The cold war is over, but the world is an ever more dangerous place. During a recent conference between Russia and western governments, a seasoned US diplomat said he had never felt so close to disaster in 50 years of professional life. None of the participants questioned the validity of his statement. The new mood of confrontation deserves an agonising reappraisal and a return to Realpolitik.
‘The time is out of joint’ – the quote from Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark is apposite because the crises and conflicts of our time are non-linear, creating their own often uncontrollable dynamics. We need to cast our minds back to October 2014, to a luxury hotel more than 1,000 metres above the city of Sochi, a health resort on the Black Sea. There, members of the Valdai Club, an informal gathering of Russia experts, were greeted by a slogan that captured the new mood in Russia: ‘New order or no order’.
The Kremlin wanted to show that Russia was back in the Great Game, that it wished to be respected as a global power, and that Russian elites were unwilling to live by values other than their own – whatever the cost. The past 10 years have seen a progressive exercise by President Vladimir Putin warning the West not to move too closely to the bear’s den. Russia has wanted to remind the US of its near-unlimited escalation power – above all in mobilising patriotic sentiment at home and turning Russian dreams away from western style democracy towards intimidating Russia’s neighbourhood – menacingly termed the ‘near abroad’.
Historians of the 19th century would be reminded of the Czar’s perennial ambition to be recognised as the gendarme of Europe and guardian of the Holy Alliance. A major shift in the global ‘correlation of forces’ – to borrow a concept from Soviet-speak – took place under Putin’s watch, built on a steady rise in the price of oil, and resulting in a military modernisation that the West ignored – at its peril.
The good days are over. Western enthusiasm has all but evaporated, chiefly due to Russia’s takeover of Crimea and the hybrid war in the Donbas region. Russia is, once again, ‘a riddle inside an enigma shrouded in mystery’, as Winston Churchill famously stated. ‘Punish Putin’ was the US administration’s knee-jerk reaction to the formal annexation of Crimea – something the Russians maintain was secession, confirmed by a hasty referendum. While history is on the Russian side, international law backs US and EU sanctions. But the West, under the gloss of righteousness and massive pressure from the US Treasury, is deeply divided over sanctions. Germany is following the US lead, but grumbling ever more loudly and even signing up to a second ‘North Stream’ gas pipeline, much to the dismay of eastern and southern European allies.
Sanctions are neither peace nor war, but something in between. To make the global strategic balance dependent on a player like Ukraine amounts to insouciance, and invites not only misunderstanding but also disaster. It is high time to forge compromises, find face-saving solutions such as a non-aligned status for Ukraine, hold a referendum and see what happens. The whole of the Balkans, Bismarck once said in a similar context, is not worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.
Confrontation is on the cards, but so is co-operation. Russia was an active member of the ‘five plus one’ group that secured Iran’s containment. In Syria, Russia is defending its interest on the Mediterranean coast. It does so ‘by invitation’, as the Russians keep saying. Once again, the motive is Russia’s national interest.
Any German government will need to perform a delicate balancing act between a resurgent Russia and the US’ tendency to attempt to run Europe and the Middle East by remote control. While the US is still indispensable to maintaining a semblance of international balance, the Europeans will have to be much more serious in global affairs. More trouble is in the making, including between Washington and Berlin. A difficult and dangerous year lies ahead.
Michael Stürmer is chief correspondent of Die Welt, a former adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.