Timothy Garton Ash: Germany has attraction mixed with fear for Russia

Timothy Garton Ash.
Timothy Garton Ash. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

There is truth to what the Ukrainians say about the struggle being between freedom and fear. We need more courage and willingness to take risks as there are no risk-free paths to a good solution in Ukraine, historian and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University Timothy Garton Ask finds in an interview to ERR.

In a situation where the EU has its own understanding of values and protection of human rights, isn't such a common way of thinking actually killing democracy and the diversification of ideas?

The deep paradox of liberalism is that it always needs challenges to liberalism because it believes in conflict and argument and constantly being challenged. There are plenty of people who don't believe in liberal democracy. Most of the world's rulers no longer believe in liberal democracy, and therefore there are plenty of challenges outside Europe. I don't think we need to give ourselves another challenge inside Europe.

And the fact that Viktor Orban has been capable of demolishing liberal democracy – let's be very clear, Hungary is no longer a democracy; it's a competitive, authoritarian regime – as a full member of the European Union is quite a shocking fact.

It makes us implausible, uncredible. When we go around preaching democracy and freedom and rule of law and human rights to the rest of the world, practice what you preach. The United States has this problem much more seriously because I think there are very few people in the world now who believe that the U.S. is any kind of model of democracy, the city on a hill.

Just 20 years ago, still, a lot of people around the world did look to the U.S. as a model of democracy. But after the January 6 riots or after Donald Trump, very few people believe that anymore. Whereas more people, I think, believe that some European countries are actually, and I think we're sitting in one in Estonia, serious examples of liberal democracy.

Estonia has its own value-based conflict.

You have your own populists, of course. Although I have to say it's a remarkable fact that Estonia is number four worldwide on the human freedom index. That's quite an achievement.

But listen, we're always gonna have challenges in our own societies. And where I think you're right is that liberals like me in the broadest sense, liberal Europeans, liberal internationalists spent so much time thinking about Europe, thinking about international order, thinking about the other half of the world that we rather neglected the other half of our own societies.

We lived with our backs to the other half of our own societies, and people felt they were being ignored and disrespected. And so I think we have to understand why people are now going to vote for the populists, and it's partly economic. But it's not just economic, it is also a resentment of liberal metropolitan elites, the condescension of saying that we always know better.

But how can liberals establish contact with populists?

By listening, simply by listening. The worst thing we can do is to dismiss them all as racist and fascist.

By listening and understanding what the real concerns are. So to give you an example from a nearby country, why have the populists done so well in Poland? Because the liberals, although the economy was doing very well, didn't do near enough on social policy, and there were a lot of families who couldn't afford to take their kids on holiday. And then the populists came along and they said, you're going to get 500 zlotys a month for every child, and families could take their children on holiday.

So that's a very good example where the failure of liberals opened the door to the populist.

Are we headed toward this kind of winner takes all mentality that we had in Eastern Europe in the 1990s?

I think that Russia was the extreme case of winner takes all, economically privatization was the robbery of the century. Politically – absolutely!

But even in other post-communist countries, and here I think Estonia really stands out, for example, in the fact that you have a genuinely neutral civil service, which is not true in most of post-communist Europe. There was a tendency when the liberals came to power of putting their people, their nomenclature, if you like, in, for example, public service television, which was then never genuinely independent.

When the populists come along, they do the same in the opposite direction, only more so. So, I think that was indeed a failure.

Was it a failure of officials or the intelligentsia, not giving politicians the input of having to consider that the country needs to live on after them.

I'm not sure about that, because I vividly remember endless discussions about what the constitutional arrangements should be. Should we learn from Germany on this, many attempts to take the British example of a genuinely independent civil service etc. So I don't think it was an intellectual failure.

Also, I think people attribute too much to the ideology of "neoliberalism." It wasn't the case that all over post-communist Europe there were people who were devout neoliberals in the same sense that they had been communists for 50 years before, or fascists. It was a particular model of the way capitalism worked, what I call globalized financialized capitalism. It's just that this was what capitalism looked like at that particular point in time. And it is this globalized financialized model of capitalism, rather than any ideology, that has given us a lot of prosperity and some big problems as well.

How to solve those problems?

Absolutely, they can't be solved... To get back to forms of capitalism... The problem is not capitalism as such. There are multiple varieties of capitalism. The problem is a particular variety of capitalism. So to get back to a more, for want of a better word, social democratic model of capitalism, a capitalism which has strong regulation, which understands the need to avoid absolute extremes of inequality and of personal responsibility.

Because if you had true capitalism, the bankers would be personally responsible. And if the banks went bankrupt, the bankers would go bankrupt. But what we have is privatized profit and socialized loss.

What to do about multinational companies?

Previously, in earlier eras of European history you had the sovereign. The nation state.

But who is the sovereign for Google or Facebook or Goldman Sachs? That is the problem of globalized financialized capitalism. We work at it through attempts at international cooperation. But there's always the temptation for one state or another, whether we're talking about Ireland, Luxembourg or Doha, to say, come to us and we'll cut you a good deal.

So the game will just go on and on?

Well, we have the European Union. And the EU is a global regulatory superpower. I can assure you, because I've done a lot of work looking at issues of global free speech. Looking at Facebook and Google, they're more frightened of the European Union than they are of almost any other political entity, including the United States.

Let us come to a topic that was on my mind last year when the war started. There was a lot of talk about security architecture. What should it be? Should it include Russia or not? Everybody said, let's just wait until the war is over. But do we have that luxury?

First of all, I'm not sure of the simile of architecture, which suggests something solid and static. It's more like a moving... it's not even a football game because it's not structured.

The only way this war is going to end well is with a Ukrainian victory, which is sealed by some kind of security guarantees, so that Putin's Russia can't simply regroup, rearm and come back in six months or two years' time. There have to be intermediate steps, military support, regaining territory, security guarantees; and only at that point do you get to the "architecture."

Our aim as Europeans, as the West should be a new great, double eastward enlargement of the geopolitical West. I look out of my bedroom window in this hotel, and look over the Gulf of Finland. And we have the EU and NATO on both sides of the gulf. That's fantastic. I'd like to look out of my hotel window in Kharkiv in ten years and see the EU and NATO, whether I look south or west.

Do you believe Ukraine will be a member of the EU and/or NATO in ten years?

I'm a historian, I don't make predictions about the future. But I think what we should work toward is a condition in which Ukraine would be a member of both in ten years' time.

What Finland and Sweden are telling us, and in a way what the Balkans are telling us, is that these things – EU and NATO – really go together. That there is no clear long-term future – there are always exceptions, maybe Austria is an exception, with its rather privileged geographical position – but on the whole, to be secure, you have to be embraced by what I call the two strong arms of the West.

Should Ukraine's victory be in the 1991 borders, or are there other options?

Our goal should be for Ukraine to regain control of all of its sovereign territory, including Crimea. That should be our goal. Whether we get there is a question to be decided by a whole range of factors, above all what happens on the battlefield.

But what is absolutely clear to me is that we shouldn't start from the position that a good outcome would be a territorial compromise. That's not a good outcome. If that's the outcome, Vladimir Putin can go back to Moscow and say to his own people through his massive propaganda machine, we won, I got back Novorossiya, a part of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great's empire. He said the other day that even Peter the Great never fully controlled the Sea of Azov. That would entrench him in power and mean we would have a dangerous Russian dictatorship nearby for much longer. It mustn't be our goal, even though it's possibly where we may end up.

Is the West wishfully thinking that Ukraine's victory could lead to the fall of Putin's regime?

No. On the contrary, I think the West is underestimating the real possibility that failure in Ukraine may actually lead to change in Moscow. Which as you know is the Ukrainian theory of victory.

I've been to Ukraine twice in the last six months, talked to the head of the army, the head of military intelligence and the president's right-hand man Andrii Yermak. That is the Ukrainian theory of victory – success on the battlefield resulting in the collapse of Russian military morale, which is what happened in 1905 and 1917, and that triggers some kind of change in Moscow. Either a change of policy or of leadership.

Now, that is a bold theory of victory, but it at least is a theory of victory, and I'm not sure the West has a plausible theory of victory either. I'm not saying what will happen, but I am suggesting we should not rule out the possibility of some kind of nonlinear development.

Why is it so hard for Germany or the U.S. to define victory? In Germany, only Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has said that Ukraine must win and Russia lose. We haven't heard strong statements from the others.

Germany's is the real issue here; and we must acknowledge that Germany just announced a €2.7 billion package of military support [for Ukraine]. Germany has come a long way. But still there is this German fascination with Russia mingled with fear of Russia. I'm now going to say something that is a speculative psychological statement, but somewhere deep in the psyche is [the idea] that these are the guys that defeated us. So they must be really strong. I think there is a tremendous fear of war in general, but also in particular of Russia – the guys who beat us.

I think that when the Ukrainians say the choice is between freedom and fear, they have a point. We have to have a little more guts, courage and the willingness to take a bit more risk, because there is no risk-free path to a good solution.

Olaf Scholz seems like he's afraid all the time.

I have to give him credit. Given where he was on February 23, 2022, he has come an enormous way. I think he is someone who by his biography was superbly well-prepared to be a peacetime chancellor. But he was not prepared to be a wartime leader. That's just who he is.

There's the old joke about the Prussian and Austrian general. They're both under fire, the Austrian general is shivering with fear, and the Prussian general tells him he's such a coward. But he replies, on the contrary, I'm much braver than you, because I'm shit scared, but I'm still standing here. And there is some truth to that.

Is there a struggle of narratives between Ukraine and Russia / the Soviet Union? Who built the best warplanes, who built the best space technology; who are the best actors, best football players?

Ukraine has won the battle of narratives hands down, no contest. There's no question Ukraine has won the battle of narratives, while it hasn't won on the actual battlefield yet.

There's also a battle of narratives inside the West. I have to say that I think Estonia and Kaja Kallas in particular have been quite remarkable in putting out a very bold narrative of the struggle for freedom. Along with others from Central and Eastern Europe it has to be said. And then there is the much more cautious narrative coming from Berlin. You have the great power diplomacy narrative coming from Emmanuel Macron, saying we need to resolve this between the great powers.

Finally, you have the let's avoid the third world war narrative coming from President Biden. So, there is quite an interesting battle of narratives inside the West.

Which one will prevail? Will it be Biden's fear of the third world war or some other?

I do think it's a good idea to avoid the third world war. It seems sensible.

You have to make a realistic judgment of escalatory risk. Thus far, over the 15 months of the war, what you might call the Estonian narrative has certainly been prevailing over the German narrative, if I can put it very simplistically. We have become bolder and bolder quite rightly, though whether rapidly enough is another question.

Western, European policy is always going to be a compromise. That's the nature of the beast. If you have an alliance of 30 sovereign democracies, a union of 27 sovereign democracies, it is always going to be a compromise. The question is whether this compromise policy is strong and effective enough to secure the desired result.

Is there pressure from Western allies for Ukraine to end up at the negotiating table?

There is tremendous temptation. Particularly in certain European capitals to say we must somehow get to negotiations, and then we'll have a negotiated solution.

Vladimir Putin would be delighted to have a negotiated solution. "Let's have a ceasefire, I'm occupying 18 percent of Ukraine's territory, my troops can dig in. And then the negotiations fail and we have a line of control, thank you very much."

And people in the West will say, we've got peace. But it would be nothing of the kind. It would not even be a frozen conflict. It would be a semi-frozen one.

Was Merkel's approach and policy toward Russia appeasement policy?

I think one has to differentiate here. At the beginning of the post-war period, the deal was that Russia gave up its empire in Eastern Europe and in return was going to get from Germany and the U.S. help in modernizing first the Soviet Union and then Russia. And it was not unreasonable to try and help Yeltsin's Russia modernize.

The problem came when Russia had turned into something else by 2008 at the latest. Our great mistake was failing to learn from history that declining empires do not like declining and tend to strike back. That is when we should have said that we understand what's happening, that this is the empire striking back and, therefore, we need to change our policy.

Germany bears a large share of the responsibility for failing to turn, but also the United States.

What should have been done differently?

In 2014, when Crimea was seized and the war started, as the Ukrainians always remind us, that the war has been going on for over nine years – that was the turning point where the West failed to turn. We should have had much stronger sanctions on Russia, more military support for Ukraine – imagine if we had been arming Ukraine at that point, and it was discussed – should have gone after dirty Russian money swirling around cities like London, reduced rather than increased our energy dependency on Russia, and sent a much clearer message to Putin.

You never know what would have happened. But I would argue that it's plausible we would not be in the mess we're in today if we had had a much stronger reaction after 2014.

Ukraine was almost a failed state by Western standards at the time. All the kleptocracy, oligarchs, corruption...

I don't think that's correct.

I think there were two key moments before that. You had the Orange Revolution, which I was lucky enough to witness and describe in a book. That was the first attempt to become more modern, more Western, more liberal, more democratic, more European. That failed significantly, Yushchenko failed. But remember that by 2015 what started the intervention was the Euromaidan, what the Ukrainians call the revolution of dignity.

From that moment onward you see many serious attempts at reform. There was also quite a lot of serious reform under the Poroshenko regime.

And of the armed forces, by the way. It's not an accident the Ukrainian military has been doing so well, because they spent nine years trying to get better at it. Therefore, I think there is a strong case that stronger European and Western engagement with reforming forces in Ukraine could have had some success.

I also asked President Poroshenko, during his time, which was worse for Ukraine, the war or corruption? How about now, are the Ukrainians winning on both fronts?

What we can say is that the Ukrainians who are fighting and dying are not doing it in order to go back to the same bad ways they had before. They know better than anyone about corruption, oligarchs etc.

There are a hell of a lot of very talented and determined people there who want to build a better country afterwards.

Having said that, there is no question that there are dangers, dangers in the extreme centralization of power in the presidential administration. Dangers in the fact they will be seeing billions of dollars and euros coming into the country for reconstruction, how they are going to be spent. There are undoubtedly going to be dangers along the road. But the key is going to be creating a virtuous cycle between three things: reconstruction; domestic reform, including for anti-corruption; and moving closer to the European Union step-by-step.

If we get that right, we get a virtuous cycle. If we don't get it right, it could be the other way around, a downward spiral. You didn't reform enough, reconstruction went very badly, meaning you're not ready for the next step of the accession. Oh, so you don't want us in the EU, so we're not going to even bother. And it gets worse rather than better.

The European Union is key. If the EU actually develops a strategy which is very different from what we did with the West Balkans over the last 15 years, that really understand the granularity of what's going on in Ukraine. Every second word I heard the last time I was in Kyiv in February was "Europe." There is a real passion, which you would know from your own experience of going to Europe.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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