"Decisive steps will have to be taken in Russia"


Each and every day there is shocking news from the war zone. What does this mean for Ukraine, for Germany and for the world as a whole? Professor Ralph Rotte from the Institute of Political Science at RWTH explains what is happening in Ukraine.


Professor Rotte, what sanctions have the EU and NATO introduced and what are they designed to achieve?

Rotte: In addition to closing airspace to Russian aircraft, the EU and NATO are focusing on isolating Russia from the world market through trade and financial restrictions, as well as by freezing personal assets and restricting the movement of members of the Russian elite. The blocking of the Russian Central Bank's foreign reserves and the partial exclusion of Russian banks from SWIFT probably have the greatest impact, as they block a large portion of Russia's imports and exports and also place a heavy burden on the Russian state budget.

What do you think of these sanctions?

Since Putin certainly planned this carefully, he will have expected sanctions such as limiting access to European financial markets. A short-term change in behavior, especially a cessation of the war, is therefore not to be expected. It is also my opinion that the personal sanctions will not have any effect on his behavior. That is probably more symbolic politics in the short term. But if Putin does not succeed in winning the war quickly as planned and creating a fait accompli, this could well undermine his domestic political position in the medium term. This will especially be the case if there are losses of wealth for the oligarchs and their families as well as massive price increases and supply bottlenecks for the population. This could be due to the falling ruble exchange rate, which makes imports massively more expensive, or a lack of technology imports, which are necessary for production. The fact that there are financial problems is already evident from the central bank's sharp increase in interest rates and the introduction of capital export controls.

Will these sanctions be effective?

Of course, the effect of the sanctions also depends on the extent to which China can - and wants to - step in as a supplier or buyer of goods, at least in part. Either way, however, I do not see the sanctions leading to an end to the fighting in the near future. Vladimir Putin will probably continue until he has largely pushed through his demands or is prevented from doing so by domestic political resistance. The sanctions can certainly be helpful here, but the decisive steps will probably have to take place in Russia itself.

What could be Putin's next steps and what counter-reactions should we expect?

With the invasion of Ukraine, a military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian troops could no longer be avoided after the Russian units were apparently not welcomed as "liberators." The first days showed that Russian military planners apparently miscalculated and that Russian forces were operationally and logistically suboptimally prepared. For example, they underestimated the difficulties of advancing through Ukrainian resistance and refrained from making extensive use of their air force from the outset, probably because they wanted to avoid their own losses. Having failed to carry out a lightning advance like that of the U.S. in Iraq in 2003, the Russian side must now increasingly resort to cruder instruments such as massive artillery bombardment, the deployment of concentrated armored formations and possibly controversial weapon systems such as cluster or vacuum bombs. Backing down is out of the question for Putin now that he has gone so far out on a limb with such unfulfillable demands. This will significantly increase casualties, especially on the Ukrainian side and among civilians. Now that he has maneuvered himself into a corner and was probably also surprised by the extent of the West's reaction, he will also become even more militant in his rhetoric, including with regard to his nuclear threats.

Will he carry out these threats?

I do not believe that NATO will become militarily involved. A direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia would mean far too great a risk of escalation; Vladimir Putin knows this just as well as Western decision-makers do. That's why I also think the discussions about a no-fly zone, as desirable as it may be for humanitarian reasons, are misguided. It is unthinkable that NATO aircraft would shoot down Russian warplanes over Ukraine. There remains, of course, the residual risk of accidental confrontations, such as when ships or aircraft come too close to each other in the Baltic areas, the Baltic Sea, or the Black Sea. If we assume that Putin has a modicum of rational sense, for which he has so far been known as a capable tactician, it is hardly conceivable that he would lash out in the direction of the Baltic States or Poland.

What do you think about the developments in Ukraine - as far as you can judge them from the outside?

As far as we can judge from the outside, the Russian side will now ramp up its military efforts, and I can well imagine that this could eventually lead to a collapse of the Ukrainians' fighting morale, which has been admirable up to this point. At the latest, when casualties rise significantly, the supply situation becomes difficult, and the superior firepower of an increasingly ruthless Russian army becomes apparent, it will probably be difficult to escape the feeling that resistance is hopeless. The de facto political frustrations with the West, which despite all the aid and sanctions is not providing direct military assistance or immediately accepting Ukraine into the EU with its obligation to provide assistance, may also play a part. But at least so far, the Ukrainian leadership and large parts of the population seem to be determined not to give up. On the other hand, there is growing skepticism about the war in Russia itself, and the morale of the Russian soldiers seems to be anything but good. This suggests that the fighting could drag on for some time.

Why has Putin picked this moment to start a war?

For us Europeans, this conflict comes out of the blue; the justification for it seems exaggerated. For Russian society, however, at least for the political elite and especially for Putin himself, the expansion of NATO has been a real threat for decades; Ukraine's flirtation with the West is also perceived as a serious threat, especially by the Russian elite. The timing is ideally chosen by Putin for other reasons as well. In his eyes, the EU was at odds with itself - as a result of Brexit and the dispute with Poland and Hungary - the U.S. has a supposedly weak president, Germany has a new government, France has a presidential campaign, the U.K. has a rather scatterbrained prime minister, and to top it all off, everyone is collectively preoccupied with the Corona crisis. In addition, Russia still has a technical lead over the West in some military areas, such as hypersonic weapons - not to mention the fact that Putin could certainly use a boost in popularity from a victorious war since he is no spring chicken any more. So it was obviously obvious for him to now realize his vision of restoring a Russian sphere of influence along the lines of the USSR, which he probably considers his mission.

What kinds of impact must we in the West be prepared for?

Mostly economic cost, including of course rising energy prices - but since we are a fair way through the winter and it not particularly harsh, this will probably not be so dramatic. If the sanctions are maintained for a longer period of time, however, this may well lead to global economic distortions and an impediment to the economic recovery after the Corona pandemic. Politically, some things could change: We must realize, especially in Germany, that peace is fragile, that military threats and violence unfortunately still have a place in Europe. The German government's somewhat abrupt and violent change of course in security and defense policy shows that this is indeed happening. And this, of course, also leads to higher financial burdens.

What conclusions must we draw from this?

Security policy issues have long been largely ignored in European and German politics and society, for example in energy policy decisions such as the phase-out of nuclear power in view of the dependence on Russia for raw materials. We have to get used to the fact that things are not necessarily harmonious in the world, economic interdependence does not necessarily lead to peace, and various parties still think in terms of zones of influence and territorial claims. The crisis also demonstrates our glaring security dependence on the U.S. and NATO and it could be the event that causes us to build stronger European defense capabilities. Current events also demonstrate that world politics has become more complex and definitely more dangerous in recent years.

How so?

The saber-rattling of economically weak but militarily strong states such as Russia has gained renewed importance, not least because they have nuclear weapons, and the essential principle of international law that borders may not be changed unilaterally on the basis of any historical or ethnic claims appears to be under serious threat. It must be critically noted that the "changing times" now so often referred to probably means less a fundamental change in the basic structures of current international politics than the recognition of these basic structures by European and German politics and public opinion. But it remains to be said that the multipolarity of competing great powers, above all the United States, Russia and China, leads to a complicated mixture of confrontation - as in the case of Ukraine and Taiwan - and cooperation, for example in the economy or on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. The West, especially the Europeans, have had little real response to this.

Do we have this response now?

It is to be hoped that the new relevance of security policy thinking, which, incidentally, has long been called for by experts in politics and academia, and the demonstrated ability of Europeans and the West to act together will now have lasting effects and not fizzle out as soon as things get really expensive or when it is a question of positioning ourselves clearly vis-à-vis states such as China.