Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s Ostpolitik

People in many European countries are coming to see that confrontation with Russia is fraught with serious consequences. They do not want another Cold War. This is why Steinmeier and likeminded people have proposed reviving some elements of the old Eastern policy, despite sharp criticism of their proposals.

The current European policy towards Russia must take into account the social-democratic approach to the détente. Willi Brandt, who was elected West German chancellor in 1969, understood that no country can win a nuclear war and that all sides should therefore negotiate compromises and mutual agreements. Social Democrats ruled Germany from 1969 to 1982, and during this time there was an effective policy of détente towards the Soviet Union.

Détente was not launched because the West needed to come to terms with Moscow or abandoned the fundamentals of its relationship with the Soviet Union. On the contrary, Willi Brandt’s eastern policy was based on the assumption that changes can be encouraged in the Soviet Union through the development of cultural and economic ties and the enrichment of both East and West. It is thanks to German Social Democrats that serious positive change was made possible in Europe.

This policy is being carried on by the current German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. His main idea is that Europe cannot develop in confrontation with Russia or without Russia. But other European countries, primarily Poland and the Baltic countries, violently oppose this policy. Britain and Sweden are also for Europe without Russia, which they see as an aggressive country with which they cannot have any shared interests.

Unfortunately, some East European countries do not care even for the European Union. They have set their eyes on the United States, NATO and a US military presence. Poland views NATO as an instrument for conflict with Russia, just as during the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. This explains the extreme efforts to isolate Russia.

These are the two concepts that dominate Europe now. Hopefully, the social-democratic viewpoint will take the upper hand, because it is not a policy of the weak; it is a policy based on respect for other countries’ interests.

One could blame this situation on Western triumphalism. A quarter century ago, the West thought it won the Cold War against the Soviet Union and expected Russia to quietly capitulate and embrace Western values and Western democracy, or lose any chance of partnership with the West, in flagrant disregard of Russia’s interests and even status. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is still regarded as a weaker state that has lost some of the Soviet Union’s territories, its imperial past and its military and economic power. Therefore, Russia should be kept in the position of junior partner without any zone of influence or the right to protest NATO’s eastward expansion.

Western leaders believe that the international order that was agreed upon at Yalta and Potsdam has been replaced with the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which was signed on November 21, 1990. The Paris Charter presented Europe as a democratic territory of liberal values. Ten years later Russia saw the provisions of the charter as shackles.

However, some elite groups and members of the European establishment understand that a hardline policy towards Russia can lead to war. Sanctions or military threats will not force Russia to step back. It will only build up its armaments. Russia remains the strongest country in Europe, and confrontation with it is only aggravating the security issue in Europe. These positive-thinking elite groups are looking for a solution.

Many calls have been made in Germany for creating a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok, with the EU and NATO working together with the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO to create a real relationship of partnership and cooperation. This process will take very long, but if we launch it now we will be able to settle the problems of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia, which will become part of a common space governed by common rules under an agreement on comprehensive European security.

Who needs a new relationship with Russia?

Steinmeier rightly believes that future conflicts and wars will not be waged with old methods. There will be no large militaries fighting on a broad front. There will be hybrid wars and cyberattacks, which scares Germany, because the European economy is highly computerized. Hacker attacks on Western computer systems can stop nuclear power plant reactors, disable control centers and the infrastructure of cities and even countries, rendering them defenseless. This will be the decisive factor leading to a defeat in a potential conflict.

Of course, this threat is being discussed, and we should continue to discuss it. It is one of the key issues at the Munich Security Conference. But nobody knows as yet how agreements on this issue can be signed, because it is a fundamentally new area of disarmament. Steinmeier has been trying to launch a dialogue on new challenges to European security and to build confidence between Russia and the West.

He rightly notes that none of the agreements signed between Russia and the West in the 1990s are being honored. The Russia-NATO Council is idling. Russia-EU summits have become venues for moralizing about Russia, with the EU lecturing Russia on democracy. The Energy Charter is inactive, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) is being violated. Unlike in the 1990s, Russia no longer wants to notify the West of the redeployment of its armed forces and military equipment in its own territory. The Open Skies Agreement is not abided by in full.

We must launch talks and create working groups on disarmament that will cover the latest weapons and methods of warfare. If we talk openly about the emerging dangers, exchange technical knowledge, and help each other deal with problems, we will be able to restore the trust that was created by the OSCE Helsinki process 30 years ago, when the East and the West managed to come to terms. The most difficult thing is to stop ratcheting up tensions and indeed reduce them, and to go back to what worked.


People in many European countries are coming to see that confrontation with Russia is fraught with serious consequences. They do not want another Cold War. This is why Steinmeier and likeminded people have proposed reviving some elements of the old eastern policy, despite sharp criticism of their proposals.

Alexander Rahr is Research Director of the German-Russian Forum.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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