Russia, Ukraine, and Europe

We would all love to have a democratic Russia as a partner in the European Union. However, the country’s current political leadership is moving away from Europe.

President Putin has obtained blanket authority from the Russian Federal Council for military intervention in Ukraine, “until the social and political situation normalizes.” This mandate is similar to a declaration of war on Ukraine. It goes far beyond securing Russian interests in Crimea. Worries of a Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine are valid. Putin is continuing to keep all of his options open. The justification that it is for the protection of Russian soldiers, citizens, and ethnic Russians is fabricated scaremongering. For many of our friends in Central and Eastern Europe, the“brotherly help” formula is reminiscent of a supposedly bygone age of imperial power politics.

This also includes the relentless barrage of propaganda decrying a “fascist coup” in Ukraine, which is meant to legitimize the intervention.

With the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine agreed to remove all nuclear weapons in exchange for an international guarantee of the territorial integrity of the country. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the United States and Russia guaranteed its borders and its security. In light of the Ukrainian experience, nations in the future will hardly be willing to unilaterally disarm based on guarantees by the super powers.

Russia’s behavior tips the balance of Europe’s peace order, which rests on the renunciation of the use of force. It is a breach of the UN Charter by a Member of the Security Council. International law is being replaced by the law of the powerful. Non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, which Russia so readily demands, reveals itself to be a purely tactical argument. It only applies when allies are involved as in the case of Syria. For Ukraine, the Brezhnev Doctrine of “limited sovereignty” has been reactivated: when there is any unwelcome development in “neighboring countries,” Moscow reserves the right to intervene with any form of political, economic, and military pressure.

President Putin is accusing Ukraine of aggressive nationalism, while Great Russian rhetoric is cultivated in the Duma and in patriotic media. For nationalistic circles in Russia, Ukraine is an artificial structure. Their goal is to unify all Russians in one country. This is a new edition of the old, disastrous ethnic-nationalism that tore Europe apart in a spiral of wars and expulsions. To defend the unity of Ukraine is also to defend the concept of multiethnic democracies. The “Euromaidan” in Kiev was a big step in this direction: it united the diverse ethnic groups of the country – Ukrainians, Russians, Tartars, Jews – in a common movement.

The formation of a political nation spanning all ethnic and cultural differences requires consideration for minorities, including in language policy. It’s a good thing that the thoughtless decision of the Ukrainian parliament on this matter was tabled by the interim president. Due to Russian intervention, the process of internal reconciliation now threatens to be discarded. The Russian human rights organization “Memorial” is therefore characterizing the armed intervention in Ukraine as a crime against both populations, because it threatens to turn the Russians and the Ukrainians against one another.

The international community’s response to this relapse into old times must be clear and determined. Clear in naming the events and determined in the response. This applies even more so to the European Union. This involves not only the defense of the democratic awakening in Ukraine, but also the ideals of a free Europe.

The German government and the European Union must use all peaceful means against this aggression. There needs to be a quick and clear, unified message to President Putin that a continuation of the strong-arm tactics against Ukraine will have a high economic and political price. All diplomatic channels must be used in order to de-escalate the conflict. Persuasion alone will not help. If the EU signals that it will stand idly by during Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, it will only encourage the war hawks in the Kremlin to make further military ventures.

Much commentary regarding the events in Eastern Europe bears a fatalistic view: Putin can do whatever he desires; the West can, at best, powerlessly clench its collective fist in anger. This assumes only the alternatives of military saber-rattling or helpless pleas that both sides refrain from provocation. No one wants nor demands military threats against Russia. But there are a wide range of economic and political options between NATO and doing nothing.

Contrary to popular opinion, Russia is much more dependent on Europe than vise versa. Half of Russian foreign trade is with the EU. A full 75% of foreign investments come from there. Russia is particularly dependent on Western technology and Western know-how when it comes to modernizing its economy. The flow of capital out of Russia is endemic; large parts of the assets of the super rich are invested in Europe. The EU is the most important business sector for Gazprom. The company is intensively acquiring shares in the Western power industry. All of that is leverage that can be used to demonstrate to the Russian power elite that they will harm themselves if they pursue the path of confrontation.  Even stopping exports for military-relevant technology, a moratorium on the Southstream pipeline project, the freezing of accounts and travel bans for members of the “Nomenklatura” would have an effect.

If Russia wants to continue economic and political cooperation with the EU, it has to end its military intervention in Ukraine and start the path of dialogue. We all would love to have a democratic Russia as a partner in the European Union. It is the current political leadership of the country that is moving away from Europe.

Europe’s self-respect must now be proven concerning Ukraine: in solidarity with all citizens who took a brave step towards democracy and Europe.


Rebecca Harms is the leading candidate for the Green Party in the elections for the European Parliament. Ralf Fücks is a Member of the Board of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

 This article was originally published in German by Der Tagesspiegel