The Perils of Responsibility: Germany’s New Foreign Policy and the Ukraine Crisis

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Frank-Walter Steinmeier und Ralf Fücks

On May 23, the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America co-organized a panel discussion with the Brookings Institution and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung to assess Germany’s new foreign policy and the challenges presented to it by the crisis in Ukraine. Panelists included Brookings Senior Fellow and CUSE Director Fiona Hill, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Ralf Fücks, and Olaf Böhnke, Head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Brookings Visiting Fellow Jutta Falke-Ischinger moderated the discussion.

In an orchestrated series of speeches earlier this year, Germany’s President Joachim Gauck, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called upon their nation to reconsider its reticence to confront geopolitical challenges. Touted as a paradigm shift in Germany’s foreign policy, the coordinated addresses urged Germany to adopt a more assertive voice and assume greater responsibility on global issues. At the same time, the architects of Germany’s “New Foreign Policy” reaffirmed the country’s long-standing culture of multilateralism and military restraint. Against this background, the panelists discussed Germany’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis to assess the implementation of the coordinated effort to re-brand Germany’s foreign policy.

Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine

Sharing his impressions from his recent visits to Ukraine, Ralf Fücks argued that Russia propagates a misleading narrative on an unfolding “civil war” in its neighboring country. In his assessment, the pseudo referendum and the annexation of Crimea are facets of an undeclared war by Russia on its Western neighbor. This war takes place on three different levels: (1) by sponsoring and arming radical militias, (2) by means of economic warfare in form of soaring gas prices and threats to close the border for Ukrainian exports, and (3) through a propaganda war decrying Kiev’s take-over by fascists attempting to commit “genocide” against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The ultimate goal of this strategy, Ralf Fücks argued, is turning Ukraine back into a Russian sphere of influence.

The German government’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis, according to Ralf Fücks, has so far been cautious and incremental. Roughly eight months into the crisis, German policy elites are slowly entering a process of realization that a return to the status quo ante with Russia is no longer a viable option. There is an increasing understanding that the US and the EU have entered a new era of relations with Russia, which has become an authoritarian state defining itself as a counterweight to the West.

Germany’s foreign policy: Leading from behind or the Spiderman Doctrine

Olaf Böhnke characterized German chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy approach as “leading from behind”. Exercising foreign policy leadership without anyone taking notice is arguably a very successful strategy. This inconspicuous foreign policy approach is partly rooted in the fact that many Germans are still uncomfortable with assuming leadership on the national level, especially when it comes to military engagement. There is a wide gap between public perceptions and mainstream German policy elites which have increasingly come to accept what has been called the “Spiderman Doctrine”, i.e. that with great power comes great responsibility.

How the EU sleep walked into the current crisis

Fiona Hill shared a US perspective on Germany’s reaction to the ongoing Ukraine crisis. In contrast to the Georgia crisis in 2008, where much of the blame was directed at the US, the origins of the current crisis in Ukraine lie mainly in Europe. The European Union has clearly lacked sufficient foresight regarding the possible consequences of the Association Agreement offered to Ukraine. In a way, the Ukraine crisis has transformed the EU into a geo-political actor over night.

After the end of the Cold War, the US falsely expected the EU and Germany to step up their responsibility for Eastern Europe. The European Partnership was in and itself a laudable concept, but its implementation has been highly flawed. In December 2013, the EU “sleep walked” into the Vilnius Summit without paying due attention to the magnitude of the crisis. Even at this year’s Munich Security Conference—in midst of the crisis—European politicians seemed to have not had caught up yet with the developments.

All panelists agreed that the EU and most European governments had underestimated the impact of the Association Agreement. Structurally flawed, the Agreement was pursued as a technical endeavor instead of a political one. Further, the West underestimated Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in Europe’s Eastern neighborhood and the zero-sum mentality that dominates Putin’s thinking. With the Ukraine crisis, power politics have suddenly returned to Europe.

Is this about the economy, stupid?

Ralf Fücks argued that the conflict in Ukraine is less about economics than it is about fears in the Kremlin of a spill-over of the Maidan movement to the Red Square in Moscow. In his assessment, a democratic, westward-looking and successful Ukraine is Putin’s biggest nightmare. Fiona Hill cautioned not to underestimate the centrality of economics in Russia’s foreign policy. The EU did not understand that Putin perceived the Association Agreement as a major economic threat by preventing Ukraine from being able to join the Customs Union. Putin now openly talks of an “economic war” that requires Russia to fight sanctions with counter-sanctions.

Olaf Böhnke noted that it increasingly looks like Putin may have acted out of weakness rather than strength. Turning the tide, he has lost Ukraine for winning Crimea. Fiona Hill stressed that Russia, as well as its economy more specifically, has never before looked as strong and as weak at the same time. Russia’s huge natural resource wealth stands against its massive problems to modernize the economy. Putin can cover up these structural difficulties only until global oil prices drop significantly. In terms of his domestic approval ratings, his nationalist rhetoric and his annexation of Crimea caused his popularity to skyrocket, just like in 2008 after the invasion of Georgia.

In Fiona Hill’s assessment, Ukraine today in many ways resembles the case of Eastern Germany requiring urgent economic reconstruction. It is vital that Russia will be part of this process, if only due to its heavy investments into Eastern Ukraine over the past decade. The US now heavily relies on Germany’s special relations to Russia and their close economic relations to convince Putin that proceeding on the path of confrontation will have very negative effects on Russia’s interests.

No return to Jalta

Drawing on the lessons of history, Ralf Fücks urged Europe not to allow a return to the underlying principles of the Jalta conference, defined by a division of Europe into several great power spheres of influence. Given Putin’s stakes in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, he rejected the idea of turning Ukraine into a “buffer state” between the EU and Russia. Under no circumstances should we go back to the Brezhnev doctrine based on the concept of limited sovereignty of Eastern European states.

Rather than aiming at a new era of containment or international isolation of Russia, the EU should follow the equation of “as much cooperation as possible, as much conflict as necessary”. Opportunities for engaging Russia on economic interests, e.g. by striking an energy partnership or signing a Free Trade Agreement, should remain on the table as positive incentives.

Ukraine’s prospects for political and economic stability would of course look much brighter in the short and medium term if we could get Russia on board to cooperate. It will, however, be extremely difficult for Putin to withdraw from his extreme and nationalist rhetoric. Nevertheless rejecting the choirs of gloomy predictions, Ralf Fücks cautioned European and US policy-makers not to panic: If the transatlantic alliance acts decisively enough, Putin might realize early enough that his confrontational policies will ultimately backfire. After all, chances are high for Russian elites to eventually realize that they depend more on the EU than vice versa.

A silver lining to the Ukraine crisis

Looking at the silver lining to the Ukraine crisis, Ralf Fücks argued that as a result of the crisis, Ukraine seems to now enter a new critical phase of nation-building. Olaf Böhnke urged Europe to finally confront the lack of a functioning post Cold War European security structure. The EU, for her part, must use the crisis to reevaluate both its Eastern Partnership and its lack of strategic foresight more general. Germany, if serious about her new foreign policy, should rise to the challenge and take up the role as a driving force behind these reforms.