The war in Ukraine is showing us that safety and peace are not a given, says Professor Peter Neumann. The security expert spoke to us about the failures of the West, the planned strengthening of the Bundeswehr and the role of Europe.

On 24 February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine and started a war. How is this war changing the world?

For Germany, this is a radical change. Until this war started, we felt like we were surrounded only by friends. We felt that a war in Europe was unthinkable and we therefore did not need to concern ourselves with such questions. Virtually over night, we realised that a war in the 21st century is indeed possible in Europe. We are seeing that we cannot simply take security for granted. Security is something we need to work on constantly, at the political, military and also financial levels.

Where did the West fail? What did we overlook on the trajectory that led to this war?

Europe and Germany made a mistake in the course of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. We assumed that Germany could function as a bridge to Russia. We thought it was a bad idea to isolate Vladimir Putin too much, as that might cause him to go even further. The prevailing opinion was that we as Germans, and especially former Chancellor Angela Merkel, were responsible for maintaining this dialogue.

Was that wrong?

Partially. We should have realised back then that Putin was quite obviously prepared to violate international law and that he will never recognise Ukraine as a sovereign country. We should have seen back then that he was not seriously interested in finding a way to get along with Europe, NATO and the West. We held on to the illusion that we can influence Putin for too long.

How does the fact that Angela Merkel is no longer in office affect the situation?

Angela Merkel was the only person in the West who could be expected to speak quite plainly with Putin. It’s rather inconvenient that the only person who was on equal footing with him and told him the truth is no longer involved. In the current situation, Putin is talking mainly to people who support the Russian position.

After the war broke out, the German Government made a clear statement regarding defence and security: EUR 100 billion in special assets for the Bundeswehr and a commitment to NATO’s two per cent goal. What does this strengthening of the Bundeswehr mean for Germany’s role in NATO?

It’s a good and important move to invest in the Bundeswehr now. However, we must also answer the question as to whether we are prepared politically to use this capacity. For historical reasons, Germany will always be more reluctant in this respect than the Brits or the French. By making these investments, we are changing our ability to act, but that doesn’t automatically mean we are changing our willingness to act.

Are the expectations towards Germany changing as well?

The investments are a clear signal to the international community that Germany will no longer duck away and is ready to participate in joint operations. This signal has been received. However, this does not mean that Germany will be more important compared with other NATO countries. Instead, it shows that Germany is prepared to pull its weight.

Virtually over night, we realised that a war in the 21st century is indeed possible in Europe.

Are we experiencing a relapse into the Cold War?

The Cold War was between two equally powerful blocks. Countries all over the world had to decide whose side they were on. Things are different today. This conflict is rooted in the ideology and imperial ambitions of Vladimir Putin that he is trying to impose on other nations. It’s easier to set boundaries here as compared to the Cold War. While the conflict in Ukraine will last longer that we can currently imagine, it won’t go on for decades.

What does the West have to do now?

We should provide long-term support to Ukraine in such a way that Russia realises that it cannot win the conflict. At the same time, we must prevent the conflict from turning into a conflict between Russia and the West or even an atomic conflict. This is why the West should not intervene directly. That would cause an escalation.

What role does Europe play?

Unfortunately, the European Union is not a particularly important player when it comes to foreign policy. There are ongoing talks between France, Germany, Poland and the USA on the topic of Ukraine, i.e. the countries that play a crucial part in this conflict. However, these countries are not equivalent to the European Union. The EU, in turn, is important when it comes to the matters of trade and sanctions, i.e. when we are talking about economic measures. The EU decides which countries are included on the sanction lists.

It’s a good and important move to invest in the Bundeswehr now.

Both German and international countries have withdrawn from Russia. What does this mean for Russia and the companies?

There are some systemically relevant companies like Visa and Mastercard. Their withdrawal has significant consequences for the Russian national economy. We are now seeing an economic decoupling from Russia. This will increase in the future. It will not be possible for European or German companies to return to Russia quickly and to the extent in which they operated there previously.

Do we as a society need a new definition of progress under these circumstances?

German society has recently been spoiled with peace. We should recognise that security and a stable foreign policy cannot be taken for granted. That we need to work and sometimes fight for them. If this insight establishes itself, that would be progress. If it results in a willingness to get involved in foreign and security policy matters as well as militarily in the world, that would be progress. Because we understand that what is happening in Ukraine, Russia or Syria affects our wealth and well-being.

The interview was conducted by Verena Gathmann and Cornelius Winter.

Peter Neumann is a professor of Security Studies at King’s College London. He is the founder of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), which made a name for itself in the context of research into terrorism under his leadership. In 2021, Peter Neumann was a member of the “team for the future” of CDU chancellorship candidate Armin Laschet. He is also on the advisory board of Monarch, which addresses questions of securing democracy. His new book, “Die neue Welt(un)ordnung: Wie sich der Westen selbst zerstört” (The new world (dis)order: How the West is destroying itself) is scheduled to be published by Rowohlt Berlin in September.