Expert on the war in Ukraine: “Putin’s threat must worry us extremely”

The West should have negotiated with Russia about Ukraine’s neutrality, says political scientist Johannes Varwick. “The alternative was to lose Ukraine through Russian occupation. Unfortunately, that’s what happened now.” Varwick strongly advises against a military escalation. “If we were to dispute Ukraine with Russia, Russia could have a nuclear escalation. That would be the end of Europe.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says that each NATO member decides for itself whether to supply Ukraine with weapons. Does Germany also have to lead this debate?

Johannes Varwick holds a chair in international relations and European politics at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg.

(Photo: imago/VIADATA)

Johannes Varwick: We have to have this debate, but I still think it’s unwise to actually deliver arms to Ukraine. I don’t see how the Russian calculations about the balance of power on the ground could be changed by supplying arms. If in doubt, that would only make the conflict even bloodier. It’s bitter, but that’s the reality.

Is there anything that could still influence the Russian calculations?

No, I do not think so. To my horror, Russia is determined to use military force to win this conflict. Of course, this has not solved the problem, but neither arms deliveries nor sanctions will change anything about the Russian approach. The only thing that could change Russia’s calculations would be its willingness to intervene militarily in Ukraine itself. NATO quite rightly rules this out. But below that threshold, Russia will be unimpressive.

That means the West is now simply watching.

Everything we do now is rhetoric and symbolism. But we will no longer be able to influence the situation on the ground. We should have tried beforehand to reach a reconciliation of interests with Russia. That failed. Now the diplomacy is over.

What attempt are you thinking of?

In my view, it would have been wiser to negotiate neutrality for Ukraine – with Russia and also with Ukraine. That would have been the only solution that might have prevented Russia from intervening in Ukraine. We were not prepared to do this because we do not want to question our principles. I think that’s really a failure. That is the West’s share of responsibility for this situation.

Was that a realistic option? Was Putin’s demand to turn history back to 1997 really achievable for NATO?

No, the demands could not be met. But, that’s a subtle difference: They were negotiable. Of course, Russia would not have gotten the whole package. But in negotiations one could have distinguished the legitimate from the illegitimate points and then put together a package, as diplomacy has to do.

In your view, what were Russia’s legitimate demands?

The demand that Ukraine should not become a member of NATO and thus be given neutral status was legitimate in the situation as it now is. That would have been the ticket to negotiations. Then we could have talked about other issues like arms control, transparency in maneuvers, avoiding unintentional escalation. But only if we had been willing to buy this ticket. The alternative was to lose Ukraine to Russian occupation. Unfortunately, that’s how it happened now.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is difficult to imagine that concessions could have stopped Putin.

Putin wanted Ukraine as Cordon sanitaire, i.e. as a security belt between Russia and NATO. I think we could have talked about the means. Of course, by doing so, Putin has called Ukraine’s sovereignty into question, and we cannot like that. But we can now see that this goal is now being implemented, with means that are worse than anything we could have achieved in negotiations. In this respect we have done Ukraine a disservice. Of course, the main responsibility lies with Russia. But it’s also because we weren’t willing to reconcile interests with Russia.

That would mean Putin’s plan wasn’t a foregone conclusion to launch an attack of this magnitude?

I would say the plan was in place that Ukraine would never be in NATO and that no western military would be stationed in Ukraine. He adjusted the means.

If Russia occupies Ukraine, it would be right on the border with NATO. How should the West deal with this?

We now have to pull a Cold War concept out of the drawers again: containment. This includes stationing NATO troops in the eastern accession countries. That is tantamount to a termination of the NATO-Russia Founding Act, but there is no alternative. We must now massively strengthen NATO’s eastern flank so that Putin understands that it makes a difference whether he takes on a NATO country or a non-NATO country.

Putin has said that whoever tries to stand in Russia’s way must know “that the consequences will be the likes of which you have never seen in your history”. How much must we be concerned about this threat?

This must worry us to the utmost. We should not forget that Russia is capable of nuclear escalation, and we must price that into our actions as well. This is not cowardice towards Russia, but simply a sober assessment of the situation. If we disputed Russia’s Ukraine, Russia could escalate nuclear. That would be the end of Europe. We shouldn’t risk that.

If Putin were willing to do something as insane as a nuclear strike, what gives us confidence that he will stop deadpan at NATO borders?

Because that makes a difference: in the end, when we are on NATO territory, we are also capable of nuclear escalation, and Putin knows that. With Ukraine, he knows just as well that we are not. That makes the difference. That’s why everyone wants to join NATO. The nuclear protective shield is the central aspect.

Have we been too naïve in recent years?

I would not say that. After 2014, NATO put the topic of alliance and national defense back on the agenda, which was not the case before. In a balancing act between deterrence and dialogue, we moved more in the direction of deterrence and did not offer an open flank. Ukraine is simply a special case. Our failure is that we have not resolved the Ukraine issue. We have to blame ourselves for that.

Is it conceivable that negotiations will resume as long as Putin is in power?

I think that’s out of the question. Putin has gambled away every credit. We now have to think in long cycles and probably get back to the way of thinking like in the East-West conflict, where you think in terms of decades and generations rather than electoral periods and short cycles. The relationship is destroyed for the foreseeable future.

Frauke Niemeyer spoke to Johannes Varwick

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