Mar 03, 2022

Op-Ed: Isolate Putin’s Regime, not Russian Civil Society

While it is vital to resolutely oppose the Putin regime, it is also important not to let the contacts with Russian civil society that have been built up over decades break down.

A demonstrator shows a peace symbol painted on her hand, next to a law enforcement officer, during an anti-war protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia March 2, 2022.
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February 27, 2022 will go down in the history books as a turning point in German foreign and security policy. It took Russian tanks on Ukrainian streets to not only proclaim the "end to illusions" but also to act accordingly. In light of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has taken the long overdue step of aligning Germany's foreign policy posture with the new (in)security situation in Europe and revising outdated foreign policy principles. Perhaps it took a chancellor from Willy Brandt's party, the Social Democrats (SPD), to leave behind the legacy of the “Ostpolitik.”

There is no doubt about the contribution of this policy to overcoming the East-West conflict. But it is no longer a suitable blueprint for dealing with Vladimir Putin's Russia in the 21st century. In contrast to the Soviet Union, which had an interest in cementing the European status quo and largely adhered to agreed rules, Putin wants to alter the European map by force and in defiance of the rules-based international order to make imperial great power fantasies come true.  The Russian president thinks and acts in the categories of Yalta, not of Helsinki.

Following the end of the Cold War, Germany's policy toward Russia relied above all on cooperation, dialogue and diplomacy, but this was a diplomacy that ultimately remained toothless without a military deterrent effect. Putin's war, a breach of civilization, now means a catharsis. Against this backdrop, it is all the more remarkable that Berlin, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, has abandoned its "deeply rooted special relationship" with Moscow within a very short period of time, initiated a change in energy policy, and completed a 180-degree turn in security policy. That's a good thing. For in a strategic environment in which the historical experiences of the Cold War fuse with the technical possibilities of the 21st century, it will be above all Berlin that counts when it comes to strengthening Europe's defense capability, keeping up international pressure on Putin’s regime, and letting sanctions work—without completely slamming the doors of diplomacy shut.

Don’t Stigmatize All Russians

Resolutely opposing Putin’s system is the order of the day. However, it is just as important not to let contacts break down with Russian civil society that have been built up over decades. We must not allow the current situation to lead to a stigmatization of "the Russians" in Germany. The courageous women and men in Russia who are raising their voices against Putin's war also deserve our solidarity, especially as the signs point to a further increase in domestic repression. Many Russian intellectuals are deeply dismayed by the brutal actions of their government and feel shame at their own inability to stop the warmongers. This war of aggression against Ukraine is also an attack on the liberal voices within Russia. If cooperation with foreign universities and other joint projects at the level of civil society are put on hold in the current situation, for understandable reasons, this prevents liberal Russians from making their voices heard in the sense of the "other" Russia. In the worst case, it even deprives them of any possibility to leave their country.

Liberal Russian intellectuals, scientists, and representatives of civil society remain legitimate partners in dialogue and "seismographs" who can help us recognize and make sense of developments in Russia—at a time when official contacts have been severed or reduced to a minimum. These times will continue for now, until Russia is no longer Putin's Russia.

Nora Müller is the head of the Körber-Stiftung’s International Affairs department. Gabriele Woidelko heads the History and Politics department of the Körber-Stiftung.