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‘We tried to civilise Russia. We did not succeed.’ 

Joachim Bitterlich. Photo: Getty Images.

Russia’s war against Ukraine makes clear that the EU lacks "strategic autonomy". In a world where new powers, forces and risks are emerging, it is time to reset the EU’s common foreign and defence policy, says Joachim Bitterlich. For many years, he was Chancellor Helmut Kohl's chief advisor and he now lectures as a professor in Paris. He explains to InvestmentOfficer what a lack of realpolitik brings about. 

In short: 

  •  The EU underestimated how threatened Moscow felt by being “surrounded”.
  • The West has been unable to give Russia a place in a European security system.
  • Realpolitik has been lost; high time for a "strategic autonomy" of the European Union.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I was furious, because nobody wanted to see what was happening there. I know Ukraine relatively well and went there often. First at the time of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and later with the French employers' federation. Ukraine's problem is that it became independent all at once, at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, Russia did not accept its independence from the outset and there was no national feeling whatsoever. The oligarchs were in charge and there was no government, it had left for Moscow.” 

‘It is about prosperity, freedom and modernity’

Uitslaande brand in flatgebouw, Charkov, 2022
Buildings ablaze in Charkov, 2022.

“And then came the internal revolution. What was striking was that Poland had become the example for the Ukrainian people. That was because as many as one million Ukrainians worked in Poland and on their return said: why can't we be like them? This was not so much about politics, but about prosperity, freedom and modernity. The Russians could not and would not understand this, and anti-Russian sentiment gradually emerged in Ukraine. At the time of Kohl's presidency, it was still a foregone conclusion that Ukraine could not join NATO. We saw the country as a bridge between East and West.” 

Ukrainians had no sense of nationality

“When the Americans reached out to Ukraine in 2008, I immediately saw it as a big mistake, as crossing a red line. Then resistance arose in Ukraine against the oligarchs, against the system and against Russia. But the problem remained that the Ukrainians had no sense of nationality. You cannot create that in two to five years. It takes two generations. This is partly because Ukraine consists of five very different parts and mentalities, whereby the Crimea, since the conquest by Prince Potemkin and his gift to Catherine the Great in 1783, has always been Russian.”

Joachim Bitterlich, one of the most influential top officials in Europe when Germany was led by Chancellor Kohl, is speaking. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was one of the people who took German-French cooperation through its most successful period, resulting in the European Monetary Union, the ECB and the launch of the euro.

'Wo ist Bitterlich?'

When Kohl found himself stuck in the European integration process, or had a problem for which he had no solution, he would call out to his closest associates, asking "Wo ist Bitterlich?" In 2021, Bitterlich published his memoirs, a book worth reading, entitled "Grenzgänger: Deutsche Interessen und Verantwortung in und für Europa". Loosely translated as “Border Lovers: German Interests and Responsibilities in and for Europe”. The book holds many anecdotes and glimpses and shows how Europe works behind the scenes. 

Joachim Bitterlich was born and raised in Saarland, a region close to the German-French-Luxembourg border. After studying law, he went to the ENA elite school in Paris, married a French lady and then became Chancellor Kohl's right-hand man for foreign policy for more than 11 years. By order of his boss, he constantly flew to Washington, Moscow, Paris, Brussels and to numerous other capitals for consultations and contacts. 

‘We were naive’

Merkel and Macron
President Macron receives Chancellor Merkel in Paris, 2018 .

In the 1990s, for example, the German government did its best to assist Russia in order to stabilise the country from within. “But we were alone and in the end it didn't work, either with Yeltsin or with Putin. It did not last. We tried to guide them, to get them to stand on their own two feet, for example, by supplying gas to Europe. But we did not succeed. We were naive to a certain extent. We should not have expected Russia to take over our system. Historically, they have no democracy. We tried to civilise Russia, but we did not succeed. But the problem is that Europe cannot develop safely without Russia," said Bitterlich, who lectures as a professor at business school École Supérieure de Commerce in Paris, or ESCP. 

“I still don't understand why things could have gone so wrong in 2008. There was no more talk about a common security structure. Russia was paranoid. They felt surrounded, with China to the east, Islamic Iran to the south, and Turkey on the Black Sea coast and then the advancing West on the western borders. That is what they were most worried about.”

Asked whether Bitterlich agrees with the view that the war in Ukraine, with an imminent escalation towards the West, has made Germany the vulnerable country in the middle of Europe again, he says: “Yes, there is definitely something in that.”

As an example, he referred to Joschka Fischer, who in 1999 as Foreign Minister in the Bundestag likened the war in Kosovo to Auschwitz, and subsequently received support for the deployment of German combat troops in a NATO context.

‘What Putin is doing is barbaric’

Vladimir Putin (illustration via Flickr)
Vladimir Putin (illustration via Flickr).

Now that Putin is talking about “denazification” and even the destruction of Ukraine, this raises the question, as it did then, of whether Europe should be obliged to intervene on humanitarian grounds.

“I struggle with that. The fact is that what Putin is doing is barbaric, just as the Russian army, with its destruction in Ukraine, is guilty of barbarism. It is terrorism pure and simple. Shouldn't NATO intervene, I keep thinking? But you do not want Russia to use its nuclear weapons, and Ukraine is too big and too risky. We have to help the Ukrainians, but in fact all support and weapons come too late.” 

“The way the conflict over Ukraine has escalated is partly because neither Germany or France nor the European Union has developed policies in this area. In 2015, when both Russia and Ukraine reneged on the Minsk II agreements, Chancellor Merkel and then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier should have been sounding all the alarm bells. But Steinmeier was perhaps naïve, while Merkel gave the impression of resigning, accepting," Bitterlich said.

Had Kohl still been chancellor in this period he would never have accepted Germany's dependence on Russian gas, the former top foreign policy official said. “He would have committed early on to a common European policy towards Russia and the Ukraine.”

Raw materials, trade relations, investments

Asked how the situation could have escalated as it has, Bitterlich replied: “The overriding problem is that Europe has no ‘autonomous strategy'". Europe must focus on the essentials. How do we ensure our economic independence in a world with challenges like China, Russia and Africa? This is not just about digitalisation. That is more of a side effect. It is about raw materials, trade relations, investments and avoiding dependencies. It's not a problem to buy from China, but if it's essential products then we have to have it ourselves, or we have to be able to diversify to multiple parties and regions.”

In May, France, which currently holds the six-month presidency of the European Union, plans to put the issue of "autonomy strategy" high on the agenda at a European summit of heads of state and government. 

Without realpolitik, Europe lost its compass

Bitterlich is concerned that Europe no longer has a realpolitik, a system of politics based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. 

In his view, this is because many people, including politicians, live too much under illusions or - as he said - have a post-modern world view. It strikes him, in the commute between his two homes and work in Paris and Berlin, that even partners like France and Germany have little knowledge and understanding of each other. 

In this context, he said, realpolitik must always be linked to a compass on which you focus for a number of years. Kohl, he said, had that compass, partly based on experience and outspoken political convictions, but Merkel did not, he says, even though she was a good crisis manager.

“That compass has been completely lost in today's politics. Kohl understood the fear of Brussels as an administrative moloch and that people preferred to leave decisions to the heads of government of the member states. That is why we always followed the policy of 'focus on essentials, that is, economic, foreign and defence policy, in case NATO fell apart'. This also encouraged Kohl to push for German leadership in Europe, without others really realising it.”

Joachim Bitterlich: “Grenzgänger: Deutsche Interessen und Verantwortung in und für Europa”, 2021.

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