Crisis Conundrum

We Sleepwalkers

Lugansk in aftermath of military action
The Ukraine conflict has raised the spectre of war between the West and Russia.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was in power at the height of the Cold War, and warns that the crisis over Ukraine is pushing Russia and the West to the brink again.

  • Facts


    • Ukraine declared independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
    • After the ouster of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine in February, Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
    • Moscow has backed separatist forces in the east of the country, prompting the West to impose sanctions on Russia.
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When we think of the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, its construction in 1961 should never be far from our thoughts. By that time, the North Atlantic Treaty Association, or NATO, had already been in existence for over a decade.

When Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker erected the wall with Moscow’s agreement, the fact that it didn’t particularly endanger the West’s security meant that it didn’t provoke any serious reaction from NATO. Five years earlier, when the Soviet Union marched into Hungary, NATO also didn’t react, since the Soviet intervention may have been against international law but it didn’t seem to be a threat to the West’s security.

Things were very different in 1962, however, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev installed nuclear missiles on Cuba – on the United States’ doorstep. The fact that these missiles were a threat to U.S. security pushed the entire world to the brink of World War III.

It was thanks to both John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev that this war could be averted. The two men yielded to their awareness of their responsibilities. While one removed his missiles from Cuba, the other took his missiles out of Turkey. The prestige of the two military superpowers was left intact.

At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, there were four nuclear powers in the world. The United States and the former Soviet Union had already combined nuclear weapons with missiles; nevertheless, the missiles at that stage did not have a transatlantic range.

Today, half a century later, the number of nuclear powers has doubled. And all of them even have a second-strike capability or are in the process of acquiring it. At the same time, no other conflict since the Cuban crisis – from Vietnam and Cambodia to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, or the countless wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors – has reached the same danger of a nuclear war as that one did. That is most likely due to the mutual destruction possibility of the Cold War era. It is something that seems to have persisted up to 2014.

For years we have had to deal with a crisis of the European Union, one that shows that the bloc is unable to act, not only in purely military terms, but also when it comes to foreign and economic policy.

The Cold War certainly had its conflicts. The many wars since the Cuban missile crisis have cost millions of lives, both civilians and combatants. And today still there are countless victims of wars, whether in Gaza or Israel, Syria or Iraq, eastern Ukraine or Afghanistan. And now for the first time since the end of the Cold War, it seems that a war is possibly appearing on Europe’s horizon. At any rate, the current actions not only of Vladimir Putin but also the European Union and NATO, are significantly endangering the security of both sides.

This time last year, things seemed normal enough. But then in November 2013 Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, told the European Union that he no longer wanted to sign an economic treaty that had already been negotiated with the bloc – and instead accepted a financial offer from the Russians. This abrupt change of mind was one of the major causes of the anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine. They culminated in fighting on Kiev’s Maidan Square, where around a hundred people were killed. On February 22, 2014 Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia, and his government was replaced by the pro-Western, anti-Russian government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Then in May 2014 Petro Poroshenko, a successful entrepreneur, was elected president, and since then has been regarded as the legal representative of Ukraine. Yet Mr. Putin in the meantime had already annexed the Crimean peninsula.

Since February 2014 both Russia and the West have been involved in a chain of negotiations, speeches and gestures. From week to week there have been swings from alarming to encouraging news. I must admit that I have been increasingly worried.

That is because the Ukraine crisis does not stand in isolation. Rather for years we have had to deal with a crisis of the European Union, one that shows that the bloc is unable to act, not only in purely military terms, but also when it comes to foreign and economic policy. The doubling of the number of member states which was highly optimistic and in fact rash, has turned the European Union into a toothless tiger. In the euro zone, we are seeing the ineffectiveness of ECB president Mario Draghi’s monetary policy, largely because it has not been accompanied by decisive steps in terms of economic policy. Today I am an old man, but as a schoolboy I experienced the Great Depression that began in 1929. So I know what kind of affect massive youth unemployment in Greece, Italy and Spain must be having. And while we Germans are today doing better than at any time in previous centuries – we are still hesitating to help our neighbors and partners in the European Union through big investment programs. The leadership of the West is being left to the American presidents – something that they do not really want.

John F. Kennedy, Kubakrise
The biggest crisis since the Cuban missile crisis? President John F. Kennedy announcing the naval blockade of Cuba in 1962. Source: DPA/AP Photo


At the same time the Europeans struggle to cope with the Islamic State’s terrorism in Syria and Iraq, even as it is obviously captivating an increasing number of young Muslims from throughout Europe. For years we have experienced the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which is threatening the Continent’s security. At the same time we are grappling with a massive Ebola outbreak that not only threatens West Africa, but all of Europe.

The media reports about these problems every day, so that we are constantly outraged at the news about Ukraine, Putin, NATO or mutual “sanctions”. This outrage is justified. It is true that the European Union is going through a phase of deflation. It is also true that NATO and the Russian Federation are facing a military confrontation à la the Cuban crisis, something neither side wants. Neither Barack Obama nor Mr. Putin want war, the Europeans certainly don’t want war – but we have to fear that this is becoming a growing possibility.

What is to be done?

First of all, normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia need to be restored. The cease fire agreement between Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko, or the new American ambassador in Moscow could be used to ease the way. And the old diplomatic back channels could also be revived.

The diplomatic talks about the future of Ukraine shouldn’t be based on 1954, the year of the unification with Crimea, or even 1992, the year of Ukrainian independence. They actually need to look back to 1772, when Russia’s Czar Peter III, who was rescued by the Prussian King Friedrich II, was succeeded by his wife Catherine the Great. That was when Poland was first forcibly divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia, it would be the first of five such divisions or forced shifting of Poland’s borders. It was also Catherine the Great who founded the Russian town of Odessa on what had been Ottoman territory in the west of present-day Ukraine. Today’s Ukraine may only have existed for 22 years but it has a very long history, one that precedes the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. Even before that the area that is now Ukraine had Polish, Muslim, Austrian and Russian rulers.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mr. Putin want war, the Europeans certainly don’t want war – but we have to fear that this is becoming a growing possibility.

Both sides need long-term future prospects. Mr. Putin has to know that Russia which already has many Muslim minority groups will see a rapidly growing Muslim population in the coming decade – particularly in Siberia, which is currently sparsely populated – that is if the climate researchers and demographers are to be trusted. And Mr. Obama also knows that by the middle of this century a sizeable Spanish-speaking minority will form an important section of the American electorate, one that will have a significantly reduced interest in American foreign policy.

The global population has quadrupled over the past century. In 1900 there were just 1.6 billion people on earth, whereas by 2050 there will be 9 billion. This explosive growth has taken place exclusively in Asia, Africa and Latin America – not in the European Union, hardly at all in Russia and also not in Ukraine. By the end of this century, the people of Europe will only make up 5 percent of the global population. The centuries of European imperialism and colonialism have reached an end. Instead several billion people are in the process of globalizing their technologies and economies – which means they are making themselves dependent on one another.

Yet, this interdependence does not in any way preclude the possibility of war. That is why Poland and the three Baltic States can rely on NATO as much as Greece or Germany do. However, there is no alliance commitment to Ukraine. And the offer to Kiev from the European Union for closer ties was – similarly to the West’s offer of possible NATO membership to Georgia – a foolhardy challenge to the Russians.

The necessary diplomatic negotiations about Ukraine will be difficult and will likely last for a long time. Lessons have to be learned from the mistakes that both sides have made. The political and economic future of Ukraine has to be discussed as do the rights of the Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine. In 1990 no one doubted that Ukraine would continue to belong to Russia, as it had for centuries. Since then Ukraine has become an independent state but it is not a nation state. Hopefully military imperialist posturing can be avoided in any such negotiations. Both sides have to recognize that up to now the crisis has been tantamount to playing with fire, which could end in a crisis like the Cuban crisis. That crisis could be solved because both sides were conscious of their responsibilities. Diplomats should take heart from that. However, there is no way to undo the annexation of Crimea.

For Germans, there is another certainty: Both Russia and Poland will remain our neighbors, regardless of how the Ukraine crisis is resolved. We have centuries of shared history behind us, most of it has been bad, some of it has been good. Countless citizens and soldiers have had to lose their lives – mostly Poles and Russians, not to mention the Jews who perished in many European countries. We will also be neighbors in the centuries to come. The chancellor knows that, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier knows that. We Germans have been loyal partners in the North Atlantic alliance for six decades. But we cannot forget the history of the 20th century – that is why we cannot become sleepwalkers.


Helmut Schmidt served as Germany’s chancellor from 1974 to 1982. He has been a co-publisher of Die Zeit since 1983. To contact the author:

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