In an interview to DELFI, Mr Gedmin discusses the peculiar stance of Western Europeans during the Ukraine crisis, especially some circles in Germany who believe that ‘the big boys’ – i.e., Germany and Russia – sort out the issues of the neighbourhood over the heads of Eastern Europeans.
Gedmin is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post as well as many other leading publications in the United States and Europe. He has authored several books, including The Hidden Hand: Gorbachev and the Collapse of East Germany (1992).
You have criticized the behaviour of what you call Putin’s “gangster” Russia towards its neighbours. With Ukraine in mind in particular, what else can we expect from Russia?
I have a view. It’s speculative but it’s also based on a body of evidence we have from Putin’s behaviour over the last decade. We know what he is doing in Ukraine, we know what half a dozen years ago he’s made in Georgia, we know that seven years ago he cyber-attacked Estonia.
My view is that a kind of Putin doctrine has emerged which has two principle components. Number one, if today you are a country that is not a member of NATO or the European Union, Russia will do everything to block that. Ukraine, Moldova, Montenegro, Macedonia – these countries, he will insist, belong to the Russian sphere of influence.
For those countries that did manage to join NATO and the European Union – the Baltic state, the Visegrad countries, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria – I think he will do everything he can to make them weak and divided and dependent. Whether it’s energy, whether it’s supporting separatists, whether it’s supporting extremist parties, whether it’s espionage and cyber technology. He wants to divide Europe and he wants to make sure that Eastern Europe belongs to his sphere of influence.
Why is Europe so timid in responding to Putin’s aggression? What will it lead in ten years?
I think it’s dangerous. I think where it leads in ten years is divided Europe again. Maybe not with a physical iron curtain, but de facto with a kind of curtain separating the free Europe from the less free Europe.
I think Western Europe’s problem is two-fold: one is commercial interest, and we all respect that, but it needs to be implanted in the framework of larger values and a larger strategic purpose. And the second thing, there is something about the culture of today’s modern Europe that is highly reluctant and terribly allergic to confrontation. And unless you are willing to subordinate commercial interest to larger strategic goals, unless you are willing to contemplate confrontation for principled reasons, then you have the status quo, which is one where Putin sets the agenda, Western Europe reacts to the agenda. Putin holds strong cards and Western Europe holds very weak cards.
You are familiar with the society in Germany, which is basically the EU. The German media has been quite pro-Russian and you yourself brought to everyone’s attention the letter to Putin penned by 300 intellectuals last spring, appoligizing for “expansionist” NATO policies in Eastern Europe.
I was surprised and disappointed. I think Germany is a little different, it has its own special and unique history with Russia. And I think there is a sentiment in some circles in Germany that we, Germans, understand Russia a little better, that we want to pursue a kind of great power relations, which is very unfortunate when it is over the heads of other democratic allies. Let us, ‘big boys’, sort out the issues of the neighbourhood.
Of course, that is what Russia wants. Russia wants to deal with Germany and the United States over the heads of Eastern Europeans and sort out the neighbourhood.
I think it’s also true that there are some elements, not all, but some elements in German society that somehow instinctively sympathize with a larger power over the victim. You know, it’s quite striking when people say to me: “This was a provocation caused by NATO expansion.” This is not so. The fact is, we, western citizens, believe that a free and sovereign nation has the free opportunity and right to choose its own association. How can it be otherwise? If a country like Lithuania or Poland chooses for its own reasons to apply for NATO membership and then meets the criteria, and then it is accepted, no other power should have veto over this path of arrangement. It’s really shocking.
But there are elements who somehow want to sympathize more with the alleged sensitivities of Russia rather than sensitivities of the countries in between. I mean, to anybody who says “You have to understand Russian psychology”, I would say “why not to understand Lithuanian psychology. Why not be sensitive to the Lithuanian, or the Latvian, or the Estonian policy?”
Of course, there is commerce, there is history, and there is culture. But when you strip it all away, the fact is Vladimir Putin’s Russia behaves like a bully.
The US looks inclined to retire from being the world’s policeman. You seem to disagree with such caution. What would you suggest to Barack Obama’s administration?
For President Obama it’s a little too late. It makes me think the next two years could be very dangerous, because he’s had six years to learn and he hasn’t learned quite the way I would like him to learn.
I think I would tell the American president or a new president that there is something called “world order”. American power does play still an important role in world order. And we have in East Asia, the greater Middle East and East Europe vacuums. The United States stepped back in relative terms and others are stepping forward – China in East Asia, Isis in Iran and the Middle East and Russia in Eastern Europe. And if we want to have a Europe as whole, and free, and open, with rule of law, and inclusive, that’s not Vladimir Putin’s vision.
So the only thing the Unites States can do is set out its own agenda with Europeans – not by ourselves, but with Europeans – and I think we need to strengthen NATO every way we can. And for those countries that don’t belong, but maybe wish to join one day, we should keep the door open.
Vladimir Putin and his philosophy and world-view cares nothing about consent. But we do. And we should stand by that. If any of these free sovereign nations wish to join NATO or the European Union, the door must stay open to them.
Putin has stated that the current world order is only in the interest of the US, not the rest of the world. China occasionally voices similar views. Do you think we have a new block of dissatisfied nations in the world that threaten to disrupt the balance of power?
I think we do. In the Middle East from Iran, in Eastern Europe from Russia and in East Asia from China.
It’s funny when you hear Vladimir Putin say something like that. In East Asia, who you don’t hear saying that are democratic nations like Japan, like South Korea, like Taiwan, like Australia, like New Zealand. These countries would like to see democracy, free trade and stability. And they are very concerned about Chinese behaviour.
Back to Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Let’s remember, the whole crisis is only for two reasons. First of all, not because Ukraine wanted to join NATO. No. Because Ukraine wanted to get closer to Europe through an Association Agreement.
And the second thing is – I fully believe that’s why Vladimir Putin became so agitated about this – he cannot have a country on his border that becomes closer to the West, more modern, more liberal, more tolerant. Ukraine will take many years to get there, it’s a difficult country, but he cannot have that model because it can influence behaviour of some people inside Russia.
And if they say “they can be prosperous, they can have rule of law, they can start tackling corruption, maybe we can, too” – this is about his own power and securing his neighbourhood. But Ukraine was never a threat. Ukraine was not close to joining NATO.