“The strength of the law”
Christoph Heusgen, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, on the new global situation following Putin’s attack on Ukraine.
Dr Heusgen, security has once again become a major topic in Germany since 24 February 2022. Will the attack on Ukraine initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin lead to a new state of permanent confrontation between East and West?
It is important to clarify from the outset that the tensions between Russia and its Western neighbours are nothing new. Putin has been systematically upgrading his armed forces since 2008, he has positioned intermediate-range missiles in Europe’s direct vicinity, and he has been involved in numerous conflicts in Europe’s neighbourhood. Putin has long been on a collision course with the West.
Of course, it is also true that the Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point. A war of aggression in Europe is an entirely new dimension. There are two main reasons why we should prepare ourselves for long-term confrontation with Russia. Firstly, I fear that the war in Ukraine will last for some time yet. And secondly, Putin’s Russia, which is responsible for this break with civilisation, will remain isolated from the civilised world for a long time to come.
However, I do not believe that what we are seeing here is a confrontation between East and West. On the one side we have the European countries that want to uphold the European security order, and on the other side we have Russia on its own – with the exception of Belarus, which is completely dependent on Moscow. And even if China were to support Russia, it is clear from the votes at the United Nations that countries from all regions of the world are standing up for the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.
However, we must also ensure that we are capable of defending ourselves if the worst comes to the worst.
The West’s main response to the military attack involves economic sanctions and diplomacy. Is that enough? Or will we see a new arms race?
As a first step, it is absolutely right for us to use diplomacy to demonstrate our clear opposition to Russia’s violation of international law. Since the end of the Second World War, Germany and its partners have based their foreign and security policy on the strength of the law, not on the law of might is right. Today we must stand up for this more than ever before.
But one thing is clear: diplomacy alone will not stop Putin. Targeted economic sanctions can help slow the war’s momentum and prompt a change of strategy in Moscow.
However, we must also ensure that we are capable of defending ourselves if the worst comes to the worst. This will require massive investment. That said, I wouldn’t describe this as an arms race, but more as catching up on things we have neglected to do over the past three decades.
It is also a reality that we do of course have to talk to one another.
Russia was formerly a member of the G8. What would need to happen for Russia to become a dialogue partner again?
Putin’s Russia is currently a pariah state. It is completely isolated. Every day, we learn terrible new details of Russian crimes. These images will become seared into our collective memory.
However, it is also a reality that we do of course have to talk to one another. We must deal with Russia, not least because it must also play its part in tackling the major challenges of the century, such as limiting climate change and preserving biodiversity.
But we must remain realistic: Putin does not stick to agreements. He is not a reliable partner in peacetime, let alone in wartime. There must be no impunity for Russian crimes in Ukraine. The atrocities must be documented, and the Putin system will have to bear responsibility for its actions. There cannot be any return to the previous status quo. I would categorically rule out any chance of Russia returning to the G8 while Putin remains president.
What is happening now is reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War. How are things different today?
These days it is no longer a question of an East-West conflict. We can see clearly that authoritarian states like Russia are attacking the very foundations of the international order. This conflict is no longer taking place solely between East and West. Nowadays, democracies and authoritarian states across the world are in competition with each other to a greater extent than in the past.
The regional context has also changed. The Soviet Union has gone, and the post-Soviet states, through their protest and reform movements, have set a new course for themselves, independently of Russia.
This crisis at the heart of Europe also makes it clear that the Americans expect more from the Europeans – and above all from the Germans – than they did during the Cold War. Europe must stand on its own feet.
You would like to receive regular information about Germany? Subscribe here: