see not only the disastrous conditions of the roads, full of potholes and impassable shoulders, but also the opportunity for a construction sector boom and the chance to induce extensive growth throughout the country. Ukraine has many good assets, such as its agriculture sector, gas resources, defence industry and relatively well-educated citizens. The fourth-largest population of IT specialists in the world lives between Lviv and Donetsk, and this surely will attract foreign investors. If Ukraine will be able to eradicate corruption and reform governance, a boom in rising exports for Germany could become reality.
Fourth, for historical reasons a more Ukraine-oriented Ostpolitik would be fair and restore a balance in perception of Eastern Europe’s past. Many of the German concessions to Russia have been streaked with a sense of guilt for the atrocities of WW2. This is just, but few realize that Russia has to some extent appropriated the martyrdom of all of the Soviet Union’s people, in particular the Ukrainians. They suffered enormously when their country was under brutal occupation, enduring high civilian casualties, and for much longer than those on modern Russian territory. It is time for Germany to see this hijack of historical memory and demonstrate more sensibility to the Ukrainians.
Last but not least, success in building democracy in Ukraine and seeing it move closer to the EU can change Russia itself. With Russian-speaking regions enjoying freedom of speech without Moscow’s restrictions on media and internet would pose a challenge to Putin’s authoritarianism at home. The younger Russian “creative class” could feel attracted by this more open environment and the possibility to create startups with free access to the vast EU market. The effect could be even more spectacular if Ukrainian universities become quickly integrated into EU networks and new initiatives emerge, such as joint projects modelled after Viadrina University in Frankfurt Oder/Słubice, founded by Germany and Poland. This soft-power oriented strategy would need time but it may be more effective than any stock of hard power. If it works, the chances for a gradual change in Russia towards liberal democracy will rise. But even if not, we will have at least a better Ukraine and happy Ukrainians, and success with a new Ostpolitik.