Fifth Walther Leisler Kiep Symposium

“The War in Ukraine: Implications for Europe’s Russia Policies”

On June 15 and 16, Global Bridges held its Fifth Walther Leisler Kiep Symposium in Berlin on the topic “The War in Ukraine: Implications for Europe’s Russia Policies.” Already the First Walther Leisler Kiep Symposium half a decade ago, in the organization of which Dr. Kiep actively contributed, had asked whether Germany’s Russia policies were at a crossroads: While in 2016, the hope for an improvement of relations with Russia prevailed, the panelists of the Fifth WLK Symposium agreed that with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, relations have taken irreparable damage and Europe’s Russia policies will need to be rethought. The term Zeitenwende was repeatedly utilized to refer to Germany’s Russia policies, and throughout the symposium, panelists and participants discussed the implications and potential pitfalls of such policy reformulation on the German and European level.

Already on the eve of the WLK Symposium, former Latvian Minister of Defense Imants Lieģis, now Senior Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, highlighted aspects of continuity and change in Russia’s foreign policy in his opening speech: On the one hand, the country’s aggression against Ukraine can be understood as the culmination of a process of geopolitical reassertion under Russian President Vladimir Putin since at least 2008, including targeted killings in European Union (EU) countries, disinformation campaigns and hybrid warfare. On the other hand, the February 24 full-scale invasion of Ukraine represents a watershed moment given Russia’s utter disregard for, and violation of, the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello – with war crimes having been reported in Butcha, Borodjanka, Mariupol and elsewhere. In response to the question posed in the title of the opening speech, the bridges between Russia and the West have indeed been burned, with the exception of intermittent diplomatic channels.


The war in Ukraine appears to be approaching a violent statement. Fierce Ukrainian resistance and support from NATO mean that Russia could not achieve its original war aims, yet it has large swathes of Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions under its control. In the face of a long and bloody war of attrition unfolding, the human toll is likely to worsen. The pressing question of how and under what circumstances the fighting may end was a central theme of the first panel: Russia appears to bank on exhaustion in the West, with Putin hoping that time will play in his favor.

Since his invasion in February, the dynamics on the ground seem to have changed. Having gained the advantage in terms of artillery, Russia veered to a more sustainable way of fighting. Beyond tactics, Moscow also appears to have altered its war objectives. While the original goal of the war was regime change, the Kremlin now seems intent on blocking Ukraine’s s access to the Black Sea and turning the country into a territorially fractured and economically unviable vassal state. Although the change in tactics and goals does not imply that Russia is any closer to winning the war, what follows is that external support for Ukraine must be organized so as to allow the country to defend itself in a prolonged war.

There was agreement on the panel that a sustainable political solution to the war would be desirable and that diplomatic efforts are worthwhile. However, the options of any negotiated end to the war are crucially determined by the relative positions on the battlefield, which makes military support for Ukraine all the more important. Should Russia suggest a ceasefire agreement, many participants agreed that it would not be likely to last. Trust in Putin has eroded completely, or as one panelist said “One cannot reconcile with an ongoing evil – war ends, when Putin ends.”

The War’s Implications

In its discussion of the broader implications of the Russian war against Ukraine, the first panel highlighted that the world has lost its global order, with the invasion amplifying an existing trend towards great power confrontation and a return of geopolitics. Ideas of an “age of liberal peace” or an “end of history” that seemed plausible at the unipolar moment in the 1990s and early 2000s now appear to be a gross miscalculation: Economic integration is no longer a guarantee for peace, as the war in Ukraine painfully exemplifies. Instead, hard power politics has replaced economic growth as the new global currency.

Several participants highlighted that the war should not be understood as a conflict between Russia and NATO, but rather as one between Russia and international law: Both in rhetoric and action, Russia has continuously and aggressively reasserted itself. Already in 2005, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” and at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, firmly rejected the post-Cold War order. The 2008 Russian military intervention in Georgia was a first indication that Putin was willing to pursue his strategic goals militarily.

The international reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, marking Europe’s first twenty-first century war, was to prove remarkably muted, with EU leaders calling for a ceasefire that appeared to favor Putin’s interest and the US calling for a reset in relations with the Kremlin. Putin’s rhetoric and military transgressions were warning signs that the West was either unable or unwilling to see. Fast forward, many in the West are yet to grasp that Moscow’s increasing authoritarianism and its aggressive foreign policy are two sides of the same coin. Thus, a restoration of German-Russia relations as was the case after 2008 is currently politically unfeasible, morally undesirable, and strategically wrong.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine also represents a significant escalation and worsening of the security situation more globally. In light of the Kremlin’s repeated nuclear threats, the panelists emphasized that these should be taken seriously and that any bowing down could have long durée implications for global (in)security: If nuclear threats and acts of aggression against the territorial integrity of another states succeed, countries other than Russia might be encouraged to employ tactical nuclear threats as well.

In terms of geopolitical alignment, the war has strengthened the axis between Moscow and Beijing. The Chinese leadership has sided with the Kremlin in reiterating that the current world food crisis is to blame on NATO, particularly on Western sanctions, as opposed to Russia blocking Ukrainian sea ports. Furthermore, within international organizations, China has been supporting Russia in its endeavors to the point where some might suspect a shared agenda based on mutual opposition to the United States (US) and the attempt to weaken transatlantic ties. The brewing confrontation between the US and China may severely limit the room of maneuver for formulating an independent European policy, in spite of significant economic interests at play.