New Ostpolitik

Europe Must Find Pragmatic Middle Ground Between Ukraine and Russia

russian army-CHANGED
Remember the days of large Soviet military parades? Now they're Russian.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia simmers, Europe should look to Willy Brandt, West Germany’s former chancellor, for inspiration on how to reduce tensions.

  • Facts


    • Despite deep mistrust during the Cold War, West Germany and East Germany allowed trade and family visitations.
    • West German Chancellor Willy Brandt thawed relations with the communist east through his policy of Ostpolitik.
    • Officials from the European Union, Ukraine and the Russia-dominated Eurasian Customs Union meet on Tuesday.
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While Germans look to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this November, it seems like Cold War tensions have come back to the arena of international relations.

Once again a Russian strongman is acting like a bully, upsetting the world order and issuing bellicose statements of intent. This time it’s Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, though the martial rhetoric sounds similar.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is right on this point: the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukrainian is absolutely contrary to international law and cannot be accepted. It challenges the territorial order of the continent determined after the Second World War and thus presents a danger to all of Europe, yet there is little hope Russia will return this region to Ukraine any time soon.

Therefore, a solution both Russia and Ukraine can live with must be found. The Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the east never officially recognized each other politically, yet the countries allowed trade and family visitations. Pragmatism over ideology was the foundation of the eastern policy formulated by former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who led West Germany from 1969 to 1974.

Stalin had to accept that West Germany would integrate itself into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

An effort at pragmatism will be put to the test today, when representatives of the European Union, Ukraine and the Russia-dominated Eurasian Customs Union finally meet for the first time. All parties need to find a way to normalize joint trade again without questioning or challenging basic decisions. Ukraine is clearly on track to be part of the European Union and Russia must accept that fact.

Just as Stalin had to accept that West Germany would integrate itself into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the fundamentally different viewpoints from Kiev and Moscow must be mutually respected. A return of Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence likely will not happen, but unnecessary frictions between Russia and Ukraine with their different internal markets must be avoided. The European Union and Eurasian union should cooperate more closely because that benefits all parties. There still will be more negotiating, of course, until pragmatism is reflected in contracts.

But, first and foremost, Mr. Putin must relent and end the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, even though his aggressive stance has made him as personally popular as ever within Russia. Even after months of bloody fighting and terror in the region, more Ukrainians declare themselves in favor of independence than did in their 1991 referendum.

It hasn’t always been that way in past years. When considering the history of Ukraine over the past 30 years, it’s clear there have been a series of setbacks yet also courageous uprisings by the people. Hopes remain high that on its way to being more fully integrated into Europe, the nation will finally put an end to the corrupt rule of the oligarchy and become a great state.

The author is an international correspondent. You can reach him at:

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