A great and dangerous change is slowly creeping through Europe, eroding the special consensus that was established after 1945 and reaffirmed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
That consensus, forged by the United States and especially the precursor to the European Union, the European Coal and Steel Community, was about accepting as inviolable the borders drawn up at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Ethnic minorities would be protected. The horror of World War II was enough for Western Europe’s leaders to realize why such a consensus was necessary.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now doing everything in his power to break that conviction. European leaders’ disunity and Germany’s weakness in recognizing what Putin is doing have the potential to undo the post-1945 consensus.
Were that to happen, Putin could celebrate victory: he would have undermined, and perhaps even destroyed, the united, strong, multiethnic, democratic Europe embodied in the EU that he has long feared. It behooves Germany to exert the strongest leadership to stop this from happening.
By annexing Crimea and creating instability in Eastern Ukraine, Putin has thrown down the gauntlet to European governments. European leaders now have to decide, and quickly, if they are prepared to allow Putin to change borders in such a systematic fashion and set ethnic groups against each other.
In the case of Eastern Ukraine, he is doing this through proxy pro-Russian militia groups. Their anonymity is insidious. With his skillful manipulation of this situation, Putin is showing that he knows exactly how to tap into European sensitivities, weaknesses, and divisions over Russia.
In Germany, there are influential voices that equate Putin’s takeover of Eastern Ukraine with the interim Ukrainian government’s actions, as if the two were on a level playing field. Yet Russia is invading. Ukraine’s government is trying to resist, with extraordinary restraint.
Gernot Erler, the German government’s envoy for Russia, has refused to criticize Putin’s actions. At the same time, he blamed the Ukrainian government for not disarming some Far Right Ukrainian groups, as was agreed to in a multiparty accord forged in Geneva on April 17. As if those Ukrainian groups could counter a huge Russian military presence! “Both sides aren’t making enough of an effort to actually implement the agreement,” Erler said.
Erler’s interview to German radio on April 22 was highly revealing of the attitude of the traditionally pro-Russian part of the German establishment. People in that camp refuse to make the intellectual leap and tell the German public that Europe’s borders are being changed by force.
Indeed, as if it were business as usual, the government-founded Petersburg Dialogue will take place on April 23 in the eastern German city of Leipzig. The former Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder created the bilateral discussion forum in 2001 with the support of Putin. The idea was to promote greater trust between Germany and Russia—anchored in civil society.
However, the forum has completely shied away from tackling controversial issues such as Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his suppression of civil society movements. The group’s leading members have close contacts with the Kremlin. Yet for the sake of realpolitik and business interests, the Petersburg Dialogue has continued.
Andreas Schockenhoff, the gutsy conservative lawmaker who was Erler’s predecessor and who continues to speak out against Russia’s actions in Eastern Ukraine, has repeatedly argued that the Petersburg Dialogue is not an independent forum. Instead, he says, it is a Kremlin tool. Given what is happening in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel should have postponed the forum.
Even that gesture would have been too much for the German organizers. It would have meant taking a stand against what Putin is doing instead of equating his actions in Eastern Ukraine with Kiev’s actions—or, worse, condoning them.
This attitude points to a refusal by German Social Democrats and the business community, but also by the German public, to see how Putin threatens Europe.
Putin’s tactics of fomenting ethnic unrest to change borders is dangerous for Europe. “There is not a country in Europe that does not have national minorities,” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. “If we went back to protecting them through changing borders, we would be back in the hell of the twentieth century and before. That is why what President Putin has done in Crimea and is now doing in Eastern Ukraine is so threatening to all of us.”
What Sikorski did not say was that Russia’s actions, unchecked, could mean the end of Europe’s post-1945 economic and political architecture. In so many European countries, Far Right movements are now also challenging those values through their contempt of ethnic minorities and tolerance. What a coincidence that they don’t criticize Russia. Don’t European leaders see how the Europe that was built after 1945 is coming under threat?