Mathias Döpfner is Chairman and CEO of Axel Springer, POLITICO’s parent company.
Now is the time to start thinking about the years after 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 this will take, no one knows.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has been going on for eight years now — only the naive and those driven by short-term economic opportunism believed that the annexation of Crimea in 2014 meant peace and quiet. And it may go on 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.
A country that’s economically weakened, almost destroyed. One that faces an evermore 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 supplies, cracking Russia’s economic backbone. Sanctions will have left their mark. The army will be emaciated and a shadow of its former self. Its people torn and demoralized.
Putin’s successors only have two options
Any new government in Moscow will then have to make a key strategic decision: either become an ally of the democratic West, or a dependent of non-democratic China.
These are the only two options for Putin’s successors (perhaps someone typologically more like Alexei Navalny or Garry Kasparov — no one thought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was possible either). And therein lies an historic opportunity for a new and better world order.
When the time comes, then, the West must not exploit the weakness of the loser, a post-Putin Russia. It should look ahead to a new, differently governed Russia instead. And it could already start preparing for an alliance that means 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 point of view, this idea might seem unrealistic and almost frivolous. But from a much longer, decades-long perspective, it’s absolutely realistic. Nothing, granted, but a possibility. But one for which the West, the EU, and Germany should now actively prepare.
No matter how high or low the probability, we should try everything to increase its odds. Because the alternatives are worse. A permanently humiliated Russia remains aggressive and would become even more so. A permanently China-dependent Russia would become a powerful adversary to our economic and political disadvantage.
The Russian people aren’t the Russian regime of today. Russia is a nation of culture. A country with raw material resources that we’d rather have on our side than against us.
Until now, Germany’s longing for Russia has been naive and dangerous, as it overlooked the fact that the country has a deep authoritarian tradition: From tsarism to Stalinist communism, only briefly interrupted by the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
Putin’s geopolitical megalomania and rule of fear was clearly inspired by former absolutist regimes. But what we’re seeing now is rudimentary proof that absolutism is no longer tolerated in the 21st century.
And the chances that Russia will, after this self-inflicted humiliation, embark on a better, more liberal path aren’t bad at all — historically speaking.
Two major military defeats triggered modernization in Russian history: The lost Crimean War in the 19th century led to major reforms and a decline in serfdom. And the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 initiated the decline of autocratic tsarism, which ended with the February Revolution — though followed by the October Revolution of the Bolsheviks. This could be a pattern: military defeats make Russia open to change.
The West’s opposition must never be directed against a population, only against a regime. What was possible for the Germans after the Nazis must be even more so for the Russians after Putinism: a chance for a new beginning.
Measures for the future
If AMEURUS, a U.S.-European-Russian community of values and trade — and perhaps even defense — is to emerge, forward-looking action is needed now.
Thinking about this doesn’t mean weakening solidarity with Ukraine. On the contrary, strengthening our solidarity is the most important prerequisite for AMEURUS to have any chance at all. 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 in concrete terms?
Not only America but also Europe, and Germany, must support Ukraine with all legitimate means, i.e. mainly with heavy weapons and state-of-the-art technology.
The West must not — like in 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Crimea — legitimize any Russian interim success with a fouled peace. It must have patience and perseverance.
Finally, NATO must be strengthened, and the accessions of Finland and Sweden must become possible in negotiations with Ankara.
For Germany, for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, this particularly means one thing: 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. So were his decisions on arms deliveries, NATO treaty compliance and the €100 billion special fund for the Bundeswehr.
For the first time in a long time in German history, our neighbors expect Germany to strengthen its military and become more involved. Scholz should use this 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, much worse Chinese attack on democracy — and that is AMEURUS.
One way or another, the Ukraine war will become the turning point of the world order.
We should do everything we can to make it a turn toward strengthened democracy, not a turn toward even stronger authoritarianism. Besides, it would be satisfying if Putin ended up achieving exactly the opposite of what he wanted.
This article was originally published in German in Welt on June 17.