Op-Ed: What German Social Democrats Got Wrong about Putin’s Russia
European security can only be organized against Russia for now, argues SPD chairman Lars Klingbeil. German Social Democrats should learn from previous misconceptions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to erase Ukraine from the map. In doing so, he is violating not only international law, but also all of the treaties and principles that were painstakingly negotiated at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and were enshrined in the Paris Charter following the end of the Cold War. Territorial integrity has no value for Putin. The inviolability of borders has no value for Putin. The political sovereignty of a state has no value for Putin. And the prohibition of use of force has no value for Putin.
For me as a Social Democrat, it has always been clear that international law is valid. The United Nations Charter is valid. Territorial integrity, political sovereignty, the inviolability of borders, the prohibition of violence—all of these principles are valid. We must uphold the strength of the law, not the law of the stronger.
And yet it is becoming clear that our ways and means of standing up for these beliefs were not sufficient. With Russia, there cannot and will not be a return to the status quo before the war against Ukraine. The world before February 24 no longer exists. It is now our responsibility to shape the new world. And this responsibility extends far beyond the military conflict.
For me, recognizing reality also means critically questioning oneself. In Germany, there has been a consensus in recent years, supported by broad sectors of society, that close relations with Russia are good for us—they are good for Russia and good for a peaceful Europe. This consensus often provided the basis for our actions. However, we failed to recognize that the framework conditions governing this relationship have long since changed. The Russian regime under Putin had become increasingly repressive and aggressive, even revisionist. In search of common ground, we overlooked what divides us. That was a mistake.
I want us to learn from these mistakes and draw the right conclusions. As party chairman, this is my responsibility in the SPD. I know that these debates are awkward at the moment. For some, many steps do not go far enough. Others are already overwhelmed by the speed and number of the steps we are taking. For some, it may be wrong to reflect on the mistakes of our policies and their future shape at a time when Russia is intensifying the war again. Others are calling for precisely these fundamental debates.
We believed that a good relationship with Russia would be a continuous political development after the end of the Cold War: even if there were disruptions now and then, the relationship would continually improve. That gave rise to blind spots in our dealings with Russia. And this led in turn to mistakes in our dealings with Russia.
Let me briefly address four misconceptions.
The first misconception was that there is a special historical connection between Germany and Russia. We believed that this history generates mutual obligations. In doing so, we failed to recognize that Putin does not see it that way. We failed to notice when Putin began to manipulate and instrumentalize historiography to consolidate a domestic autocracy and to pursue an interest-driven great power foreign policy. As a result, we clung to an image of Russia shaped by the past that had long since ceased to reflect the present.
Incidentally, I believe that personal friendships are an enrichment in politics. This is even more true of international politics. However, friendships should never obstruct our view of reality.
The second misconception: “Change through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung) was the defining paradigm. We failed to examine and reflect on how realistic certain basic assumptions of our Russia policy were, even as Russia became more repressive domestically and more aggressive externally and increasingly withdrew from common institutions such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
Moreover, ever closer economic ties have not contributed to a more stable European order. In the case of the attack on Ukraine, the interests of the Russian economy carried, and continue to carry, no weight in Vladimir Putin’s brutal calculations. Change through trade does not work without a political agenda.
This applies in particular to the third misconception: Germany has made itself dependent on Russia through its energy policy. Yes, we derived economic benefits from this for many years. But we have paid a high price for this success. We have made ourselves vulnerable. The unilateral expansion of import infrastructure with Russia; the failure to diversify; the political blockade of LNG terminals; the sluggish expansion of renewable energy sources—these policies were one-sided. They were not sustainable. We misjudged the security dimension of our energy supply. Such a one-sided dependence must never happen again.
The fourth misconception was that we did not pay sufficient attention to the interests and perspectives of our Eastern and Central European partners. This has led to a massive loss of trust. Especially in recent years, as Russian policy became more aggressive, we should have paid much more attention to our partners.
There are certainly other blind spots and mistakes that have been made. It is important to me that we name them. Above all, however, it is important that we draw the right lessons from them for the future.
Security Against Russia
For the moment, of course, it is too early to spell out a fundamental policy toward Russia. Right now, the priority is to support Ukraine in its daily struggle against Russia’s brutal war and to strengthen Ukraine’s position for negotiations.
What is clear to me, however, is that the assertion that there cannot be security and stability in Europe against, but only with Russia, is no longer valid. Today it is a question of organizing security against Russia. Russia has abandoned the system of joint security and shared values.
We must invest heavily in our own security. Our own strength is the basic prerequisite for rapprochement. Regardless of the course of the war, Europe must in future be in a position to defend itself at all times.
Even if we should uphold the long-term objective of a common security order, as long as nothing fundamentally changes in Russia, Russia cannot be a serious partner. Only then can there be a joint approach to climate issues or disarmament. The sanctions against Russia will remain in place until the last Russian soldier has left Ukraine.
And we will be closely monitoring developments in Russian civil society. There is still a lot of support for the war, but with the mobilization, Putin has reneged on the deal with Russian society to keep the war out of people’s daily lives. Russian society is gradually being jolted out of a deep sleep. Where critical voices make themselves heard, we must support them.
A Strong Europe
Perhaps the most important response we must make to Putin’s brutal war of aggression is by strengthening Europe and European sovereignty. For the states of the former Eastern Bloc, European integration has by and large fulfilled the promise of security, prosperity, and freedom. But we have to go further.
From a very early date, I spoke out in support of the prospect of accession for Ukraine. This is because I am convinced that it is right. The European Union must think and act geopolitically. The unanimous decision to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status and to offer Georgia the prospect of accession sends a strong signal. So, too, does the early start of accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania. As a strong country in Europe, Germany must forge ahead with these accession negotiations.
We need to make the EU receptive to new members. An EU of 30 plus member states must retain its ability to act and make decisions, for example through reforms allowing majority decisions in foreign and security policy or fiscal policy. And the EU must be in a position to defend its own principles, for example with a stronger mechanism for upholding the rule of law.
Resilience also includes energy independence and combating the climate crisis. How important this is for our own security is shown not least by the war in Ukraine. Inclusion in the European Green Deal would also be an attractive incentive for the other accession candidates to strengthen their resilience.
The International Order
In general, the topic of energy independence has enormous importance, no matter whom I speak with. Whether it is with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, with my Swedish counterpart Magdalena Andersson, with Brazilian presidential candidate Lula da Silva, with the new government in Chile or with the prime minister of Mongolia: sustainable energy provision is a key issue for all of them, with a view to energy policy sovereignty, with a view to innovations, new industries, and good jobs. And for all of them, the European Union is the central partner in this regard.
I see great potential in the fact that we can build new strategic partnerships on this basis and thereby also play a leading role in combating the climate crisis. For too long we have neglected to build such partnerships based on common interests with countries outside the classical Western alliance.
This is in contrast to Putin, who has given a voice to important emerging countries through the BRICS initiative, for example. This is bearing fruit. We observe that many states in the world do not support our sanctions against Russia because Russia has been a reliable partner for them, because they did not feel taken seriously by the “West.” Putin wants to form new blocs, and we must not allow that to happen.
Germany should play a leading role in creating a new peace order in Europe and in maintaining a rules-based order in a world in upheaval. Former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski famously expressed what he expects from Germany back in 2011: “I fear German power less than German inaction. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You must not fail in leadership—not by dominating, but by leading on reform.”
That’s exactly the point: leading the way and taking others with you. Taking responsibility. This is what others expect from us. And that is our contribution to a strong Europe and a stable international order.
This article was adapted from a speech Lars Klingbeil gave on October 18, 2022, in Berlin.
Lars Klingbeil is chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD).