Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, much has been blamed on détente: detractors claim it is a policy of appeasement, while supporters wax nostalgic for its past accomplishments. But in the context of calls for a new dialogue between NATO and Russia, confusion over has arisen over what constitutes détente and what constitutes appeasement. The reality is that Ostpolitik and détente, as forged by Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany between 1969 and 1974, are being discredited both by Cold Warriors, who regard their usefulness as a myth, and by apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who exploit them for their own ends.

By improperly invoking détente’s legacy while obfuscating the need for true diplomacy in order to make détente feasible, Cold Warriors and Putin do true détente a disservice. As a result, both Ostpolitik and détente must be defended not only from their critics but also from naïve nostalgics who, as the historian Timothy Garton Ash put it, desire “to have friendly relations with heaven, a deepening partnership with the earth, but also fruitful cooperation with hell.” When the international community views the policies either as a panacea for European crises or the wellspring of Europe’s problems, neither side gets at the heart of what détente can—and cannot—accomplish.


Brandt’s Ostpolitik and détente policies were based on lessons learned from two major crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. After the Cuban crisis drove the world to the brink of nuclear war, NATO members took measures to de-escalate Soviet conflict through the creation of a White House–Kremlin hotline and by signing a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. These efforts culminated in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, followed by the launch of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union—concrete steps toward a functional diplomacy that eased tensions and established functional negotiations between East and West.

Similarly, Ostpolitik sought to unite a divided Germany by recognizing the ideological and strategic divide between Eastern and Western Europe. Ostpolitik was a far-sighted dialectical strategy for transforming communist rule: by liberating Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet ideology, it sought opportunities for convergence between the two German states that could lead to reunification. But détente was never built upon mutual aims: in the phrase “change through rapprochement,” emphasis was placed on “change” for the Soviet regime and its influence over satellite states. The West thus pursued a dual-track policy: first, deterrence and dialogue as outlined in NATO’s 1967 Harmel Report; second, a more open channel to the West for Russia through which both sides could discuss political liberation for Eastern Europe.

Ostpolitik and détente policy were not designed to end Russia’s Soviet regime outright, and this remains true within the context of the current Ukrainian crisis. Moscow’s assent made diplomatic progress possible on the issue Poland’s western border, intra-German policy, and the political subjugation of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Détente was never a policy of conciliation, let alone appeasement. Putin apologists who now call for Crimea’s annexation to be recognized by international law fall short in seeing how these broader issues of satellite state sovereignty were, in fact, at the heart of détente policy.

Just as the Wall became reality in 1961, so too is Crimea’s annexation an irreversible fact today. Achieving a balance of interests between Ukraine and Russia rests upon leaving this particular issue out of the equation. Given that duress during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Prague Spring likewise gave birth to Cold War–era détente, contemporary leaders should not be discouraged by current crises in Georgia, Transnistria, and Ukraine. On the contrary, they should continue to seek dialogue and engage with Russia without expecting miracles. After all, Ostpolitik itself had only limited capacity to defuse tensions, and failed to prevent the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 or the Polish crisis of the early 1980s.


The most important difference between Cold War–era and contemporary détente is the international environment: former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sought to cement the post–World War II order by securing control of Eastern Europe, whereas Putin wants to revise the Charter of Paris, its prohibition of the use of force, and the inviolability of borders. Unlike Putin, Brezhnev sought to preserve the status quo and saw détente as a way of reinforcing it. Putin, on the other hand, wants to revise the European peace order that has existed since 1990: he is prepared to respect the post-Soviet territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, but only as long as they make no attempt to free themselves from his influence.

Another difference between contemporary and Cold War–era Russia is Russia’s network of allies. In its heyday, the Soviet Union—notwithstanding its conflict with the People’s Republic of China—could count not only on its Eastern European vassals but also on an international communist and anti-American movement, in addition to left-leaning governments and Third World liberation movements that cast a hopeful glance toward Moscow. No such support exists today. The civilizational appeal of Putin’s Russia appears to be limited solely to members of the Eurasian Union, such as Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. If Putin’s aim in annexing Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine was to restore Russian hegemony, he has achieved the opposite.


What would Brandt do today? Certainly, he would not have signed the naive “No war in Europe” manifesto, wherein 60 prominent Germans urged politicians and the media not to demonize Russia and warned about the prospect of a war in Crimea that, in reality, started some time ago. The manifesto’s signatories call for prudent action by the German government, but they are simply preaching to the converted, as current leadership spearheaded the EU and NATO enlargement policies that they now blame for Russia’s present course.

There’s no denying that the situation is highly explosive. There is indeed a growing threat that a new Cold War, or even a hot war, will be become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this situation, it is certainly wise to remember the far-sightedness and sensitivity that détente provided while Europe sought a way out of dangerous confrontation with Russian geopolitical interests.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the past: the only détente that leads to peace is one that takes account of (but is not subordinate to) Russian realities and interests. The West, however, should not allow itself to be exploited by Ukrainian politicians for their own ends. Furthermore, the West should take care not to get roped into internal Ukrainian power struggles. There is an urgent need to reactivate the NATO-Russia Council as a key dialogue forum, and to take it seriously.

The second important lesson is that without a clear set of fundamental values, détente will become a policy of appeasement. Some things are non-negotiable—and they include upholding the outcomes of the Helsinki Decalogue and the Charter of Paris. That applies regardless of whether the United States violated international law in Iraq or the West did so in Kosovo. Any much-needed offers of cooperation with Russia should not lead to the West’s acceptance of a new policy based on spheres of influence in Europe, or cause nations to abandon their own principles. The inviolability of borders and the prohibition of the use of force, as the basis of international law and the guarantee of peace on the European continent, are non-negotiable. For Putin apologists, it is not Russia but NATO that has challenged the status quo. According to this argument, the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine are simply understandable, if belated, reactions by Russia to the NATO and EU that began in 1999.

One thing is certain: Western policy does not threaten Russia’s security—only its claim to an exclusive sphere of influence. Even now, Germany’s policy toward Moscow is nothing but a new policy of détente at a time of new tensions. It includes the revitalization of the OSCE, Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s hotline initiative, the development of a common European position within the EU (including Poland and the Baltic nations), and the attempt to establish a dialogue forum with the Eurasian Union. It’s about exploring ways of making détente possible.

In light of Russia’s obstructionist policies, the West should be satisfied if the situation in Eastern Ukraine becomes a frozen conflict, which would allow Western leaders to gain valuable time in which to seek dialogue with Russia. That’s why all parties must do everything in their power to prevent the post–Cold War era from being viewed as a temporary peace during a larger geopolitical struggle. Avoiding such a fate means jettisoning the delusion that old-school German Ostpolitik is still possible even after Crimea’s annexation, as this ignores the fact that Russia’s shift in policy has, for the moment, deprived détente of some key prerequisites. The right of the post-Soviet states to freely choose their alliance is accepted by Moscow only if their choice falls on Russia; Central Asia is a case in point. Is this approach underpinned by a long-term strategy or is it simply a series of erratic reactions? There’s no answer to that question yet—but there are signs that it is the latter. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ROLF MÜTZENICH, Ph.D. is a member of the German Bundestag and the Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Social Democratic Party.
  • More By Rolf Mützenich