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Europe Needs a Strategy for Russia After Putin

Competing ideas about the end state of the war are striving for dominance.

By , a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po.
French President Emmanuel Macron is interviewed by French television host Caroline Roux in Paris on Oct. 12, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron is interviewed by French television host Caroline Roux in Paris on Oct. 12, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron is interviewed by French television host Caroline Roux in Paris on Oct. 12, 2022. LUDOVIC MARIN/FRANCE TELEVISIONS/AFP via Getty Images

As the defense ministers of NATO and other nations met at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, today and tried to resolve their divisions over supplying Ukraine with the heavy weapons it needs to drive Russian forces out of its territory, it’s clear that there are very different visions of the end state of the war and the region’s future. Among European countries, especially, there are stark differences about long-term policy toward Russia. There are now at least three camps of thought competing for Europe’s strategic center of gravity.

The first camp seems to believe it can turn back the clock when the war is over. Last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that Russia should “return to the fold” after the Ukraine war and resume normal business relations with the West. In the same vein, French President Emmanuel Macron has routinely emphasized dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he envisions a new security architecture with Moscow that would establish “guarantees to Russia”—echoing Putin’s talking point that Russia is threatened by the West, not Ukraine by Russia.

The idea behind this approach is that Putin could be rationally persuaded to recognize his mistake in waging war against Ukraine and make amends. Macron, in particular, has repeatedly tried to reason with Putin through numerous phone calls—but without any success. Europe’s economic difficulties set off by high energy prices also drive this hope for rapprochement. Paradoxically, however, this policy may prolong the conflict, as it does not resolve the underlying issues with an aggressive, revisionist Russia. And the economic argument also appears weaker now that Europe has found effective alternative supplies of gas and oil.

As the defense ministers of NATO and other nations met at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, today and tried to resolve their divisions over supplying Ukraine with the heavy weapons it needs to drive Russian forces out of its territory, it’s clear that there are very different visions of the end state of the war and the region’s future. Among European countries, especially, there are stark differences about long-term policy toward Russia. There are now at least three camps of thought competing for Europe’s strategic center of gravity.

The first camp seems to believe it can turn back the clock when the war is over. Last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that Russia should “return to the fold” after the Ukraine war and resume normal business relations with the West. In the same vein, French President Emmanuel Macron has routinely emphasized dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he envisions a new security architecture with Moscow that would establish “guarantees to Russia”—echoing Putin’s talking point that Russia is threatened by the West, not Ukraine by Russia.

The idea behind this approach is that Putin could be rationally persuaded to recognize his mistake in waging war against Ukraine and make amends. Macron, in particular, has repeatedly tried to reason with Putin through numerous phone calls—but without any success. Europe’s economic difficulties set off by high energy prices also drive this hope for rapprochement. Paradoxically, however, this policy may prolong the conflict, as it does not resolve the underlying issues with an aggressive, revisionist Russia. And the economic argument also appears weaker now that Europe has found effective alternative supplies of gas and oil.

Any cease-fire or peace agreement with an unreconstructed Russia will be inherently unstable—only a prelude to a future conflict.

A second camp among NATO allies wants to ensure that Ukraine wins and Russian war crimes are prosecuted. The invasion’s brutality—and its fundamental challenge to an international order with respected national borders—has pushed leaders in this camp to argue for a clear Ukrainian victory in which Putin’s aggression is not rewarded and Ukraine’s sovereignty over its territory is restored. During a visit to Kyiv in late November, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki framed the issue starkly: either Ukraine wins or Europe loses. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and various European leaders echo this view. The goal of a clear Ukrainian victory usually goes hand in hand with the desire to prosecute Russian war criminals. This week, the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to create an international criminal tribunal to do exactly that.

The underlying logic here is that to restore and preserve European peace, there is no alternative to defeating Russia and prosecuting Putin and his accomplices.

A third, barely voiced but emerging view is that Europe will only be fully safe if Russia itself is transformed. The brutality of Russia’s war, the grandiosity of the Kremlin’s claims over neighboring countries’ territory, and the openly genocidal intent voiced by Russian leaders and propagandists have evoked historical analogies to the Nazi regime—leading some analysts to call for a fundamentally different Russia. Whether through decentralization, democratization, or dissolution, this line of reasoning goes, Russia must change in order to prevent more wars against its neighbors. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, for example, suggested that Russia must either democratize or reduce its power in order to prevent another war in five or 10 years.

The intuition for this approach is that any cease-fire or peace agreement with an unreconstructed Russia will be inherently unstable—only a prelude to a future conflict. While fundamental change can only be driven and established internally by Russians, it can also be encouraged and supported from outside—or, at the very least, be passively supported by not standing in the way.

As the views of Scholz and Macron become increasingly isolated in Europe, the continent’s policymakers appear to be gravitating toward acknowledging the need to defeat and perhaps even transform Russia. On the one hand, it is gradually becoming apparent that Europe’s core interests in peace, prosperity, and democracy cannot be served with Putin remaining in power. Turning back the clock, therefore, no longer seems to be an option—if it ever was a realistic one in the first place. Yet even if Europe has any direct influence over Putin’s departure, recent history of regime change counsels against applying it.

The view that Russia must be defeated has become more popular with shifts in the tide of battle. The massive supply of weapons into Ukraine—predominantly by the United States, but also by Britain, Germany, Poland, and other countries—has enabled Ukraine to regain significant parts of its territory. As horrific Russian war crimes come to light in liberated towns and villages, countries such as Poland and Canada have established special prosecutor teams to investigate and collect evidence in preparation for eventual prosecution under domestic or international legal mechanisms.

As European leaders become more strategic about their goals for an end state after the war, they must address at least three questions.

First, what kind of long-term security commitment to Ukraine should Europe signal now? For instance, the EU could allocate substantial funds—say, 100 billion euros over 10 years—to the European Peace Facility to fund weapons supplies to Ukraine. This would help rebalance the burden with the United States, which contributed more than 75 percent of military aid to Ukraine in 2022. Similarly, the EU could expand and perpetuate its Military Assistance Mission, launched in October 2022 to train 15,000 Ukrainian troops and improve the country’s overall military capabilities.

Second, without calling for regime change, are there rhetorical ways to rattle the Kremlin? EU countries could assess potential candidates that might emerge to replace Putin. Beyond the question of war reparations, European decision-makers should delineate security guarantees that Russia must provide to preclude recurring conflict with its neighbors—the exact opposite of Macron’s fallacy that Russia must be protected from its neighbors. Although Russia has a long history of war with Europe and the West, it also had two recent decades of benign relations, 1991-2011, that can serve as a useful guidepost. It might seem like a long shot now, but it is not impossible.

Third, what should be the EU’s policy toward Belarus and the wider region? The EU could explore ways to buttress other countries against Russian interference and put pressure on Russia’s partners and sympathizers in the region. For instance, a clear Russian defeat could be an opportunity to end the so-called frozen conflict in Moldova, dissolve the Russian puppet statelet of Transnistria, and help Belarus democratize. It would also help weaken other authoritarian regimes that have relied on the Kremlin’s support, such as Syria and Iran.

Strategy is a process of reflective and intentional decision-making. There is no guarantee for success, but having a conceptual framework piecing together various strands of policy at least improves the chances of attaining what one wants. Many European leaders do not seem to be developing strategies on even the most existential issues, such as Europe’s goals toward Russia. With Russia’s defeat and possible postwar turbulence coming increasingly into view, that urgently needs to change. Having launched a senseless, brutal, and unsuccessful war of aggression, Putin is unlikely to survive it in power. European leaders should prepare for this eventuality and start looking for a successor they can do business with. And primarily, they need to step up their efforts to help Ukraine win.

Bart M. J. Szewczyk is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po, a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a former advisor on refugee policy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the author of Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order. Twitter: @bartszewczyk

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