A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Editorial: Strong on the Outside


Six years ago, we all witnessed the tragic events in the center of Kiev,” the Russian foreign ministry tweeted on February 21, 2020. “They reached a peak with the bloody coup that shook the entire country, led by Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, and the still ongoing armed conflict in Donbass.”

In fact, “we all” witnessed something else entirely.

The Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after failing to subdue peaceful demonstrators by brute force. In response, the Kremlin sent its “polite people” to Crimea–well-equipped special forces without insignia who prepared the ground for Russia’s annexation of the strategically important peninsula. It also started waging a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, which so far has cost 13,000 mostly Ukrainian lives and displaced almost two million people.

Since this breaking of international norms, Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems to have gone from strength to strength: threatening Europe militarily, waging hybrid war against the West, intervening decisively in Syria and most recently in Libya. But is the country really going from strength to strength? And how should Europe, and Germany in particular, deal with it?

Putin’s Russia is an erstwhile superpower in decline, argues Anders Åslund—an authoritarian kleptocracy caught in an anti-reform trap. Recent constitutional changes notwithstanding, the question of whether Putinism can continue to function without Putin will need to be answered, one way or other, during the 2020s. And Maxim Trudolyubov reminds us that Russia will also be facing a societal change of great consequence: the bequeathing of assets to the next generation.

A Russia in decline is no less dangerous, on the contrary. As Heinrich Brauss, until 2018 NATO’s deputy secretary general, reminds us, it is turning into an ever more threatening neighbor, even though many in Germany prefer to close their eyes to this.

Meanwhile, it has been obvious for some time that Germany’s Russia policy makes no sense. It consists of little more than post-2014 sanctions and pressing on with Nord Stream 2 regardless–an absurd combination, as Liana Fix writes. Now that Emmanuel Macron has started to reach out to Putin, that’s even more true.

In the country of “Putin-Versteher”, it probably needs to be spelled out: a more active Russia policy requires the exact opposite of “understanding Putin,” of forgiving and forgetting, of appeasing and abetting corruption and criminality. Together with Paris and the rest of Europe, it’s time to find new, more convincing, more creative answers to the question of how to deal with the mighty and often destructive power next door.