Interview with General ret. Naumann on the Ukraine crisis and the appeal “Get out of the escalation spiral!”: “In such a situation, a careless spark can mean an uncontrollable danger”
Global Review had the pleasure of interviewing General ret. Klaus Naumann about the appeal of former German ambassadors and generals „Get out of the escalation spiral. For a new beginning in the relationship with Russia“, which he also signed and which calls for a 2 year freeze in the escalation of the conflict between NATO and Russia that are to be used for negotiations.
Klaus Dieter Naumann (born May 25, 1939 in Munich) was Inspector General of the Bundeswehr from 1991 to 1996 and chaired the NATO Military Committee from 1996 until his retirement in 1999. Above all, General ret.. Naumann and other NATO generals wrote a very memorable and pioneering visionary text “Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World-Renewing Transatlantic Partnership”, which however did not become reality. Probably even less under Trump, but under Biden a number of elements could gain importance again, including the „Alliance of Democracies“ propagated by John Mc Cain at the time as the core of a new NATO.
Global Review: General Naumann. You have signed the appeal by former German ambassadors and the military and some peace research institutes “Get out of the escalation spiral. For a new beginning of the relationship with Russia ”. Do you share the analysis and the overall conclusions in the bottom line ? Would you possibly put forward suggestions for improvement or was this a warning that NATO’s current policy towards Russia cannot tolerate “business as usual”?
General ret-Naumann: With such an appeal, you still would have additions and changes, but instead of an endless spiral it is better to sign something that you can still accept. It is also not a question of condemning previous policies, but of a warning request to act before a very tense situation can get out of control. It was important for me to lay down the basics again: the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. That is non-negotiable. If Russia does not recognize this, then our appeal is pointless. So it is not about a new Ostpolitik and certainly not about zones of influence or even one-sided veto rights. It is about reaffirming the agreed principles. Building on this, in mutual respect, improvements for common security in the common security zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok can be sought and agreed upon in a controllable manner.
Returning to the basics also makes it clear that the only peacebreaker is Russia. At no point in time after the end of the Cold War has Russia been threatened by NATO or the so-called West, nor is it today. Nonetheless, Russia violated treaties and international law in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, violated the borders recognized by Russia.
Global Review: To what extent is your appeal a consequence of possible false value-based regime change policies that were successful in 1989 but failed at the latest since Bush Jr. In the Greater Middle East and the Arab Spring, something similar is to be feared in terms of NATO’s Russia policy? Does your appeal also contain self-criticism on the Western side, although it also names the failings of the Eastern side?
General ret. Naumann: I don’t think the West has or has pursued a regime change policy towards Russia. Unfortunately, after a hopeful start in the 1990s, Russia turned away from democracy and increasingly turned into an autocracy, and that it is a country in which the admirable ability of Russians to suffer is exploited by a corrupt regime, should be largely undisputed. Putin’s approach to protect himself from the idea of the rule of law and democracy by means of a buffer zone he controls in front of Russia and thus to keep away from Russia is unlikely to be promising in the long term. Our Western system of free democracies based on the rule of law is simply attractive. If we in the West succeed in eliminating the deficiencies in our democratic order that have just become apparent during the pandemic and continue to maintain peace, freedom and prosperity for our people, then our system is so irresistible that it becomes a danger for autocracies through its very existence . Admittedly, we still have a lot to improve here. In addition, we should have learned: Regime change must always take place from within and should not be initiated by actions from outside.
Global Review: Your former and present comrades are a little bit surprised that you are so openly and loudly supported the appeal. On the one hand, they fear that such a appeal, as it was used for propaganda purposes by the Soviet Union in the peace movement of the 1980s, could now be of use to Putin’s propaganda. The Generals for Peace group at the time with General Gert Bastian is likely to have significant differences to you. Rahr hyped the similar positions of realpolitik between the two sides. Another point of criticism is that “quiet diplomacy” is more effective and that the supporters are not “on an equal footing”. But were the German generals in the past not too quiet about the Iraq war, the Libya war, the Afghan war, or now the Ukraine war, and have tacitly accepted everything that came from the USA? What do they say to their former and current comrades?
General ret. Naumann: I did not support the appeal loud at all. In contrast to so many who cannot walk past a television camera, I never pushed myself into the media. Of course, such a appeal will be used again and again by those who believe they can capitalize on it in their own way. The only way to avoid this risk is to keep silent. The situation seems too dangerous to me at the moment, because on the one hand there is a Russian government that obviously does not shy away from breaking the law and is led by a president who is willing to use military force with a high willingness to take risks and who can decide alone. On the other hand, there is a Ukraine that is by no means stable internally and a West that unfortunately still relies on unanimous decisions, which lacks the unity that is so crucial in a crisis. In such a situation, a careless spark can mean an uncontrollable danger. That is why I joined the appeal for significant changes to be made.
I considered General Bastian’s approach in the eighties to be wrong then and still to this day a wrong path. Incidentally, history has proven those who, like me, who supported the NATO Pershing deployment at the time, were right. Silent diplomacy would be possible if one had direct contact with those in power today or at least with the largest opposition party. I don’t have it. If you don’t have such access, then silent diplomacy is a pretty hollow phrase that means that yo do nothing. We were all aware that we, the signatories of the appeal, are not on an equal footing, but the alternative would have been silence. I doubt whether this corresponds to the responsibility of free citizens to avert recognizable dangers
I reject the simple accusation that German generals or admirals supported everything that came from the USA as completely unfounded. I claim that, from my time as the head of the military policy department until my retirement, I have repeatedly made clear objections to the undoubtedly powerful USA and thus achieved change. In addition, the military can only advise politics, but that is a matter for the active, not for the former. I also claim that in my active time I have repeatedly drawn attention to risks, dangers and undesirable developments, also publicly, but taking into account the primacy of politics. I was often alone and would have often wished that those who were always the loudest internally, but gave in at lightning speed in front of the “royal thrones”, would have spoken once. I stayed true to this line even after my retirement. I did not comment publicly on issues relating to the development of the Bundeswehr, perhaps that was a mistake, but occasionally, but always on request, on developments in the Alliance. I did this because I believe I recognized what we did wrong in the 1990s and because I was appointed to the international commission which, as a consequence of the developments in the 1990s, invented the concept of responsibility to protect. This was warmly welcomed by Germany, but was immediately forgotten when, in the case of Libya, it was the first basis for a United Nations resolution.
Global Review: At the moment there are two main narratives about the Ukraine crisis: On the one hand by Russia, Russia Today and Putin and Gazprom advisor Dr. Rahr, who claim that the concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border should deter the Ukrainians from launching a winter offensive against the Donbass and NATO from moving its infrastructure further East and that the Ukrainians due to Turkish dorne deliveries hink of a easy victory in the Donbass like the Azerbaijanis in their drone war against Armenia. Therefore Selensky and his militrary staff cozld overestimate themselves as Ukraine is also bankrupt and tries to have a sort of desperate outlet in form of a offensive against the Donbass and drag the West into it, especially since the USA has now also promised stinger missiles and is encouraging the Ukrainians to initiate a disastrous action like Saakashvili back then in Georgia as the latter has just returned to Georgia from Ukraine to open another anti-Russian front. The other reading and the Western one is that Putin wants to exploit the weakness of Ukraine and the corona-related paralysis of Europe to test NATO coherence and to create facts in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the Jamestown Foundation in an analysis of the Ukrainian army and the US military reform program sees Ukraine in a completely disastrous state and classifies the Ukrainian military as a cucumber troop. The USA, NATO, EU and Germany now fear an invasion of Russia and have made it clear that in this case, economic and political sanctions, even if no military support in the sense of a NATO defense obligation for Ukraine, would be the answer. What do you think about these narratives?
General ret. Naumann: I only rely on newspaper information and have no access to intelligence. I can only assess the state of the Ukrainian armed forces based on media reports. The current troop concentrations certainly give Russia a number of tactical-operational options, but hardly a chance to take action against an internally stable Ukraine as a whole with the prospect of quick success with manageable losses. Even the often mentioned 175,000 soldiers at the end of January 2022 are unlikely to be enough for a war against Ukraine because the Ukrainian army is certainly much more powerful than it was at the beginning of the Russian aggression in Donbass in 2014. The claim that NATO wants to advance further infrastructure is fabricated. Such plans do not exist and, moreover, Putin knows very well that unanimity in alliance cannot be achieved for such steps.
It seems certain to me that Putin would use every opportunity to weaken the cohesion of NATO and the European Union at a risk that is acceptable to him. Whether he is aware that although Russia has achieved militarily impressive achievements in recent years, it is nevertheless in a position of strategic weakness because it has increasing demographic problems and has nothing to offer economically other than the export of raw materials and weapons I do not judge.
Global Review: Representatives of a New Ostpolitik, such as the initiator of the appeal, Prof. Varwick, see Russian politics as a reaction to wrong Western behavior and victory mentality and hubris of the Cold War that was won – the Yugoslav war that was supposedly illegal under international law, the missile defense shield, planned EU and NATO expansion to the east : Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, contempt for Russia as a declining “regional power”. As a solution, the Finlandization of Ukraine as a neutral state is proposed and Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as buffer states, as well as a renunciation of NATO eastward expansion and contractual security guarantees that Putin is calling for. Opponents of such a New Ostpolitik claim that Putin has aggressive intentions, no longer believes in a classic nation-state, but dreams of a Greater Russian Empire that is to be expanded to include parts of the Ukraine and Belarus as well as the Russian-speaking parts of the Baltic region, as Putin recently did in a speech on Ukraine that Defense Minister Shoigu has now made mandatory reading for the Russian military. Furthermore, Putin wants to weaken, if not even break apart, the EU and NATO with the support of right-wing extremist parties and disinformation campaigns that divide Western societies, which is why he cannot be saturaed with Finlandization as an ultimate goal, even with a new Ostpolitik. Which analysis do you prefer and what would the consequences be?
General.ret. Naumann: I am not one of those people who fundamentally accuse the West of misconduct after the end of the Cold War. Years ago I wrote about this in an article under the headline: “The West did not do everything wrong” in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. From my own experience and from my participation in the first NATO Russia agreement in 1997/98, I can say that with the honest intention of finding lasting cooperation with Russia based on mutual respect, we have combined a lot of hope for a new European start. Javier Solana, my boss at the time, ensured Russian involvement in shaping European security. When Russia then refused to participate in the protection of human rights in the Kosovo crisis, we experienced a setback. Certainly there have been one or the other mistake on the part of the West since 2000, but it must not be forgotten that it was Russia that broke all agreements and that from 2008 onwards used violence to change borders in Europe . Actions like those of Russia, i.e. the deployment of Iksander missiles in Kaliningrad Oblast, which now really pose a threat to the NATO states, although NATO did not do anything comparable in the new alliance countries. The example shows who is escalating and who is threatening, certainly not NATO. I only mention the Russian exercises with large troops without announcement and approval of observers or the increased activity of nuclear-capable armed forces in the direction of NATO, they found no equivalent on the part of NATO.
When President Putin calls for a renunciation of any NATO eastward expansion and for guarantees under international law, he is questioning everything that was contractually agreed in Europe after the end of the Cold War. Russia would thereby renounce Helsinki and the Charter of Paris, just as it tore up the Budapest Agreement with the illegal annexation of Crimea. In my opinion, such demands are simply non-negotiable and this has to be said to Russia very clearly. Russia has and must not have a veto right, it must not have a say in which state is allowed to belong to which alliance. Even the deployment of weapons in the alliance area remains the sole decision of the respective alliance. Limitations and transparency can be contractually agreed on the basis of reciprocity and verifiability.
I don’t know anyone in the West who intends to threaten Russia or even start a war against Russia. Should Russia, for its part, insist on zones of influence or buffer zones that are dominated by it, then Russia will take the step towards renewed confrontation. That would then be the responsibility of Russia and, given the geo-strategic, economic, demographic and social conditions, it is unlikely to work out in Russia’s favor. Putin would be well advised to study again how the collapsed Soviet Union failed. I have the impression that he is repeating the mistakes of the 70s and 80s. In doing so, he gives the West the certainty that Russia will fail again as long as the West remains closed and determined. The Russian people, who had to endure so much, not least because of their rulers, did not deserve it.
Global Review: In the globalization euphoria of the 90s and Fukuyama’s eschatological missionary salvation writing “The End of History”, both Russian and German sides thought about Russia’s membership in NATO, a security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok, and a Eurasian economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Under the SPD / Green government then via a Eurasian economic community, the admission of Russia to the G7, which also happened as the G8, and also via the admission of China, which was supposed to create a G9, for a UN reform that would bring Germany, South Africa, India and Brazil to the permanent UN Security Council. Putin’s speech in German in the German Bundestag. But it is likely that a nuclear power of equal military strength, Russia, especially with a Eurasian alliance in NATO and in the G9 and the UN, were not in the interests of the USA. If Russia had joined the EU, everything would have shifted in terms of power politics. On the other hand, Scholl Latour said that with the admission of Eastern Europe, as with GB, the USA wanted to install a Trojan, pro-American horse in the EU, as Rumsfeld then put it with the Old and New Europe. Especially since Friedmann from the US think tank Stratfor and Putin advisor Rahr also believe that the US wanted to use the Eastern Europeans to create a strategic belt between Russia and Western Europe, Germany and France in order to prevent any Eurasian fraternization. So on this basis there was a Western Russian Cooperation or even integration seemingly completely unrealistic. Which forms of western-Russian cooperation then remain?
General ret. Naumann: I have already expressed the thinking that dominated the 1990s by answering an earlier question. In no phase of my active service time have I ever heard of ideas as your question expresses them. I still believe that the construct of the Paris Charter is still the best solution in relation to Russia, the best solution for both sides.
Global Review: Ultimately, the question also remains whether a New Ostpolitik, in which Ukraine, as a neutral state that does not belong to either Russia, the EU or NATO, might be a bridge between the EU and the Eurasian Union, or whether both sides will continue to pursue their expansionist efforts And the situation is already too far advanced for any compromise, yes Russia might want to incorporate Eastern Ukraine for its Eurasian Union, especially since Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov believes that conflicts like Ukraine, Syria or Libya can only be resolved if they are The USA and the West agreed and accepted a new international security and multipolar world order. That is to say: No new Ostpolitik and resolution of regional conflicts, no regional solutions, but only an international solution through a new world order in which Russia is accepted as a great power within a multipolar world and within the framework of which the regional conflicts are then resolved. Are regional approaches at all beneficial or as possible confidence-building measures for an international solution and a new world order?
General ret. Naumann: The questions you raise should be the subject of the two-year conference that our appeal suggests as possible. It would be presumptuous and simply speculation to anticipate the possible results of such a conference long before such a conference, but it must be clear before the start of the conference: The right of every state, including Ukraine, to freely decide whether and which alliance to join remains unchanged.
Global Review: Even if the situation in Ukraine and Belarus can be de-escalated, the next crisis is brewing in the Balkans. Russia’s attempted coup in Montenegro, the border conflicts between Serbia and Kosovo, Russian support for the establishment of a Serbian army in the Repubik Srskpa in Bosnia-Herzegovina are just a few warning signs. What do you see as a possible solution? Isn’t there a need for a more comprehensive approach?
General ret. Naumann: I fully share your concerns. I think, despite all its weaknesses, the Dayton construct is still a foundation. Much has been achieved in this elaborate Bosnia-Herzegovina solution. The division movements of the Republica Srspka are not an approach that will bring about stability in the south-east of the EU area. It is certainly questionable who encouraged the Serb leader Dodik to question the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Without the support from Putin on his recent visit to Russia, he is unlikely to have started this daring game. However, it would be better to ask the EU Foreign Commissioner and High Representative Christian Schmidt about solutions. However, it must also be clear that the European Union’s inactive waiting is not a solution, but rather a threat to stability in south-east Europe.
Global Review: To what extent do you see Biden as a trend changee that can bring about a Keynesian and multilateral change to the old neoliberalism of the Reagonomics through the Summit of Democracies, new American infrastructure programs domestically and globally and together with the Global Gateway of the EU, the global minimum tax? Can the West grow together again or will the re-election of Trump or another right-wing Republican not put it back to the existential question? Global Review: If there is a de-escalation between NATO and Russia, do you have similar ideas for a possible de-escalation between China and the US? Or will China and Russia not act together against the eroding West in order to define their own position within a then multipolar world? And how do you assess Russian-Chinese cooperation, including military cooperation? Is there even an option to bind Russia to Europe and to keep it at a distance from China? And in the event of a Sino-American conflict or war over Taiwan, for example, could Russia not feel encouraged to undertake adventures against Europe as well, since the USA can hardly wage two wars at the same time?
General ret. Naumann: These two questions go far beyond Russia. These are questions that politicians have to answer because they are responsible for the future of their countries, not sideline observers like me. We are without a doubt at the beginning of an extremely difficult phase in the further development of our world. The conflicts in Europe cannot be separated from those in Asia, which is why Europe must also adopt a global view in its “Strategic Compass” and see itself as a global actor. One thing seems certain to me: Europe will only be able to cope with the challenges of the future if, together with the United States of America and Canada, it finds solutions in the dispute about a future world order.
In this context, I am pleased that President Biden, with his statement „America is back“, has committed himself to the USA’s global responsibility and to its leadership role in the West. But no one should indulge in illusions: The division in American society, which Trump has reinforced, continues unchanged and this is certainly the primary construction site for President Biden. Whether he will succeed in reuniting the West and developing a strategic concept together with Europe on how the West’s idea can meet the systematic challenge posed by China and possibly also by Russia in the dinghy is still open. In my opinion, the internal development in the USA as well as in Europe will be decisive. Only if the USA takes on global responsibility and only if Europe speaks and acts as one, will the West be able to assert itself. This also depends not least on Germany, which has yet to reposition itself after its change of government.
Global Review: Which foreign policy will the SPD, which is more geared towards the New Ostpolitik, go under Scholz, under more confrontational Russia and China policies ala Greens and FDP? The times when the SPD had the majority, as with Schröder, and Joschka Fischer only 5% are over. So it will not be the old cook / waiter relationship that Schröder, who controlled the German Russia and China politics, claimed for himself, especially since Schröder was an outspoken Eurasianist while Fischer was a transatlantic. What do you expect for a new traffic light foreign policy, also in relation to your appeal?
General ret. Naumann: The new federal government is facing a huge challenge because internally, with the pandemic and at the same time with the changes that have been neglected for years, it has to cope with the adaptation to the challenges that are only briefly outlined with the keywords digitialization and climate change, and at the same time in a situation full of turmoil in foreign policy, characterized by the keywords Russia, Iran / Middle East and Chin. The coalition agreement gives me hope, even if the government statement by the new Chancellor could have been clearer.
I hope that under new leadership Germany will find its way back to a formative role and that it will be ready to take on responsibility, even if that means risk, because this is the only way to protect Germany’s freedom. I also hope that the government that takes office in severe crises will tell the Germans more clearly than before how dangerous the world we live in is, although the majority of them suppress these dangers and yet some believe that one can continue to duck comfortably away.
I also hope that the incorrect ballast of the past is thrown off, as is the sentence that was first said here in every crisis in Germany: There are no military solutions. It is fundamentally wrong and for every autocrat who is prepared to use violence, the encouragement to use it. During the Kosovo crisis, I saw that it was this German stance that gave Milosevic the security of continuing to act at his own discretion, because it meant that NATO would not be united and that his risk would be low. I hope you now understand that you have to leave all political means on the table in a crisis, because that is still the surest way to find a peaceful solution
Global Review: What do you think about the Biden-Putin meeting? What is to be expected afterwards and how should it proceed?
General ret. Naumann: It is good that the two spoke to each other, even if it is less good that Europe only played a subordinate role in this dialogue. It is not yet possible to judge how things will go from here, because at the moment one can only speculate about the results of the technical discussions. That’s why I cannot give a judgment on this.