„We Are Not Watching a Conflict From the Outside, We Are Part of It“




Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, Global Governance, Conflict Resolution and Mediation, Human Rights and Migration

“Now, we see that we are threatened ourselves. We are not watching a conflict from the outside, we are part of this conflict. If we want to end it, we have to do something together.”

Due to Russia’s current military invasion of Ukraine, the Global Diplomacy Lab held a session with GDL’s First Dean Ruprecht Polenz, shedding a light on the relationship between NATO, Russia and Ukraine and discussing the current situation with GDL members.

In this report you can find the core questions of the GDL members and answers from Ruprecht Polenz:

What has happened – Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine:

On February 24, 2022 in the early hours of the morning, the Russian president Putin invaded Ukraine with armed forces. For weeks he had massed over 160,000 troops, tanks and artillery for this attack in alleged maneuvers on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The reason for the invasion given by Putin were false claims: Ukraine is working on nuclear weapons. Ukraine commits genocide against Russians. An imminent entry into NATO threatens Russia. None of this is true.

Putin’s case: Ukraine as Enlargement of NATO to the East a Threat for Russia

“Within Europe, especially within the European Union, we managed to make a continent a peaceful one”, Ruprecht Polenz begins and points out that “we have seen a lot of wars in many parts of the world since 1945, but what we are seeing today is different. Nobody was threatened by Ukraine and nevertheless the country was invaded”. In a strategic move Putin has decided to reverse Ukraine’s and Russia’s roles in this conflict. Putin pretends that Russia was threatened by Ukraine, wanting to become a member state of NATO, and he pretends NATO is threatening Russia.

But Ukraine’s NATO membership is not on the agenda at all. Accepting Ukraine as a member state would, in Putin’s opinion, constitute an enlargement against promises made in 1990. The West promised not to expand NATO to the East, he says. But even that is wrong. The then president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev himself said that NATO was not an issue in 1990. After all, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact still existed, and nobody expected that to change. If the Soviet Union had had any concerns about NATO enlargement towards the East, it would have insisted on having a written treaty, a written guarantee. Countries in Eastern Europe have since the 1990s been eager to become NATO member states to be protected if Russia fails them again – and some of them became members.

Q: The relationship between Germany and Russia is of great importance for the European continent. The gas project Nord Stream 2 has effectively been cancelled and we might now face an energy security crisis. What do you recommend in terms of German diplomacy in a broader, human sense as well as for energy security?

Until the Georgian war, it was commonly believed that security in Europe can only be guaranteed together with Russia. “Now if we want to preserve peace in Europe, we will have to do it, at least for a foreseeable future, against Russia like in the Cold War era against the Soviet Union”, Polenz says. Elements such as deterrence and coexistence will play a bigger role in the future.

“Every economic tie is useful for both sides, otherwise we wouldn’t have these kinds of economic relationships”, regarding the energy security challenge. „If we put sanctions in place, they will unfortunately hurt the West and Germany too, but there is no alternative”, Polenz argues.

It is important to bear in mind that it will take a while for the sanctions to have an impact, it’s a medium-term approach, but economically, the West is by far stronger than Russia which has a GDP like Italy.

Q: In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and the international community reacted weakly. Did that set a precedent for Russia?

The annexation of Crimea was quite popular in Russia. It improved Putin’s polls and fit well with his storyline for Russia. Unfortunately the international response was weak. “We have to avoid war in Europe, but many forget that we have had a war on our continent since 2014 in Eastern Ukraine – although it was not seen as war in Europe. I hope this wakeup call now brings the EU and Germany to the right conclusions”, Polenz stresses.

Q: There is a disinformation war happening on all fronts. What are the consequences?

Most of us are on social media, so we can and should do something in this regard. We have to be aware that there are many tools available to Putin. His relationships with Marine  Le Penn, the AFD in Germany and Trump in the US are huge resources.

Especially Trump’s tweet supporting Putin is shocking. Supporters of the Republican Party often find Putin favourable compared to Biden. We need to have a look at the development in the United States, also with regards to Biden’s position. We should also keep an eye on China, which did not support the annexation of Crimea, but has taken a stance against the West on many issues. Some think Iran might make use of the situation and attack Israel.

The best response is a united one, we cannot let Putin violate the Charter of the UN and the Charter of Paris. We need to present a single, unbreachable front to him. Ukraine needs diplomatic support from all countries in the world that value territorial integrity and sovereignty. With tough economic sanctions, Putin must be dissuaded from his path of violence. It is also right to help Ukraine to defend itself.

Q: With this attack, multilateralism is on its death bed, to quote the Kenyan Ambassador at the UN. What impact does the invasion have on multilateralism?

The idea of multilateralism is the idea of a rule-based world“, Polenz states. If we support multilateralism, we have to make clear that we are resisting to Putins actions. Our current rule-based system is unfortunately weak. We are facing a world after the Cold war, which is mostly bipolar, but now with China and the United States and maybe Russia somewhere in between. This is a fragile construction. “From a European perspective, Europe at least has a chance to protect itself via unity and strength in the European Union, but if you look to other parts of the world, it might be much more difficult to resist the strong influence and policies of China or Russia”, Ruprecht Polenz assesses.

Q: The current situation is one where Europe doesn’t have a united voice, as can be seen in Serbia’s response to the crisis. There is also propaganda in Serbia saying that Ukraine has invaded Russia which shows the impact Russia has in the Balkans. What is your point of view on the implications of the crisis for the Balkan?

„Maybe we have seen the European Union too much from an economic perspective”, Polenz admits. “For me dealing with foreign policies, the EU was an organisation for peace on a diverse and conflict-stricken continent. Therefore, I was in favour of the Thessaloniki decision to offer all Balkan states a perspective of joining the European Union.” But the reforms in the Balkan didn’t go as well as expected, there was frustration. The current developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the so-called Republica Srpska are raising tensions as they want a closer association with Serbia. This could be a next huge conflict in the Balkans.

Looking at the situation within the European Union: Big players such as China and Russia are trying to drive the EU apart. “I hope that the brutality of the Russian war against Ukraine brings every member state of the European Union to the conclusion that we have to act”, Polenz says, “Now, we see that we are threatened ourselves. We are not watching a conflict from the outside, we are part of this conflict. If we want to end it, we have to do something together.”

Q: Why now? Putin’s ambitions and interests have remained the same for at least a decade or longer. Is this the first move in a very long-term game of dismantling the post-World-War-II world order where Putin has China as an ally?

The attitude of China is interesting. On the one hand, there is an interest in weakening the US and the West. On the other hand, China needs the US and Europe as sales markets.  Putin’s war is not in China’s interests. Unlike Putin, China does not deny Ukraine’s sovereignty. As a result, they need to balance their policies.


About the author:

Ruprecht Polenz, Ruprecht Polenz was the Dean of the Global Diplomacy Lab from 2014 to February 2023. He was a member of the German Parliament from 1994 to 2013 as representant of the City of Muenster. He was the Chairman of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs from 2005 to 2013. The focal points of his work are foreign and security policy. Follow him on Twitter here.

Published on February 27, 2022.

Photo credit: Max Kukurudziak

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