Europe's New Status Quo 'Ukraine Is Fighting Our Battle'

The crisis in Ukraine has ended Europe's long period of stability -- but what does that mean for its future? SPIEGEL speaks with three experts about Putin's plans for the region and why the EU needs to step up in order to survive.

Even though the battles over the future of Ukraine  have shifted to the country's southeast, there are still tents on Kiev's Maidan Square. Smoke rises from the protesters' makeshift stoves, between the neon signs of Western corporations and the burned-out ruin of the trade union building. There are photos everywhere of those who died here, an action film is being shown on a large screen and a man is playing the guitar and belting out revolutionary songs. There are donation cans and flags fluttering here and there, in this odd mixture of tent city, Occupy protest camp and youth hostel.

Earlier this month, at the nearby National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, American historian Timothy Snyder hosted an international conference called "Thinking Together." Intellectuals from the United States, Western Europe and Eastern Europe gave lectures and participated in small group discussions over what the events in Ukraine mean for European and the rest of the world. Their aim was to demonstrate solidarity.

The atmosphere at the conference resembled the emotionally charged Cold War-era writer meetings, where intellectuals discussed ways to escape oppression and oppose aggressors. But instead of issuing manifestos against Russian President Vladimir Putin, attendees of the Kiev conference mostly just listened.

Snyder, who switched back and forth between Ukrainian and English, was the soul of the conference, and his presence could be felt everywhere. During his opening lecture in the university's large lecture hall last Thursday, even the aisles were filled with people. Most of the attendees were young, a microcosm of the country's future.

After his lecture, the 44-year-old Yale professor signed autographs, looking clearly uncomfortable while doing so, and then joined 61-year-old Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert and 36-year-old Ukrainian political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov for a conversation with SPIEGEL at a Kiev hotel.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Snyder, two elections will take place on May 25, one in Europe and one in Ukraine. How are the two votes related?

Snyder: The Ukrainians chose the date for symbolic reasons, to show that they are determined to pursue a European course when it comes to foreign policy. But Russia has plans for both elections. They aim to disrupt the vote in Ukraine, and hopes that right-wing nationalist and populist parties will do well in the European election, weakening the standing of the European Union , leading to conflict within the union. So the two elections are more closely related to one another than many Europeans think.

Gebert: The conflicts in Ukraine are barely being mentioned in the European election campaign -- as if the election were taking place on a different planet, as if what is happening in Ukraine were an insignificant, local event. But the Ukrainian conflicts are actually a defining event for Europe, because so much depends on how we react to Putin 's provocations. Something similar happened in Bosnia in 1992 -- a land grab steered from within Serbia -- but Bosnia had no strategic importance, so we calmed down again quickly. But Ukraine is different. It is of existential importance to Europe.

SPIEGEL: People want a new, democratically elected government to quickly stabilize Ukraine after the presidential election. Isn't that asking too much, Mr. Shekhovtsov?

Shekhovtsov: The current Ukraine government is also democratically legitimate, because it was elected by the parliament. Nevertheless, the presidential election is important, mainly from an international perspective, a Western perspective, because the next president will be able to apply the power of the state, which the interim president could not do.

SPIEGEL: The elected president is supposed to apply the power of the state against the separatists in Donbas?

Shekhovtsov: I believe the new president will take a more aggressive approach against the terrorists than the current government is able to. An elected president will have the necessary authority.

SPIEGEL: The prevailing impression at the moment is that the Ukrainian security forces are not operating decisively or being particularly effective.

Shekhovtsov: The Russians infiltrated our security forces, and the local police are corrupt.

SPIEGEL: The next president won't be able to change that right away.

Shekhovtsov: No, the next president won't, but he or she will build a new security apparatus and change the entire system. We must bring about this change ourselves. We cannot wait for the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States to take effect. The EU operates very slowly, and the votes within the apparatus and in the United States are dragging on. Meanwhile, the war is already underway. Ukraine must defend itself, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.

SPIEGEL: What do you think is happening in Donbas, a war or a civil war?

Shekhovtsov: Because Russian aggression is behind the conflict, we are waging a war, not a civil war. And although you in the West have already forgotten about it, Russia annexed Crimea.

SPIEGEL: Europe and the West have apparently come to terms with that. Crimea is no longer an issue for them.

Gebert: Ukraine also lost Crimea because the armed forces received contradictory orders. The government owes the Ukrainians an explanation for that. But perhaps the decision not to fight actually ended up being a wise one. And now there is also a legal way to take action against the annexation. Ukraine can bring an action against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Last Monday, the court handed down a ground-breaking decision entitling Greek Cypriots to €90 million ($123 million) in compensation for non-material losses during the Turkish invasion (of 1974). The next Ukrainian government should take the same approach.

Snyder: By the way, there are people who are talking about Crimea, in particular the Crimean Tatars. This week, they are commemorating the 70th anniversary of their deportation to Central Asia under Stalin. Close to 200,000 people were crowded into trains and removed. Russians and Crimeans can leave Crimea, but the Crimean Tatars have no alternative, because Crimea is their home, the only home they have.

SPIEGEL: What motivates Putin?

Snyder: I think Putin is playing an all-or-nothing game, geopolitically speaking. He no longer cares about tolerable relations with the EU or about a solid relationship with Ukraine. Putin has opted for something else, a much larger project, to destabilize Ukraine and the EU. It's an all-or-nothing game because there is no going back, now that he has embarked on this path.

SPIEGEL: Can he win?

Snyder: There are two options now: Either he achieves his goals, or the European Union achieves political unity and ideological stringency. It would have to define itself as Russia's adversary and, most of all, develop a joint energy policy with which it could affect Putin. If the EU could do that, there would be radical consequences for Russia. Then Putin would have to fall back on China, and Russia would become China's Ukraine.

SPIEGEL: You are alluding to the possible establishment of a Eurasian union. Plans for such a union have been making the rounds at the Kremlin and within groups aligned with Putin. The project isn't being taken very seriously in the West. Is that a mistake?

Snyder: Of course. It's the ideological alternative plan to the European Union.

SPIEGEL: What are the core elements?

Snyder: The Eurasia ideologues dismiss liberal democracy as bankrupt, and as nothing but an alibi for US interests. They consider liberal democracies to be outdated. Both communists and fascists were as dismissive about democracies in the 1920s and 30s. Putin and his Eurasia ideologues consider the West to be too decadent, a postmodern approach on their part. They view European history as a sort of convenience store. They are reinterpreting European history, borrowing whatever suits their needs from Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Russia is a radically conservative country today. It doesn't allow its citizens to live as they please, to love whom they please and to marry whom they want. The Eurasia ideologues see the treatment of homosexuals, in particular, as a problem that divides the global world.

SPIEGEL: That strikes a chord with the conservative nationalist parties hoping for a breakthrough in the European election. What makes Putin appealing to these right-wingers?

Shekhovtsov: He shares their hatred of the European Union. Like Putin, they too worship the nation-state as a backward-looking utopia. And they respect P utin because he advocates a strong state and doesn't care what the public thinks about him abroad. They also share his hatred of America, with its equal rights for different races, along with his hatred of homosexuals.

What The Right-Wing Can Do For Putin

SPIEGEL: But what can these right-wing movements offer Putin?

Shekhovtsov: They are easy to corrupt. The European Union has to fail for the Eurasian project to prevail, but right now Russia cannot compete with the West. That's why Putin is seeking allies in the West who are opposed to the EU, on both the extreme right and the extreme left. They are tools in the struggle against the West. And the better his allies do in the European election, the better it is for him.

SPIEGEL: What makes the European Union successful is its ideals of compromise and diplomacy. In its worldview, deep-seated conflicts are part of the past.

Gebert: Wars and conflicts have dominated Europe for centuries. We look ridiculous if we refuse to condemn Putin. Just because we feel guilty about our past, we cannot allow Putin to get away with what he is doing to Ukraine. We cannot tolerate it.

SPIEGEL: The Germans are leading the diplomatic efforts in this conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in contact with Putin, the German foreign minister is meeting with the Russian foreign minister and a German diplomat is the moderator at the new round table talks. Are they doing the right thing?

Shekhovtsov: These diplomatic efforts are not particularly meaningful or efficient. Putin hasn't been forced to take anything back. Sanctions haven't forced him to give back Crimea.

SPIEGEL: The OSCE hostages were released because it was what he wanted.

Shekhovtsov: Of course. He has influence over what takes place in eastern Ukraine.

Gebert: But we have to put this in perspective: A few hostages were released while, at the same time, Russia is occupying large parts of Ukraine. This isn't a victory for diplomacy, even if former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder got involved.

SPIEGEL: The sanctions could be tougher. More pressure could be applied to Putin.

Shekhovtsov: So far, the sanctions have targeted a few oligarchs who are part of Putin's circle of friends. The oligarchs do business in Russia, but they invest in Western Europe -- they buy houses on the Côte d'Azur and in London. They laugh about the sanctions. Sanctions can only become effective if they affect large companies.

SPIEGEL: Because the United States remains oddly removed from the conflict, the German government and Brussels are virtually alone in their diplomatic efforts. Has the United States lost interest in Europe?

Snyder: For a long time, the United States and, most of all (President) Barack Obama, believed that Russia wouldn't make any moves, that Europe was extremely stable and that China was the difficult country it had to deal with. Now Putin has changed that. The United States probably isn't sufficiently involved at the moment, but the US government is interested in Europe again. This is a fundamental shift. Three things have changed internationally: The EU is being confronted with a fundamental threat for the first time, America once again values the transatlantic partnership, and Ukrainian identity has been strengthened. Anyone who thinks Putin is a strategic genius should take a look at what he's achieved. If he had allowed things to continue as they had, America would gradually have drifted away from Europe, (former) President Viktor Yanukovych would have continued to ruin Ukraine and the Europeans would have kept doing what they were doing.

SPIEGEL: In that case Putin is the loser in this all-or-nothing gamble.

Gebert: Putin is neither a genius nor a loser. He is an opportunist who takes advantage of an opportunity when he sees one. He takes what he wants, and he withdraws under pressure, but only under pressure. Right now, he's taken the initiative, and he isn't afraid.

Shekhovtsov: Putin isn't waging an old war with an air force and tank offensives, but a new war, one that military experts the world over will soon be studying. It is a war in which the leading power is not directly involved. The units it deploys wear no uniforms or insignia, and there are local units, the so-called village defense troops, which have modern, automatic weapons. Putin is also attacking the EU in an unconventional way. He's going to buy politicians. Take Bulgaria, for example, which Brussels views as a Trojan horse for Russia. A vast amount of money has flowed into the country, both clean and dirty. If Russia pulls out the money, Bulgaria will have serious problems. Russia also invests in Serbia, as well as other countries in the Balkans.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you making Putin out to be more important than he is?

Snyder: I think it's important for us to understand what Russia is currently capable of doing. The country has a lot of money from the sale of its natural gas. It might be a different story in 10 years, and Putin knows that. He can still exert this influence today, and in that sense his game is actually reasonable. He also isn't under the illusion that Russia could become bigger than the EU. Its economic output is only roughly comparable to that of France. But Russia can win by weakening the EU. Destroying is always easier than building. And Europe knows how difficult it was to construct this entity.

SPIEGEL: You also argue that America is once again getting closer to Europe, the EU has gotten its wakeup call and NATO is stronger than before. What do you make of the current situation?

Snyder: We have to acknowledge that Russia has altered the status quo. In my opinion, there is now only one alternative: Either the Americans and Europeans reconcile, and finally forget about their dispute over the disastrous Iraq war and set aside their differences over the Snowden affair, and the EU invests a lot of money into an energy policy based on renewable energy. Or Europeans and Americans drift apart and the EU falls apart, so that each country has to see to its own energy supply. Then Russia can continue selling oil and gas, to Europe and to China, and will become a more powerful than it is today. But we won't be getting the old status quo back.

Gebert: It isn't about Putin. It's about us. Europe has just experienced the best 25 years of its history. That's a long time, and we've been lucky. We've become accustomed to peace and prosperity. It was as if we had made it, as political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1992, to the end of history. We were lulled.

SPIEGEL: In 2003, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a distinction between old and new Europe. He described old Europe as emphasizing soft power and being weak, while the new Europe, which supported the Iraq war, consisted of the Eastern Europe NATO countries and the Baltic countries. Is this distinction returning, between a part of Europe that sees Putin as a threat and one that underestimates him?

Gebert: Yes, one could say that. But we Poles, for example, are not worried about the Ukrainians because we're so fond of them, but because we know they're fighting our battle.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Snyder, Mr. Gebert and Mr. Shekhovtsov, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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