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Commentary | 6 April 2017

Conflicting geostrategic concepts for Europe’s security

Image of Karsten Voigt

Karsten Voigt |Former German-American coordinator in the Federal Foreign Office, Former President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

NATO Russia-West Relations Security Euro-Atlantic Security

The destiny of the people living in Europe has been shaped for many years by the interests of the great powers. For centuries, the Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg empires, as well as France and Britain, have dominated the European continent. From the nineteenth century until the end of World War II, first Prussia and then Germany – directly and indirectly – joined this competition for influence. Indeed, during the Yalta Conference, the great powers of the time shaped the European political landscape for decades to come.

This centuries-old experience of being the object of competition between the great powers continues to influence political debates in Europe to this day. Of course, the historical memories of (former) threats and domination are stronger in smaller states than in larger ones. One reason for this mindset is that larger states possess a greater ability to influence their own conditions than do smaller ones. This is a reality of international politics. Yet, a reliable and sustainable order in Europe can only be achieved if both large and small states are prepared to establish and adhere to a fair balance of interests.

Accordingly, the complex voting rules of the European Council and the European Parliament are typical expressions of the desire to define this fair balance between smaller and larger countries. Beyond these formal voting rules, the European Union is based on the guiding principles of a common political culture, chief among them being the ideas of co-dependence and integration. If the largest state in Europe (Russia) has returned to the logic of the “concert of big powers” – first in Georgia, then in Crimea, and now in Eastern Ukraine – this not only affects its direct neighbours, it also undermines stability in Europe as a whole.

With the initiation of the Helsinki Process, the equality of smaller and larger states has been demonstrably strengthened. The Charter of Paris, signed in 1990, confirmed the rights of both small and large states to decide their own destinies. Therefore, when Russia acts against the principles of the Paris Charter by annexing part of a neighbouring state, when it supports the use of military force in other parts of a smaller state, and claims the right of specific zones of influence, then such acts may be considered an attack on the basic principles, norms, and values that formed the basis of the post-Cold War political order. If we accept such behaviour, then Europe as a whole will soon again be dominated by the old ghosts of mistrust and conflict. As such, it is not anti-Russian sentiment but rather a commitment to the principles, norms, and values of a peaceful European order that has guided the German government throughout the Ukrainian crisis.

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the largely peaceful end of the Soviet Union, German policy towards Russia was defined by the desire to combine the process of integration with honest cooperation. In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, however, the coming years – though hopefully not decades – will be defined by a cooperation only as far as is possible, and a defensive security policy as far as is necessary.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, pan-European cooperation deepened and accelerated. The Charter of Paris defined the common principles of Europe as being whole and free. Russia was included in the Council of Europe and became a partner of both the EU and NATO. Trade and cultural exchanges increased, and the network of pan-European relations became denser. While the objective of Russia assuming full membership in the EU and NATO was perhaps never realistic, the West tried, though not consistently enough, to achieve closer cooperation.

But the Russian leadership has since changed its view of Russia’s role in its neighbourhood and in the world at large. President Putin regards the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet Communism not as a historic opportunity for building a prosperous, modern, and democratic Russia, but rather “as a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Putin’s Russia does not want to be recognised internationally as a great Euro-Asian power, but rather as it once was: a world power that is equal to the US, particularly in its hard power arsenal. Russia’s attempts to re-establish and maintain zones of influence is perceived inside of Russia as a historic right, but to most of its neighbours these attempts are seen as Russian revisionism and irredentism.

Russia failed to build up mutual trust and cooperation with its smaller, western neighbours after the Cold War. Meanwhile, Russia also considers US policy prior to Trump´s election as US President to be the most relevant factor in the souring of their post-Cold War relations. My own view is that the mostly negative and deteriorating relationship between Russia and its smaller western neighbours is the most important foreign policy reason for the increasing alienation between Russia and members of the EU and NATO.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and the Conference in Yalta in 1945, the destinies and boundaries of Russia’s western neighbours were decided by Russia and the western powers of the time. This geostrategic reality changed with the end of the Cold War. Already during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, it was obvious to me that leading actors – especially in Yugoslavia, but also in Russia – did not understand the new European realities after the end of the Cold War. When I met, as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO, with leading politicians in Belgrade at the time, they obviously had difficulties understanding the consequences of the fact that for the US, Britain, France, and Germany it was more important to harmonise their views than to follow their traditionally different national strategies.

Since the 1990s we have had a geostrategic constellation that is different from all previous centuries: nearly every European nation has signed up to the goal of a common democratic system of values as defined by the Council of Europe. Most of Russia’s western neighbours are now members of the EU and/or NATO. Like other European countries, Britain, France, and Germany will – beyond their policies as members of the EU and NATO – also pursue individual bilateral policies with Russia. But these policies will not be pursued behind the backs of smaller European states. For Germany, Russia is the most important country east of the boundaries of the EU and NATO, but it is not more important than its relationships with its partners in the EU and NATO.

Clearly, after 1945 the US and the Soviet Union were the key determinants of European security. These countries’ impacts were often also decisive for societal developments inside their respective spheres of influence. I am not underestimating the role of the US and Russia in Europe today. But their roles – particularly that of Russia – have changed enormously, and cannot be compared to their roles during the Cold War, or during the period of detente. Russia no longer decides which governments are formed in East-Central or Southeastern Europe, nor does it exercise a veto on those countries’ respective foreign policies. Unlike in the nineteenth century, Western Europe’s powers are integrated into the EU and NATO. This integration has fundamentally changed the geostrategic framework for policies towards Russia and – in a different way – towards Southeastern Europe and the Western Balkans as well.

Russia seems to underestimate the importance of these changes and the historical significance of this new European security landscape. The present Russian leadership prefers a return to a concert of big powers in which they can carve out a sphere of influence and from there apply rules and norms that differ from accepted international norms and the principals of the Charter of Paris. For both moral and geostrategic reasons, the preservation of the European order requires a new approach – one that cannot be based on the ideological convictions of previous diplomats like Metternich, Bismarck, or Kissinger.

Some analysts and politicians argue that the European order does not need to be based on the norms, rules, and values agreed to in the Charter of Paris and the Council of Europe. This is true: even in the absence of such common values, many compromises and pragmatic agreements with Russia are both possible and desirable. The willingness to continue cooperation with Russia, whenever possible and reasonable, is the expression of our realism. But without a basis of common norms, rules, and values, we will always be far away from a truly stable European order.

In upcoming years we, therefore, need to protect those parts of Europe that are based on common norms, principles, and values. At the same time, and in a very pragmatic way, we should cooperate with all European nations – especially Russia – that challenge these principles and values and thereby directly or indirectly also undermine the cohesion, stability, and security of the European order and key institutions like the Council of Europe, the EU, and NATO.

We should continue to pursue active dialogue with the Russian leadership and – so far as possible – with Russian society. Striving for cooperative solutions does not mean underestimating meaningful conflicts of interests and values. Further, trying to understand Russian policies does not necessarily mean agreeing with them. Especially during a crisis, intensive communication is an indispensable prerequisite for the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

On the other hand, and unlike in previous years, we have to accept that the EU and NATO have to take precautions whenever Russian policies pose risks to its neighbours, to members of the EU or NATO, or to European security as a whole. Nor can we accept that boundaries can be changed by force and that political and military steps that con-tradict the Charter of Paris are considered legitimate by any European country.

The war in Eastern Ukraine has shown that we need to strengthen the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and make it more capable of direct intervention. We also need to examine whether OSCE “Blue Helmets” can be deployed in Eastern Ukraine. Whether all members of the OSCE and especially the Russian leadership are ready for an improvement of the existing rules as well as greater transparency in arms control should also be explored. This could mean that other elements of cooperative security are strengthened despite an environment that in recent years has been dominated by mistrust and conflict.

Many are talking of a new Cold War. Others are expressing their desire to return to the cooperative approach practiced during the period of detente. Both positions are, to various extents, understandable. It would be best of all, however, if we could develop new concepts that are appropriate for today’s challenges.

On the one hand, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is a “hot” war. On the other hand, in contrast to the Cold War – at least on paper – we are united with Russia by common principles; a commitment to a policy of peacefully resolving conflicts. We should not be too quick to put the institutions, contacts, and norms we agreed upon in recent decades at risk. If Russia, however, were to undermine this network of relationships, we cannot repair the damage unilaterally.

Our future relationship with Russia can develop in different directions – there are alternatives. Social Democrats will always support policies that tend towards a more cooperative and peaceful direction. Whether such policies are realistic, however, will primarily be decided in Moscow. After all, a policy of cooperation needs at least two for it to have legs.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.