Thought Leadership

Prof. Dr. Heinrich Kreft
German Ambassador Prof. Dr. Heinrich Kreft about the War in Europe

Keynote address by Ambassador Prof. Dr. Heinrich Kreft, long-time President of the Diplomatic Council (DC), at the DC New Year's Reception on January 27, 2023, on the topic "From a Cooperative to a Confrontational Security Order in Europe - Does Diplomacy 2023 Have a Chance to End the Russian War in Ukraine?" (free speech):

The two questions I want to explore are: are we about to move from a cooperative to a confrontational security order in Europe, and does diplomacy have a chance in 2023 to end the Russian war in Ukraine?

Russia's attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, in violation of international law, has resulted in a tectonic shift within the European security architecture. Within a few weeks, European security policy has undergone a massive shift, essentially turning 180 degrees, more than any other development since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in 1989 and in the years that followed.

Sweden and Finland have declared their intention to join NATO, for which there are still hurdles - Hungary has not yet agreed and whether Turkey will agree remains to be seen. Finland has already drawn the consequences of joining without Sweden, if necessary. In other words, even in Finland there are doubts that Turkey will eventually give up its veto. The German chancellor's watershed speech speaks for itself. However, there is certainly still a lot missing to implement what was announced on February 27, 2022 - three days after Russia's attack on Ukraine - in a special session of the German Bundestag. The Eastern European countries in particular, but also Ukraine and the United States, are measuring Germany against this. It must be noted that so far many things have not gone beyond announcements. However, it should also be noted that the EU, which has always found it very difficult to enter into official relations with NATO, is now massively financing arms deliveries and even the pay of Ukrainian soldiers. Who could have imagined that a year ago? And these were only the first steps.

The decision to supply tanks from Germany, Britain, the U.S. and perhaps France represents another measure in a whole sequence of steps we have seen since February 24, 2022. No one knows whether this will be the last step, but it seems likely that others will follow. Fighter jets, as we know, are already being talked about. As with tanks, Poland is playing a special - understandable - pioneering role here; after all, the country has its own border with Russia. In Kaliningrad, the Iskander missiles are located directly on the Polish border.

To better understand today's situation, it is useful to take a step back to the issue of cooperative security order. After the end of the Cold War in 1989, a security order had emerged in Europe based on the cooperation of all countries - including an attempt to involve Russia. There was a widely quoted conversation between Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin in which the two discussed when Russia would become a member of NATO. Yeltsin's answer was neither no nor never, but that the time had not yet come. We all know what domestic political pressure Yeltsin was under, and the country more or less sank into chaos under him. We must not forget that many in the West were grateful at the time that Putin was succeeded by someone who - let's be frank - was in his right mind and not an alcoholic, and from whom we expected to stabilize the country. And he did indeed stabilize it, but for a purpose that we all reject, namely, to rebuild Russia in the size of the old Soviet Union.

NATO's eastward expansion, which is often cited as a reason for Putin to start the war against Ukraine, was not at all aimed at building up protection against Russia in the initial phase, but to stabilize the Central and Eastern European countries. That is why the EU and NATO enlargement happened. After all, the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries was preceded by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. At that time, war was already raging in Europe. Fortunately, the disintegration of Czechoslovakia was peaceful, but it could not have been foreseen. In order to prevent what we had seen in Yugoslavia in Czechoslovakia, even countries that were hesitant - always including Germany - ultimately agreed to NATO's eastward expansion.

In the course of this, it had been considered for a very long time to extend NATO's eastward enlargement to Ukraine. At the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008, it was primarily Germany and France that prevented an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO as a member. The aim at that time was to prevent what we had already experienced after the First World War, after the Paris Suburb Treaties, which, as we know, dismembered the Habsburg Empire, and when countries that were heirs to that empire suddenly came up with imperial ideas of their own. At that time, it was Romania, Poland, Yugoslavia, but also some of the loser countries, such as Hungary, that developed revanchist tendencies. This led to the fact that the beam in Central Europe did not come to rest at that time. That is why NATO and the EU expanded eastward - and why efforts were made to bring the Western Balkan states into a position where they could be accepted into the European Union. There was always an attempt to integrate Russia into the process.

Since there was no option of admitting Russia to NATO, an attempt was made to go a step further. In 1997, the NATO-Russia Act was adopted, i.e. a joint body in which the NATO countries spoke together with Russia. In order not to leave Ukraine in the cold, the same thing was done with Ukraine. But from the Russian perspective, this was presented as if Russia was alone and had all of Europe against it. All of this was not only related to the military sector, but rather the idea was to reduce the military sector as a whole - the keyword being the peace dividend. We in Germany in particular have been pioneers in this, in the hope that others would follow. But Russia in particular has done exactly the opposite. After Putin succeeded in stabilizing the country, and after the billions in oil and gas flowed into Russia, he invested far less money in modernizing the country than in armaments. So it was also about Russia's economic integration in order to stabilize Russian democracy. Russia may never have been a flawless democracy, but there were developments in Russia toward democracy. There were parties, there were elections, which were no less fair than in some other Eastern European countries in the past. There was therefore a justified hope of being able to accompany Russia on the road to democracy. Keyword: change through trade, symbolized also by the modernization partnership, which was created under Frank-Walter Steinmeier, when he was still Foreign Minister, and of course the much larger symbol Nordstream 1 and Nordstream, where the fate of Russia was linked to the fate of Germany. At the time, this was thought to be the right policy to pacify Russia with Europe, and to integrate it into Europe. Most people did not expect that this would create a fatal dependence on our part on Russia.

But Russia, at least since Putin, was not at all interested in a cooperative order with Europe and in Europe. This simply did not correspond to Russian interests. Russia became increasingly nationalistic and revanchist. Putin - you all know the famous quote - called the disintegration of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. That was the mindset. And the Eastern Europeans took that much more seriously than we did in Western Europe. But we saw in the first and especially in the second Chechen war what Putin was prepared to do. Between 1999 and 2009, as you know, there was a very bloody war in Chechnya - you may have the pictures of the destruction of Grozny in front of your eyes - and Putin's ruthlessness already became visible there.

This continued in 2008 with the attack on Georgia, and then, after the Maidan, the decision of a large part of the Ukrainians to get rid of their then President Yanukovych and to turn to Western Europe. Immediately in the aftermath, there were the "green men" in Crimea, the occupation of Crimea by military without insignia, and finally the annexation of Crimea and then support for separatists in the Donbas. But even that was not enough for Putin. We have seen interventions in the Syrian conflict, both by the army and by the infamous Wagner force, which later also intervened in Libya, is now deployed in the Central African Republic, in Mali has led to the withdrawal first of France and now Germany has decided to withdraw the Bundeswehr from Mali. In recent days, Burkina Faso has also declared that the French must leave the country, and the invitation to the Wagner troops has long since been extended to provide security for the corrupt regime, similar to what happened in Mali.

The war of extermination since February 24 of last year is not a mere war of conquest, but precisely a war of extermination. If it were "merely" a war of conquest, military facilities would be targeted, but cultural assets would not be targeted for destruction. And that is obviously the case. One wants to eradicate an independent Ukrainian culture. Therefore, there can be no return to the old order. That is the bitter realization, especially for us Germans. Instead of integrating Russia through the energy partnership, we have become dependent to a very considerable extent, from which we now have to extricate ourselves with much effort and high costs.

The distance between Russia and Eastern Europe is even greater than between Russia and Western Europe. If you look at where the understanding for Russia is greater, then of course in Eastern Europe we have the Serbs for historical reasons, but the understanding is of course greater in Germany or France than in Poland or above all in the Baltic states, which themselves as a former part of the Soviet Union, along with Moldova, would be the first target of an expanded Russian aggression.

What is perhaps even more serious: For a very long time it will be difficult to reach a settlement with Russia because there is no basis of trust. There is mistrust par excellence. Putin has lied to everybody. He lied to Biden on the phone, and he lied to everyone who sat at his long table: Macron, Orban, Scholz and several others. Putin assured all of them that there would be no attack on Ukraine. After the last visits, within a few days there has been the large-scale attack on Ukraine from three directions.

There is a third development that we need to take note of and respond to: Putin's nuclear escalation threat, which he is using to wage conventional war. Relatively early in the conflict, he used the nuclear threat to deter and dissuade the West from supporting Ukraine. This set a precedent. We think of countries like Iran, where no one believes that the nuclear agreement could still be revitalized-because we would need Russia and China to do that. Iran is clearly a wartime ally of Russia, supplying not only the drones but other military equipment to Russia. But you also have to think about Asia. North Korea's Kim Jong-uns has also threatened nuclear weapons. The country in Asia that could probably become a nuclear power first is South Korea. If South Korea becomes a nuclear power, then one could easily imagine a country like North Korea also considering something similar to Israel. Israel has famously made it clear on several occasions that a nuclear weapon from Iran would threaten Israel and they would not allow it. A similar pattern of thinking could lead to open conflict on the Korean peninsula. In addition, we still have Japan to consider, which would also be in a position to become a nuclear power relatively quickly because the country has mastered all the necessary technology. In other words, we need an unambiguous stance toward the Russian nuclear threat, otherwise an arms buildup spiral will emerge worldwide with further conflicts, all of which unfortunately have the potential to escalate into world wars.

The bottom line is that Europe is moving toward a conflictual security order. This means all countries in Europe are very likely to rearm. If Ukraine wins, or at least does not lose, which is what we all want, it will become a country that will rearm massively - as will Russia. That describes the big challenge for the next ten or 20 years.

It begs the question: does diplomacy have a chance of ending the war in 2023? Many people are probably familiar with the sentence by Carl von Clausewitz, "War is a mere continuation of politics by other means," from his 1832 work "On War." Hardly known might be another Clausewitz quote from the same work in the style of the time: "As soon as the expenditure of force becomes so great that the value of the political purpose can no longer balance it, the latter must be abandoned and peace must be the consequence." In the final analysis, this means in plain language that when the warring parties come to the conclusion that they can no longer achieve the war aims on the battlefield, then there is a chance for peace negotiations, i.e. diplomacy. Have we already reached this point today? Definitely not! Putin is convinced to achieve all or at least parts of his war aims by military means and not by negotiation. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov only recently publicly announced that Crimea and the four republics annexed in 2022 are of course part of Russia and are not up for grabs. In other words, from the Russian point of view, there will be negotiations only if Ukraine would recognize Crimea and the four republics as parts of Russia in advance. That is an impossible demand even for Ukrainian President Selensky, who does not have 100 percent of the country behind him either. So if that is mentioned as a prerequisite to even begin talks, then we are definitely not yet at a point where we can expect diplomatic talks. Ukraine, of course, is not only demanding the full return of Russian-occupied territories, including those occupied by separatists, but Selenski is also demanding reparations, payments equal to the damage done. The question is how this will be enforced.

Let us now turn to the tank deliveries and the reasoning behind them. The idea is that Ukraine will regain the military momentum that it has currently lost - as we know, we are seeing Russian forces advancing again in Bachmut and in Zaporizhzhya - and thus ultimately persuade Putin to enter into negotiations according to the motto "Better a bird in the hand than a pigeon on the rooftop" before Ukraine regains the entire country. In doing so, Putin could speculate on at least keeping Crimea from his point of view. That is one possible scenario. But ultimately, Putin himself is the decisive person: he could end the war today. However, in doing so, he would basically abandon his entire policy of recent years, which was aimed at restoring Russia to the old size of the Soviet Union. Yet that is what he has built his power on. So the question is what this would mean for his position of power and for him personally as well as his family. Authoritarian rulers rarely died in their old age bed. Sometimes they were allowed to go into exile; with North Korea, there would certainly be a country that would accept Putin. But even Honecker couldn't stand it in North Korea back then and moved on to Chile.

That's the only scenario on the road to peace that I see. But there are other developments going in the opposite direction. There are increasing signs that Russia is turning its economy toward a war economy. Recruitment of soldiers is not taking place on the same scale as last fall, but it is going on permanently. This could be a sign that Putin is gearing up for a long war, and that he is just not willing to settle for the "bird in the hand" that he might get if he were willing to negotiate this year. In which case, of course, Ukraine would have to be persuaded to agree to Putin getting his "bird in the hand." Ukraine is so dependent on Western support and Western weapons that if Russia is seriously willing to negotiate peace, there will eventually be pressure on Ukraine not to close itself off to those peace negotiations. So it may be that the door to a cease-fire will open a little bit this year. Then we all have to be ready and help to make sure that that crack leads to that door being opened wide. It would be desirable for all of us, but especially, of course, for the civilians and the soldiers in Ukraine, and, of course, also for the Russian soldiers, who would then also no longer fall.