Germany has changed profoundly in the past 14 months. But measured against the challenge, it has not changed enough. At stake are no less than peace and freedom in Europe and with it the future of the European project. If Ukraine does not succeed in pushing back Russia and if Putin is even just partially successful with his aggression, this would have dramatic and decades long consequences for the whole of Europe. We would be divided again, a border of military confrontation would run across Europe and the sovereignty of countries like Moldova and Georgia would be endangered. The confidence of the Balts, the Central and Eastern Europeans in the EU and above all in its two largest member states Germany and France would be severely damaged in a core area, that of security.
It is therefore crucial that we finally release the brakes and give Ukraine all the support for a successful counteroffensive. To do this, a strategic misjudgment must be corrected. It has permeated the discussions about arms deliveries for the past 14 months and has resonated not only in Berlin and Paris, but also in Washington. I am referring to the “What will Russia do if . . .”- question. This question was first raised when the delivery of howitzers was discussed and after the debate had moved on to tanks it was again agonizingly contemplated for months. This was the case despite the fact that Russia always does the same thing: continue the war as before. Putin has no other option because he neither wants to stop the war nor can he escalate. The latter would cost him China’s goodwill and result in a robust American response. Nevertheless, the question of what Russia is going to do remains in the room when it comes to the delivery of combat aircraft and long range missiles. Both are important for Ukraine in order to put pressure on Russia in Crimea. So far, Ukraine has reliably kept to agreements on the use of Western weapons, especially with regard to the exclusive use on Ukrainian territory. And it is in Ukraine’s own interest to carry on not leaving any doubts about that.
Military success of Ukraine is a prerequisite for negotiations
Of course, it is imperative to be cautious and carefully weigh risks. But doing so also includes considering the consequences of inaction: what happens if Ukraine doesn’t win this war? What does this mean for Europe, and what risks will we as a continent be exposed to in the future if European borders are no longer taken for granted? When the principle of the territorial integrity of states erodes? If one answers these questions honestly, then one has to come to the conclusion that these risks are far higher than the risk of supporting Ukraine with all our possibilities, below the threshold of our own entry into the war. We have a great deal to lose by acting inadequately.
The reality is that negotiations have one precondition, and that is Ukraine’s military success. Not all occupied territories have to be reconquered for this, but it must be clearly evident that Ukraine has militarily gained the upper hand and that Russia militarily cannot succeed. From then on, Ukraine can negotiate. Whether that also applies to Putin and what the consequences would be in Russia remain completely open. Against this background, it is incomprehensible how slowly Europe is still reacting to the military imperatives for political solutions. The fact that ammunition is being used during a war and has to be replaced to some seems surprising. Even in this evident case foresightful planning is not the order of the day. Instead we see a reaction that is lagging behind, with unfortunate but very concrete, bitter consequences for Ukraine.
Foresightful politics is also required when it comes to the future of Ukraine’s security. Because the day after the war will come, and Russia, as a neighbor of Ukraine, will not disappear. The fact that security from Russia will remain a central issue for Ukraine even after successful peace negotiations at its core is not a matter of geography. It is determined by a mentality of imperial nationalism fueled by Putin. Russia cannot be spared from overcoming this mentality, just like European powers had to part with their imperial past in the 20th century.
Herein lies the real question of peace for the whole of Europe. Until that point is reached, European powers need a security architecture that protects them against Russia. For Ukraine, that can only mean membership in NATO. Below that threshold there will be no effective deterrent against a still imperialist Russia. The proposal to compensate for NATO membership by supplying large amounts of arms to Ukraine is unrealistic. After the war, significant financial resources will have to flow into Ukraine for comprehensive civil, state and economic reconstruction. The willingness to in addition invest heavily in Ukraine’s military build-up will be limited. Conversely, however, the enormous private investments that are essential for the reconstruction of an entire state will only take place if investors can trust in the security of this state.
This piece originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on May 3, 2023.
Dr. Norbert Rottgen is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German Bundestag. He is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Atlantik-Brucke.
He served as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs from 2014 until 2021. From 2009 to 2012, he was Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety. He has been a Member of the German Parliament since 1994. During his mandate, Dr. Rottgen has fulfilled critical functions within the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). Dr. Rottgen, who is a lawyer by profession, holds a Ph.D. in Law from Bonn University.
He is the Co-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a Board Member of various institutions, such as Asia House, Club of Three, the Hertie School, and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).