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Image: Reuters/Alexei Chernyshev

Dangerous period for Europe over Ukraine

Interview: Dagmar Breitenbach
February 9, 2015

As diplomatic efforts continue to end the conflict in Ukraine, German analyst Michael Brzoska warns that conflicts are inching closer to the West.


Deutsche Welle: With regard to the conflict in Ukraine, are we seeing the end of a long period of peace in Europe?

Michael Brzoska: After the end of the Cold War, we had the war in the Balkans and the Georgian war, but the Ukraine war has a different dimension. More than these earlier conflicts, it is embedded in a larger confrontation between the West and Russia - which doesn't bode well for the future. So yes, we are entering a more dangerous period in which additional warfare in Europe might not be excluded.

If there is no agreement in Minsk on Wednesday or in the weeks following that, the biggest danger is that the rebels in Ukraine could advance toward Crimea, which is natural in military and geopolitical terms, as Crimea is currently isolated and it makes sense to have a land link. That would become a major war in Ukraine and I'm not sure whether the West would keep out of it, so we'd have a major war in Europe.

What about the EU's role? Has it got the right strategy?

The EU isn't really at the forefront of the current conflict; it has remained more or less an economic organization. In matters of security and peace, it's NATO that's important and in economic matters, it's the EU. The EU can support Ukraine, but it's not really an organization that will have much to do with peace and security in Europe. In addition to NATO, there's the OSCE, which is a rather weak organization but might be more important in the future.

Prof.Dr. Michael Brzoska,
Michael Brzoska: Economic weakness, assertive in foreign policiesImage: IFSH

NATO is the organization that the Baltic States and Poland are looking at for support, the organization that Russia is worried about. It's NATO that counts - also for the Russians. The relationship between Russia and the West is very much one between NATO and Russia.

Propagating peace via democracy and human rights: has that been the right way forward?

Democracy and human rights are very important, they are concerns that should be high up on Western politicians' and societies' agendas. However, we have to recognize that it is not fruitful to push these issues onto governments and societies where this will lead to negative reactions. Mistakes were made in the past of trying to be too quick in the sense that democracy and human rights are portrayed as coming from foreign countries instead of coming from the societies themselves. We have to rely more on internal processes, supported by the outside, but not pushed by the outside, because there are too many examples where this has failed.

Western sanctions are hurting Russia, but President Vladimir Putin appears unfazed by consequences over Ukraine.

Russia presents an ambiguous picture that the moment. The economy is not doing very well, although one should not underestimate the country's potential. It is full of natural resources, so Russia will not go broke anytime soon. This weakness, which is also due to structural problems and the oil price, is something one can counter as a leader by showing strength to the outside world and demonstrating strength in foreign policy.

What exactly does Russia want?

The Russians want to be recognized and respected as a regional power. The Russian leadership has a very geopolitical view of the world that not just sees Russia as an important and powerful country, but one that has a right to be surrounded by countries that are friendly or at least neutral. I don't think Russia necessarily wants to expand territorially beyond the current borders, including Crimea. But it wants assurances that countries like Ukraine and Georgia remain at least neutral. That's what's behind the Russian policies toward Ukraine.

From Russia's point of view: What would a compromise on Ukraine have to include?

Official statements from Russia say Ukraine should remain as a country except for Crimea, and Luhansk and Donetsk should be autonomous regions in Ukraine. I think that's what current negotiations are about: what does that autonomy mean. The Russians are also keen that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, and that there be a revival of some kind of European security architecture where NATO and Russia are members, not at loggerheads like right now, but negotiating things on equal footing. In order to avoid future conflict, we need some institutional arrangements on a European scale: the OSCE might be the organization to provide for that.

Germany, along with France, has taken on a leading role in the peace talks on Ukraine. Is Berlin defining its new international role?

The current endeavors by the chancellor and foreign minister, and Germany's willingness to take over the chair of the OSCE next year, indicate that Germany is ready to take on a more important role in matters of peace and conflict. Germany is in a good position to be a leading power in Europe to try to solve the big European problems we have at the moment, and it's very useful that Germany is doing this together with France.

Michael Brzoska is the Scientific Director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (ifsh), an independent research institution at the University of Hamburg. Among other issues, the political scientist specializes in conflict research, arms control and disarmament, targeted sanctions and sanction reform.

Interview conducted by Dagmar Breitenbach

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