“Putin Does Not Take Europe Seriously”

January 14, 2022
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff
Sylvia Wörgetter
5 min read
Photo credit: Harold Escalona / Shutterstock.com
Military strength is the only currency that counts in the Kremlin, says transatlantic policy expert Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff.

Sylvia Wörgetter: The United States and NATO are talking with Russia about the future of Ukraine, a European country, but the European Union is not at the table. What does that tell us about the EU?

Kleine-Brockhoff: That Vladimir Putin would prefer to bypass the European Union because he doesn’t consider it relevant enough. He sees himself as the head of one sphere of influence and wants to talk to the man who, in his mind, is the head of the other sphere of influence, namely US President Joe Biden.

EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell demands that security in Europe should not be negotiated without the Europeans. But that is exactly what seems to be happening now.

No, that is not what is happening. Joe Biden is responding to Putin’s apparent attempt to split America off from Europe and circumvent the EU by trying to involve the Europeans as deeply as possible in the talks. He and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have emphasized repeatedly: “Nothing about Europe without Europe.” The European-American consultations before and after each round of negotiations are extremely intense. I don’t even want to imagine how that would look if Donald Trump was still US president.

Negotiations are also taking place in the NATO-Russia Council. More than two dozen European countries are members of NATO. And even more European countries are represented in the OSCE, which meets in Vienna. No European self-pity, please!

France’s President Emmanuel Macron is calling for a separate European security architecture. Is there now a chance to move EU defense policy forward?

At the moment, we Europeans are quite happy that we can hide behind the Americans who are doing the diplomatic heavy lifting. One can only hope that Europe will draw the necessary conclusions from this military threat. I wish we would talk less about defense identities and such soft things and more about hard defense and what capabilities we need.

Are you thinking about a European army?

One of the reasons the Russians don’t want to talk to the Europeans is that the Europeans don’t have weapons that threaten Russia. Unfortunately, you can hear this almost verbatim from Moscow. As long as Western countries—first and foremost Germany—do not keep their commitments within the NATO alliance, Russia will not take Europe seriously. Military strength is the currency that counts in Moscow. On this basis, however, one can negotiate and expect concessions and cooperation.

That means Europe would have to rearm and upgrade its military massively. That is the logic of deterrence and the Cold War.

I would put it differently: We have disarmed almost to the point of being unable to defend ourselves. Now the task is to restore the basis of national and alliance defense. But we are not even willing to pay the bargain price that results from cost sharing within an alliance. In the end, only NATO will provide the necessary deterrent, not a European army, which will remain a fantasy.

The EU threatens Russia with massive sanctions if it invades Ukraine. How credible is such a threat when states like Austria and parts of the German chancellor’s party, the SPD, want to exempt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from this threat and let Russian gas flow?

Anyone who wants to preserve the peace must be able to use some kind of leverage vis à vis Vladimir Putin to convince him that the price of sending his troops across the borderline and into Ukraine is too high. Nord Stream 2 is such a lever. If you don’t want to use this lever, you have to have others. My question to the defenders of Nord Stream 2 is: which lever can they use that is strong enough to keep the peace?

Putin is demanding from the West that no additional countries be allowed to join NATO. The United States and NATO oppose that. What might a compromise look like?

Russia is the largest nuclear power in the world. Nobody in the world is safer from attacks. And that very country is now demanding security guarantees. It remains Moscow’s secret how those two fit together.

Nevertheless, there is potential for negotiation in the Russian draft treaty. Namely, if the process of negotiations leads to renewing the arms control architecture that has been undermined by Russian treaty breaches and the hubris of the Trump administration. That is the constructive part of the Russian proposals.

Do you think war is on the horizon?

You have to ask the aggressor, namely Vladimir Putin. Whoever amasses a six-digit number of soldiers on a border and sets an ultimatum for negotiations has committed something like a predatory extortion with hostage-taking. Now negotiations are to be conducted with the hostage-taker at gunpoint. Whether he will pull the trigger is difficult to predict. Negotiation skills are now required on the Western side to raise the price for Vladimir Putin so much that he lets go of his victim.

What is he after?

He already told us in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference and has since underlined it through various military interventions: the reconstruction of a Russian empire.

This article was originally published in German by Salzburger Nachrichten on January 12, 2022, under the headline "Putin nimmt die Europäer nicht ernst" and was republished in English with permission. Original translation made possible with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version).