Mathias Döpfner is Chairman and CEO of Axel Springer, the parent company of POLITICO.
Now is the time to think about the years following the war in Ukraine. Because the outcome of the conflict is clear: Russia has lost, even if President Vladimir Putin wins the war.
How long that will take, no one knows.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has been going on for eight years now – only the naïve and those driven by short-term economic expediency believed that the annexation of Crimea in 2014 meant peace and quiet. And this may continue for many more to come. But there will be a time after Putin – one way or another. And unless there is another very surprising turn of events, his dictatorship will leave behind a devastated Russia.
An economically weakened country, almost destroyed. The one that faces an increasingly united West, with a strengthened NATO, a strengthened European Union and a strengthened transatlantic alliance. A Western world that will be less dependent on gas supply, which will break Russia’s economic backbone. The sanctions will have left their mark. The army will be emaciated and a shadow of itself. His people torn and demoralized.
Putin’s successors have only two options
Any new government in Moscow will then have to make a key strategic decision: either to become an ally of the democratic West or a dependent of undemocratic China.
These are the only two options for Putin’s successors (perhaps someone typologically more like Alexei Navalny or Garry Kasparov – nobody thought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was possible either). And this is a historic opportunity for a new and better world order.
When the time comes, therefore, the West must not exploit the weakness of the loser, a post-Putin Russia. He should instead look to a new, differently governed Russia. And it could already begin to prepare an alliance synonymous with stability, security, prosperity and, above all, freedom: “AMEURUS”. A strategic alliance of America, Europe and Russia, in a community of values and trade that enables the fastest possible economic reconstruction of Russia, thus resisting the challenges and threats posed by China and Islamist states.
Russia is a nation of culture
From today’s perspective, this idea may seem unrealistic and almost frivolous. But from a much longer perspective, over decades, it’s absolutely realistic. Nothing, okay, but a possibility. But for which the West, the EU and Germany should now actively prepare.
Regardless of high or low probability, we should try everything to increase its chances. Because the alternatives are worse. A permanently humiliated Russia remains aggressive and would become even more so. A Russia permanently dependent on China would become a powerful adversary to our economic and political disadvantage.
The Russian people are not the Russian regime of today. Russia is a nation of culture. A country with raw material resources that we would rather have with us than against us.
So far, Germany’s desire for Russia has been naïve and dangerous, as it has ignored the fact that the country has a deep authoritarian tradition: from tsarism to Stalinist communism, briefly interrupted by the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and by Boris Yeltsin.
Putin’s geopolitical megalomania and reign of fear were clearly inspired by past absolutist regimes. But what we see now is rudimentary evidence that absolutism is no longer tolerated in the 21st century.
And the chances of Russia, after this self-inflicted humiliation, embarking on a better, more liberal path are not bad at all – historically speaking.
Two major military defeats triggered the modernization of Russian history: the lost Crimean War in the 19th century led to major reforms and a decline in serfdom. And defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 began the decline of autocratic tsarism, which ended with the February Revolution – although followed by the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks. This could be a model: military defeats open Russia up to change.
Western opposition should never be directed against a population, only against a regime. What was possible for the Germans after the Nazis must be even more possible for the Russians after Putinism: a chance for a new beginning.
Mmeasures for the future
If AMEURUS, an American-Euro-Russian community of values and commerce – and perhaps even defense – is to emerge, forward-looking action is needed now.
Thinking about this does not mean weakening solidarity with Ukraine. On the contrary, strengthening our solidarity is the most important prerequisite for AMEURUS to have a chance. The West must ensure that Ukraine wins the war. And in parallel, it should initiate conversations and concepts for a new order.
What would that mean concretely?
Not only America but also Europe and Germany must support Ukraine by all legitimate means, that is, mainly with heavy weapons and advanced technology.
The West must not – as in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea – legitimize any interim Russian success with a tainted peace. He must show patience and perseverance.
Finally, NATO must be strengthened and the accessions of Finland and Sweden must become possible in the negotiations with Ankara.
For Germany, for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, this means one thing in particular: winning friends and allies in Europe and America – and perhaps even in India. In this context, his trip to Kyiv was late, but it was an important and correct step. The same applies to its decisions concerning arms deliveries, compliance with the NATO treaty and the special fund of 100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr.
For the first time in German history for a long time, our neighbors expect Germany to strengthen its army and become more involved. Scholz should use it to do what his predecessor neglected to do: weaken the Russian regime, strengthen Europe and forge alliances. All to enable, in the long run, the alliance that will save us from a second and much worse Chinese attack on democracy – and that is AMEURUS.
One way or another, the war in Ukraine will become the turning point of the world order.
We should do all we can to move it towards stronger democracy, not towards even stronger authoritarianism. Moreover, it would be satisfying if Putin ended up achieving the exact opposite of what he wanted.
This article was originally published in German in Welt on June 17.