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Zeitenwende: Or, the Return to Power Politics and the End of the Post Wall World?

In consequence of 24 February 2022, the European continent is facing a whole new security situation. Values, norms, identities, and – in some places – national existence are once more at stake. How are we to understand this “epochal rupture”?

By Kristina Spohr, London School of Economics and Political Sciences

Over three decades have passed since the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire and the reunification of Germany. All round, hope bloomed in the spring of 1992 for a new departure in European and indeed world politics. It seemed that the Cold War had been brought to an end in a genuine spirit of cooperation. Diplomacy and dialogue had triumphed. The new man in the Kremlin Boris Yeltsin, declared at the United Nations in New York, that he spoke for a “new Russia”. His was a country that, unlike the still developing People’s Republic of China, had freed itself from the “yoke of Communism” and left “tyranny” behind. Moscow’s “new foreign policy” was committed to disarmament, cooperation, and peace abroad. What’s more, “America and the West” were not merely “partners”, they were “allies”.

A “war of conquest” in Europe

Today, all dreams of a Russo-Western Alliance have long evaporated, and there is no talk of partnership. Far from it. On 24 February 2022, Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine. This blatant act of aggression marked a major escalation of a conflict that first erupted in 2014 with Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its backing of two separatist territories in the Donbas. The Kremlin’s decisions brought “war of conquest” back to Europe. What does this war mean to us and what are its wider implications for Europe? How are we to understand this major “epochal rupture” or what Chancellor Scholz has called Zeitenwende? And how does it relate to the watershed moment – the so-called Wendezeit – when the world exited the Cold War and the Europe’s map was quietly redrawn?

Putin’s war targets the European order

Ultimately, Putin’s war is about much more than Russia seeking to absorb Ukraine and potentially other parts of the Russian “near abroad” or “historical Russian lands.” His is not merely a war driven by territorial revisionism, or political revanchism. His real target is the European order, that of a “Europe whole and free and at peace”, created under American aegis after the end of the Cold War. Russia is engaged in a struggle against American presence in Europe, against what Putin claims to be a Western “encirclement” of Russia, and against the post-Wall world order at large. Putin has long resented the realities of post-Cold War unipolarity that went hand in hand with the spread of democracy and free markets. He has been vexed by the growing appeal, especially to Georgia and Ukraine, of the prosperous, open Western societies and its institutions, EU and NATO. And he has developed a hatred of the US’ pre-eminence in this liberal system, while in his eyes post-Soviet Russia was marginalised and betrayed, humiliated and robbed of its great power status. For this, America and the institutional West, the “empire of lies”, as he phrased it on 24 February, are to blame. Because they have tried to “put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us”.

1989 could have turned out differently

By contrast, to Russia’s smaller neighbours to the West, from Estonia to Bulgaria, as well as the fiercely independent and long-term neutrals, Finland and Sweden, that post-Wall European order is the touchstone of their freedom. This is an order whose principles were first articulated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and then reinforced in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in 1990. (In fact, the principles were confirmed many times after that by all CSCE/OSCE parties, including Russia.) Crucially, post Wall Europe was brought about peacefully during the “hinge years” (Scharnierjahre) of 1989-1992, when the world moved out of antagonistic bipolarity and entered a new world order. Beyond the “Gorbachev factor”, people power and the subsequent electoral revolutions were the main catalysts of the massive political transformation in Eastern Europe. But much depended on the cautious but decisive political management by international leaders. It could have all turned out so very differently, of which not simply Europe’s bellicose past was proof, but China’s distinct Cold War exit strategy – epitomised in the crackdown in Tiananmen square in June 1989. The way in which Europe transformed during the Wendezeit, namely without major conflict, was unique in the continent’s history.

The 1990s as an historical aberration

From today’s vantage point, the decade that followed this epochal change, the 1990s, look like a major historical aberration. In those early years of the “post- Wall era”, East and West, having peacefully reunited Germany and navigated Soviet disintegration in an orderly manner, cooperated. It was a time of hope in Europe, one marked by democratisation, open trade, and free movement of people, ideas and information. And this, in spite of Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse and descent into genocidal civil war, the Chechnyan Wars inside Russia, and other regional ethno-national and border conflicts in the former Soviet space (from Transnistria to South Ossetia to Nagorno-Karabakh), which indicated that the danger of “Eastern” instability and “Balkanisation” spreading “West” was ever present. To deal with this plethora of issues – from national minority and human rights to conflict prevention and resolution – and to facilitate confidence building across the continent, the 1975 Helsinki Conference was institutionalised in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Yet, nobody – Russians, Americans, or Europeans – was truly interested in developing this framework further into a new pan-European hard security structure.

Reinventing “Western” Cold War Institutions

Instead, we witnessed the perpetuation, adaptation, and reinvention of the old “Western” Cold War institutions.In these processes of modification, the way in which the German question was resolved – via article 23 of the Grundgesetz and via the 2+4 process – proved crucial. Ultimately united Germany, in effect a larger Bonn Republic, simply continued with the latterʼs institutional memberships – all the while these organisations themselves were undergoing change. The European Community turned into a political and economic Union and NATO found a new purpose in peace enforcement activities and humanitarian interventions. Both deepened their structures (developing a CFSP as well as the NACC and PfP) and enlarged – with Russian acquiescence – into the former Eastern bloc as part of the reunification and stabilisation of the continent. The US was reconfirmed as a “European power”. Russia acceded to the G7 and the World Trade Organisation and it developed a new relationship with NATO through the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security”. Euro Russian political, economic and cultural interdependence grew fast. As we now realise, that period offered only a brief respite (or what Russian’s call peredyshka) from traditional great-power competition – and with it, the destructive force of brutal warfare.

NATO as shelter from post-Soviet Russia

The US Cold War sage George F. Kennan thus got it wrong when he argued in 1997 that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and Soviet collapse, NATO had outlived itself, because, he believed, “given all the possibilities after the Cold War”, a “future military conflict” was “totally unforeseeable and most improbable”. He was also mistaken to condemn the Alliance’s willingness to accept new members from Zwischeneuropa, the Europe in between Russia and Germany, as a “fateful error”. In the 1990s, Balts and former Soviet satellites from Eastern Europe were knocking on the Alliance’s open door in order to shelter from post-Soviet Russia, always volatile, but, by 1993, rhetorically threatening as well. Their insistence on being allowed to join NATO seems to have been proven right. From today’s vantage point, the Alliance as a community of values and its credible threat of defensive force, has prevented Putin from menacing its “new” members (though Russia has kept harassing its neighbours with perennial air space incursions, cyber-attacks, and propaganda campaigns among Russian-speaking minorities.)

NATO’s persistent appeal

Finland and Sweden know this, too. They joined the EU in 1995 in what they considered a much more benign security environment. But each then stuck to its independent security policy and did not seek NATO membership – not least to avoid gratuitously provoking the Kremlin after decades of fragile and fraught arrangements with the Soviet Union. Now however, as Russia’s unprovoked large-scale invasion of Ukraine is rapidly transforming the security landscape in Europe, they have changed track. With deep historic fears of Russian aggression and territorial ambitions reawakened, nowhere more so than in the Baltic area, Finland and Sweden lodged their NATO applications this May. The persistence of NATO’s appeal – after 1949, after 1989, and again in 2022 – lies in the fact that America, though not an easy partner, is at least an “empire by invitation”. Especially the smaller European countries that joined EU and NATO relatively recently have been considering the U.S. as the central pillar of the post-Wall international system based on international law and principles, within which their sovereignty and right to choose alliances are safeguarded. The fact that Russia, too, has legally committed to upholding these principles does not suffice, as the Russian aggression against Ukraine demonstrates.

Russia: an “empire by imposition”

Russia – whether Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinist – has shown historically its inclination to dominate through coercion and often conquest what it considers to be its sphere of influence. In other words, it has shown itself to be an “empire by imposition”; one in fact, that most recently declared the liberal order obsolete. Putin, after all, together with China’s Xi, is keen to see a “post-West world order” emerge, finally ending, what they believe has been a lengthy and loathsome US-led “unipolar moment”. In their shared view, only a handful of great powers are truly “sovereign” states, while the U.S. in one way or another controls the rest of the world. This extremely realist worldview, which disregards the most basic principles even of the somewhat dated Westphalian system – territorial sovereignty and the sovereign equality of states – naturally clashes with more progressive Western positions in international law and politics. Again, Russia and China have signed up to these norms, too. Yet their narrow reading of sovereignty and, in our terms “flawed” perception of the pillars of modern-day international relations, lead them to believe that treaties guaranteeing the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of smaller countries located in their “spheres of influence” are, in effect, meaningless.

The war is a paradigm shift

Therefore, let me reiterate that Russia’s war against Ukraine is not only about “correcting” some past historical injustices. On the contrary, it is about the future shape of the European security order, and it means a paradigm shift for all those concerned with Russia’s role within it. Since Russia is a major nuclear power (increasingly) threatening to use its arsenal, even those most determined European practitioners of bridge-building with firm neutralist traditions, Finland and Sweden, are now feeling compelled into a strategic realignment and to get under America’s nuclear umbrella.

The future of European security

NATO’s post-Wall eastern “expansion” has been criticized in some quarters for willingly provoking Russia and even laying the groundwork for Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine. It has been argued (not least by Putin himself) that the West, forever triumphalist and arrogant, is to be blamed for Russia’s purposeful slighting, marginalisation, and abasement. So much so, that the Kremlin “had” to fight back in the end. Yet, let’s be clear: That Russia went to war in Ukraine in 2022 (as well as in 2014), was not because of decisions made in Brussels at NATO HQ or at the Berlaymont (cf. Ukraine’s 2014 Association Agreement with the EU). That this war became possible, depended less on the Atlantic Alliance, less on non-NATO countries’ strategic choices, less on Ukraine’s or anybody’s else’s westward orientation, and much more on Russia – its autocratic, indeed authoritarian Putinist turn and its growing hostility towards the West, all the while seeking to recreate a nostalgic illusion of an alleged Russian greatness in the 21st century.

24 February 2022 changed Europe

What’s more, as it appears now, there is less of a structural problem of too little Western integration of Russia, but one of too much interdependence. Indeed, as the German predicament reveals, Russia clearly set out to exploit and weaponize its energy supplies, by making Germany dependent. The Brandtian Ostpolitik idea of achieving Wandel durch Handel, of changing Russia by harnessing its power through economic ties, did not work out. Equally, Berlin’s over-fixation on Dialogpolitik to the detriment of Germany’s defence posture, now prompts finger pointing at a succession of recent German governments for years of gullibility towards the Kremlin and for sailing too close to Moscow’s winds. There are, of course, many reasons for Germany’s post-Wall trajectory. And ‘what if’ questions over too much or too little Russian integration will always remain. But one thing is for sure: There are no longer any doubts that 24 February 2022 changed Europe. It created a whole new security situation on the continent – and it demonstrated that Putin’s Russia was willing to use military force to impose its imperial, or neo-imperial, designs. As a result, our values, norms, identities, and – in some places – national existence are once more at stake.

An ever stronger transatlantic partnership?

Yet, against the Russian leader’s hopes of divide and rule in Europe, the war in Ukraine has brought out the impressive strength and resilience of the transatlantic community. For all the recent crises – from financial crash to mass influx of refugees to culture wars – North America and Europe remain each other’s most important partners in commerce and culture. They are showing, as we speak, that they can isolate Russia diplomatically and punish Putin economically. And they remain firmly bound together through the NATO defence alliance, a commitment that is also reaffirmed in the EU’s “Strategic Compass” of March 2022. More, with Europe forced to adapt to a new era of conquest, NATO is in fact experiencing an unexpected a revival: For one, almost all European NATO members are now willing to increase their military spending to the 2 % of GDP goal on defence, with Germany adding the equivalent of 0.5 % of its GDP (100 bn Euro) in just one year to its defence budget. Second, America is contemplating to build permanent bases on NATOʼs eastern flank for a long-term European security ramp up. And third, the Alliance is poised to add Finland and Sweden to its ranks. This will grant Northern Europe new capacities to coordinate substantial defence forces regionwide and allow for greater control of the Baltic Sea, thus supporting also the defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

A watershed moment for Europe

The War then clearly marks a watershed for Europe – a Zeitenwende. The individual domestic responses to the fallout from Russian aggression are signs, too, that the post-Wall era is over. There is no longer talk in Berlin (or Brussels) about Germany (or the EU) as a “civilian power”, no hesitation among Finns and Swedes to express that their future is only secure in NATO. The question though is, can Russia be forced out of Ukraine, to re-establish the country’s full territorial integrity; and can Ukraine’s security be guaranteed beyond such outcome – goals Scholz proclaimed in April 2022, as the West desperately tries to defend the international normative regime?

Which global consequences to be seen?

From the ashes of war inexorably will emerge major geopolitical and institutional change on the continent – and we already see today that the consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine affect many countries even beyond Europe: Indeed, Central Asian states, while heavily hit by international sanctions against Russia, are trying to maintain their sovereignty vis-à-vis Russia and China, while the latter is clandestinely supporting the Kremlin and seeking to exploit the void in South-East Asia (SEA) left by America following its retreat from Afghanistan and exacerbated by the “new but old” US commitments in Europe. Meanwhile, Latin America, Africa and SEA are suffering from higher food prices and shortages due to the war and finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to choose between either supporting the former imperialists from the West, or the (to them) somewhat friendlier new imperialists from Russia. And India, which is heavily dependent on Russian arms supplies that it needs against Pakistan and China, finds itself forced to phase out Russian coal due to the international pressure (over the climate crisis) and regarding the upholding of the regime of sanctions. Perhaps we should leave these issues for a later debate, when we can do justice to their depth, historical contexts, and political strategic ramifications.

A new geopolitical scenario in Europe

So, let me instead return to the geopolitical shifts on the European continent. These will almost certainly not play out in the simple way the Kremlin originally imagined – with Ukraine part of Russia and America pushed out of Europe. There will also be no novel order built around new pan-European structures. Instead, Putin is likely to find himself confronted with realities he truly hates: a revivified and further – northward – enlarged NATO-“West”, with more rather than fewer allies, strengthening themselves defensively by using and refining their tested institutions, and with a much longer NATO-Russian border than ever before, reaching all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the Turkish shores of the Black Sea. And he will also find himself facing an ever more assertive EU that in June 2022 granted “candidate status” to Ukraine and Moldova, while offering a “European perspective” to Georgia.

How to brace for the years to come?

If that scenario plays out, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will prove a historic own goal. Assuming he holds onto power, what will be his response to that dawning reality? Beyond contemplating Putin’s next moves, Euro-Atlantic leaders, must also ask themselves the following:

1) How, against the background of the era between Wendezeit and Zeitenwende, to brace themselves for the years to come?

2) How to use the crisis mode as a catalyst to evolve?

3) How to turn such buzz words as European “strategic autonomy", “strategic compass”, “common foreign and defence policy” into credible, substantiated political action?

They must decide:
4) What tactical moves to make, what strategic and institutional changes to undertake within EU and NATO as Europe and the world adapt to the new
realities that Russia’s War will bring?

And considering that during the “hinge years” of 1988–1992 the cautious but decisive leadership of heads of states proved successful, the question arises:

5) Does this hold true for the coordination between US, EU, NATO and G7 today?

6) Finally, what lessons will the different international players – from Beijing to New Delhi, from the Caucasus to the Western Balkans – draw from Russia’s actions and experience in 2022 and what will the consequences be?

The West – amidst all the crisis management – will now have to speedily develop its own new horizons of expectations, whether it wants to be a shaper of the future or be shaped by it. This is the key.

Kristina Spohr
Kristina Spohr Photo: Dermot Tatlow

Kristina Spohr

Kristina Spohr is Professor of International History at the London of Economics and Political Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. She is a specialist in the International History of Germany since 1945 and interested in questions of World Order, Diplomacy & Strategy and the practice of Applied History. Spohr is author most recently of “Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989” (2019) whose German edition “Wendezeit” (2019) won the award “Das politikwissenschaftliche Buch” 2020. She is currently writing a global history of the Arctic.

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