War in Europe: it’s not just about Ukraine

By Sigmar Gabriel
Sigmar Gabriel, former Federal Minister, Chairman of Atlantik-Brücke e. V.

Europe and the West have to watch helplessly as Russian President Vladimir Putin breaks the peace in Europe and overwhelms Ukraine with military force. War in the heart of Europe? Who could have imagined that just a few months ago?

And before we hear the self-accusations again, especially in Germany, that “the West” has “overdone it with the encirclement of Russia” and that we are to blame for the fact that the “Russian bear is now acting irritably,” it is worth taking a look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on the reasons for the annexation disguised as “recognition” of the eastern Ukrainian separatist regions. And it is definitely not about the alleged need to protect the Russian part of the population in eastern Ukraine from “genocide” and a “fascist government in Kyiv.”

It is about something quite different: The return of Russia as a superpower, which is more reminiscent of the tsarist empire than of the former Soviet Union. Unlike the former Soviet Union, this Russia is not intended to unite different peoples, but to anchor a hegemonic claim to a supposedly unique Russian civilization, which emerged from the three East Slavic peoples – the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians – and which sees itself as fundamentally different from “Western civilization”.

The “Russian nation” based on this does not recognize any independent states in Ukraine, Belarus and probably not even in the Caucasus, parts of Central Asia and probably not even in Finland. Therefore, not only Europeans will have heard the speech of the Russian president with both attention and concern. Above all, however, according to Vladimir Putin’s will, this “Russian nation” is also to become a major European power again, which is to have at least a say in deciding the future and fate of Europe. Just as was the case with tsarist Russia for centuries.

Russia only has its military as an instrument

The Russian president wants to reverse a development in which Russia has steadily lost influence in Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has since increasingly descended to the role of an energy supplier. Geopolitically, the United States has dominated Western Europe since 1945 and all of Europe since 1989. Russia no longer played a significant role; instead, China has expanded its influence in Europe in recent years. Russia is the big geopolitical loser, both globally and in Europe. The Russian president wants to stop and reverse this trend. And since Russia is neither economically nor politically attractive, “only” the military remains as an instrument to re-establish the country as a European power.

In a sense, the Russian president has already achieved this goal, because the US is again negotiating with him about the fate of Europe. From the Russian perspective, this is a return to normality: Russia negotiated with the US about the future of Europe in 1945, then again in 1989/1990 as part of German reunification, and again in 1997 with the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

Russia wants to reverse this development after 1989/90 and position itself as a great power in Europe, as it did for centuries before. It is concerned with influencing Europe’s future role in the reordering of the world that has just got underway. After all, the postwar order of World War II has come to an end with a bit of delay. What we were used to as a global order emerged when states like China and India were still developing countries belonging to the so-called “Third World.”

Decisions were made in the “first world”: in the US, the USSR, and the democratic industrialized nations of the West. The decline of the Soviet Union and the rise of China were also associated – largely unnoticed at first – with the end of the “Pax Americana”. The United States became less and less able to be both the leading economic and technological nation and to maintain the global order.

Europe must oppose the claim to power

Long before Donald Trump, the USA began to gradually withdraw from its traditional role as a global regulatory power to be able to focus its strength on the new competition with China. Today, the center of gravity of the world is no longer Europe and the Atlantic, but the Indo-Pacific. This is where the majority of the world’s population now lives, where most of the world’s GDP is generated, and where five nuclear states with the capability to build nuclear weapons have long since emerged. We are witnesses to an almost tectonic shift in the world’s economic, political and military power axes.

It is still unclear what the new world order will look like, but Russia wants to play a decisive role in it again. Russia’s military involvement now extends from Central Asia and the Caucasus and the Middle East to West Africa. And now the country is also using its military capabilities to influence and, if possible, determine Europe’s role in this reordering of the world. So this is about much more than Ukraine or Russia’s allegedly threatened security needs. It is about its imperial claim to power to determine the future of Europe. Europe would be well advised to oppose this claim to power.

For Europe is not powerless or even impotent, even if one may once again have the impression that European leaders are glad that the United States is once again willing to negotiate the future of Europe with a foreign power. From the Russian point of view, this is normal, because Europe is the object of Russian policy and not the subject with which something has to be negotiated.

However, we Europeans should not be too sure about being in the protection of our traditional ally on the other side of the Atlantic. For it is by no means certain that the next American president will still feel responsible for Europe. In any case, the cross-party political trend in the US is once again moving far more toward isolationism than toward perceiving itself as an “indispensable nation” for the maintenance of a democratic and peaceful order in Europe.

Hard arrival in reality

As unimaginable as this was in Europe’s Western democracies, war still seems to be a means of politics as a matter of course in the eyes of the Russian elites. We have largely suppressed the fact that Russia invaded its neighbor Georgia in 2008 with a script similar to the current one in Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has not only annexed Crimea, but has provided military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine and has been at war there for eight years, albeit a limited one so far.

Syria seems far away to us, but there Russia is ready to make common cause with the brutal human abuser Assad. And anyone who speaks Russian has been able to follow prime-time discussions on Russian television in recent weeks, in which calls for a new war were made without much contradiction – on the one hand, to reunite the country, and on the other to show “the West” its limits.

For well-considered reasons, neither the US nor Europe will stand by Ukraine with military means. NATO rightly shies away from a direct military confrontation with the nuclear weapon state Russia because such a war would quickly get out of control, and its end could be nuclear devastation in large parts of Europe. The Russian president also knows this, which is why we seem like helpless spectators who are being deprived of the illusion of peaceful coexistence in Europe, albeit not without conflict.

In the midst of the vision of an ever greener and more climate-friendly Europe, the quest for gender justice, and the search for the appropriate use of language for the diversity of our societies, we hit hard on a very different reality. It is not about values – at least not those of the democratic West and the Enlightenment – but about power and its largely ruthless enforcement. This leaves us speechless in the truest sense of the word.

China will closely monitor unity of the West

Naturally, we can and must now take harsh sanctions against Russia. Harsher and more consistent than anything we could have imagined so far. But we already suspect that Russia has already “priced” these sanctions into the cost of its war: Neither halting the Nord Stream 2 natural gas project, nor freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs, nor decoupling Russia from the European and American financial markets will make the Russian leadership turn back.

Sanctions are a kind of “superpower tax” for Russia that it must be willing to pay if it wants to be a geopolitical power factor. And even if we go further and completely cut ourselves off from the Russian energy market and exclude Russia from international payments: None of this will work quickly, especially since China is Russia’s new economic partner.

In fact, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine contradicts China’s principles of non-interference in other states. But the Middle Kingdom will not go as far as to participate in Western sanctions. China’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States is too great. On the contrary, from the perspective of China’s political leadership, this conflict will receive a great deal of attention.

Particularly given China’s claim to Taiwan, the political leadership in Beijing will closely study whether and for how long Europe and the US will stand together, or whether this unity may eventually show cracks. China wants to learn from the current conflict between Russia and the West concerning impending US sanctions. On the other hand, from a Chinese perspective, it is a good thing if the US has to refocus parts of its strength on Europe and Russia. This will at the same time hinder the American focus on the Indo-Pacific. The conflict with Russia thus certainly has global consequences.

Return to military deterrence

Nevertheless, sanctions remain the right thing to do, because they are the only available option for responding to this blatant breach of international law and peace in Europe. If we did nothing at all, it would be an invitation to Russia to try again in another place in the near future. It is probably only NATO membership that protects the three Baltic republics from becoming the next victim of Russian great power politics. Conversely, Putin also shies away from direct confrontation with the Western defense alliance. Anyone who doubted the usefulness of NATO and the US nuclear shield for Europe in recent years should now be taught better.

As bitter and appalling as it is, we are back in a time when we in Europe must also rely on military deterrence. Russia will now experience what it supposedly wanted to prevent: The deployment of NATO troop formations and modern weapons systems in Eastern European member states. For, contrary to Russian propaganda, this is precisely not the case so far. Although NATO member states border on Russia, NATO does not “stand” troop units or weapons systems on the border with Russia.

Both are excluded in the NATO-Russia Founding Act to accommodate Russia’s security needs despite NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia has broken this and several other treaties by attacking Ukraine. As a result, there will again be a long border, as there was until 1989, with Russian and NATO military formations directly facing each other. From Ukraine’s point of view, the fact that the country was not accepted into NATO in 2008 is now taking its revenge.

Unity is a decisive prerequisite

The most important condition Europe needs now to get through this conflict is unity. Russia is testing us. The Russian president knows about the economic concerns in some EU member states, about the German economy’s dependence on relatively cheap Russian gas and oil, and he knows about the internal divisions between Western and Eastern Europe. He is convinced that Western democracies have become soft and will not hold a hard line against Russia for long. We should prove him wrong.

This starts, by the way, with helping each other: first and foremost Ukraine. If not by supplying defensive weapons systems, then in protecting against cyberattacks. We may be seeing the “usual” images of war at the moment, but it is likely that hybrid warfare with cyberattacks on the country’s infrastructure will cause far greater damage.

And we must help those within Europe who are economically and financially weaker and for whom sanctions against Russia will have negative consequences at home. Comparable to the European Recovery Program for the economic reconstruction of Europe after the pandemic, there is a need for jointly financed aid for the weaker member states of the EU and the Western Balkans.

Investing in European sovereignty

If Europe wants to be a serious adversary against Russia’s hegemonic claims and become a “global player,” as EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has put it, then the EU member states must be prepared to invest in European sovereignty. This is not first and foremost about building a common European defense policy or even a European army. After all, the conflict with the nuclear power Russia cannot be waged militarily anyway, let alone won.

The real power of Europe is economic and financial. Deepening the internal market, developing a common energy and industrial policy, bringing about the Capital Markets Union, and, last but not least, jointly vouching for the European Monetary Union and developing the euro into an international reserve currency are not technocratic projects centered on the respective economic self-interest of the parties concerned. Rather, all of this serves Europe’s economic and financial sovereignty, which must be used right now to make the price of further acts of military force by Russia as high as possible.

Germany will diversify energy suppliers

This will throw some of the financial and investment goals we have set ourselves in Germany out of kilter. But we can only withstand tough sanctions against Russia if we help each other. This also applies to domestic energy policy: Germany will diversify its energy suppliers, regardless of the outcome of the crisis with Russia.

The reason Russia became the preferred energy supplier is, of course, the low-cost price of Russian energy commodities. Since energy prices were already high even without the current crisis with Russia, the federal government will have to provide relief if the conflict with Russia causes oil and gas prices to rise even more. That will cost money. Money that was either budgeted for other things or that we will have to borrow on the credit market. With interest rates rising as a result of the current inflation trend, the latter is no easy task.

Europe must “learn the language of power,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, long before the Russian crisis began. Europe is still a long way from that. However, the realization that war is once again possible in Europe could become Europe’s turning point in becoming a strong player instead of a pawn in the upcoming reordering of the world.


    What’s cooking in Brussels? Fear of the farmers
    If European elections were held on Sunday… Greens gain ground
    Africa strategy – between impotence and pragmatism
    More cooperation with the world’s smallest power