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War called off, for now

04.2012 Moderatorin Journal Michaela Küfner
Michaela Küfner
February 16, 2022

German Chancellor Scholz's decision not to mention Nord Stream before heading to Moscow weakened his position in the West. But it was possibly the key to engaging in dialogue with Vladimir Putin, writes Michaela Küfner.

Olaf Scholz in Moscow
Olaf Scholz said it was 'our damned duty to stand up for peace'Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hadn’t even reached the airport for his flight back to Berlin before the reports came from Kyiv: Cyberattacks were underway on Ukraine's Defense Ministry and two of the country's most important banks. Suspicion fell on Russia. The country's arsenal of cyberweapons is versatile — and not always subtle. The country's president, Vladimir Putin, is much the same, versatile while certainly not subtle.

Berlin DW  Michaela Küfner
DW's Michaela KüfnerImage: DW

The good news is: A Russian military invasion of Ukraine, for now, seems to be off the table. Putin clearly expressed his willingness to continue to engage in dialogue. It's a diplomatic victory for Olaf Scholz. If progress comes at a snail's pace, then peace with Russia is the maze the snail is left to navigate. Scholz was also able to bring a diplomatic offering to his first meeting with Vladimir Putin. While in Kyiv the day before, the German leader got Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to take the first diplomatic step and agree to draft three legislative bills that, under the Minsk agreement, should have long been delivered.

President Putin at press conference with German chancellor Scholz in Moscow
President Putin sees NATO as a threat to RussiaImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

But that didn't interest Putin. Although he often argues legalistically himself, Putin brushed off this progress, which for the Ukrainian leader represented a significant political risk at home. This technical progress failed to address what he perceives to be a historic injustice.

He had other designs in mind. The West could talk, Putin said, but "for 30 years" NATO said it would not expand and yet the opposite has happened. In fact, there’s a treaty paper trail proving that there was no such assurance, but it is Putin's impression, his alternative facts, that make this conflict so dangerous. One thing became clear at this meeting once again: The past, which the West too often sees as history, Putin regards as a mission.

'Damned duty' to stand up for peace

Olaf Scholz admitted that they differed on many issues. But "it is our damned duty to stand up for peace," the chancellor appealed to Putin and somehow also to himself. Putin answered the question of war or peace by saying "of course" he did not want war either. However, he said, he was driven by the concern that any talks could be "dragged out" and emphasized such a step could not be allowed to happen.

Ukrainian soldiers down in the trenches near the border with Russia
Ukrainian soldiers down in the trenches near the border with RussiaImage: Getty Images/Gaelle Girbes

Scholz, and with him his partners in NATO and the European Union, do not want to allow Europe to be divided into "spheres of influence" as it was during the Cold War. Europe’s efforts to prevent that from happening currently most benefit Ukraine, which oligarchs have long divided up among themselves into spheres of influence. Some 30 oligarchs and their clans chose to fly out of Ukraine on Sunday on chartered flights – only highlighting that Ukraine needs some saving from its own corruption as it does from Russia. Ukraine’s stability will also depend on the EU pushing internal reforms.

And what now? The standoff with Russia has clearly entered a new phase – but it is far from over. The wrangling over Ukraine, the diplomatic squaring of the circle, really begins now that some troops are returning to their barracks. This will be about nothing less than a new European security architecture in which neither Russia nor NATO lose face. It's an optimistic goal that will demand a great deal from all sides. A litmus test for Olaf Scholz's leadership in Europe and beyond.