The End of the Post-Wall Era – An Interview with Timothy Garton Ash

I believe in European Power

23 February 2023

Jan Farfał and Wojciech Przybylski

Visegrad Insight sat down with acclaimed historian Timothy Garton Ash to discuss the current dilemmas facing Ukraine and the West vis-à-vis Russia’s aggression.

Jan Farfał, Marcin Król Fellow and Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief, asked about the significance of the war for Europe. The interview with Timothy Garton Ash below is abridged from the recent Visegrad Insight Podcast. Listen to the whole discussion here:

Jan Farfał (JF): It’s been already one year since the full scale Russian invasion – so what would be the first takeaway after the year of this complete change in European dynamics?

Timothy Garton Ash (TGA): I think it’s now clear that this is an event in European and world history, as big as 1989. And that is actually ends what I call in my new book Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, the “Post-Wall period”.

The period starts with the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 and ends, in my view, on 24 February 2022.

That’s part one, but then there’s a question what has begun, and that, of course, is less clear. But I would say, firstly, that it’s clear that Ukraine has now been recognised across the world as a major independent European state, which has never really been the case before.

Secondly, that most Europeans have realised that our security still depends on the United States, nearly 80 years after the end of the Second World War, maybe it shouldn’t be true, but it is true. So much for Emmanuel Macron strategic autonomy.

And thirdly, that we have a chance if Ukraine wins this war, and we can talk about what victory means by moving towards a genuinely post-imperial Europe for the first time. That is to say, a Europe that has empires neither overseas, as we had for six centuries, nor on the continent. And so, in this terrible crisis, there is also a great opportunity.

Wojciech Przybylski (WP): It is the end of strategic autonomy concept, as defined by Emmanuel Macron. I think nobody could be arguing with that.

However, at the same time, the call for European involvement in supporting Ukraine has never been greater. European Union is the second after US in terms of financial support overall, and it is making first important steps in supporting Ukraine militarily.

The five billion euro from the perversely called the European Peace Facility is demonstration that the concept of strategic autonomy devised ten years ago in the Common Security and Defence Policy bears fruit. So I would say Europeans are rethinking the concept on their on its terms. Let us remember that this idea is not going away and will stick with Europe. We heard Xi Jinping, and heard Vladimir Putin speaking of European autonomy to troll our ambitions and drive a wedge in the transatlantic alliance. That’s why we’re striving for a new definition of what Europe can deliver in terms of the world order.

TGA: So what I believe in is European power. What the French used to call l’Europe puissance. I believe we need to have power and be ready to use it to defend our own interests and values. In an increasingly post-Western world, where there are very challenging, if not threatening, non-Western, great powers and one superpower, China and the politics of the United States are not exactly encouraging.

Of course, the second supporter of Ukraine, and one of the fastest, was a European country called Britain, outside the EU. So it was a US, Britain, and then countries in the European Union so that the Europe of defence is always going to be something more than the EU, but I absolutely agree with you that it’s it’s very encouraging that the EU actually, with Ursula von der Leyen has played a leading role in support for Ukraine and in taking the security seriously.

Longer term, if Ukraine wins and controls most, if not all, of its sovereign territory, you will have the largest and most combat experienced army in Europe; potentially the second largest army in Poland if the goal of 300,000 is achieved, and the best equipped army in Germany, if the so called Zeitenwende happens.

Europe’s actual defence capacity will very significantly increase, however exactly it may be organised.

JF: If we talk about European autonomy or Europe as a power, it necessitates some sort of cohesion and unitary outlook, whereas we clearly see that the definition of victory from Warsaw’s or from Paris’ perspectives are divergent. The recent comment by Macron about the conflict which are the direct opposite of CEE’s expectations and Warsaw’s in particular. So how do we relate to this?

WP: You have been at the Munich Security Forum, probably witnessing this comments from Macron.

TGA: Absolutely, I was there for it. I also saw Olaf Scholtz praising his own cautious approach, saying, in a loosely translated version, care before over-hasty action. Of course, in this case, the opposite is the truth.

The resulting slowness has actually played for Putin, not for Ukraine. So yes, there are still significant differences. But I would say that, and actually some polling that we’ve just released my Oxford research project European, a changing world, working with the ECFR, shows that actually Europeans have come closer to the United States over the last year. A lot of wobbles, still in Italian public opinion, uncertainty, depending how you ask the question in German public opinion, but actually, remarkably, German and Polish public opinion, for example, have come closer. So I think there’s been a firming up of, of the Western stance.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’re working fast enough to actually enable Ukraine to recapture most of its territory. But I think I think opinion has moved significantly.

JF: So, securing the future of democracy and freedom, obviously, necessitates a clear victory from the Ukrainian perspective, which I guess brings us to a focal point upon this one year anniversary of full scale Russian invasion, which is about an endgame.

How do we define Ukrainian victory? Conversely, how do we define Russian defeat in this conflict? Do we plan to re-establish borders from 2014? Clearly, we cannot foresee a NATO victory parade in Moscow, as we don’t want to risk world war three. So what kind of scenarios are we talking here about?

TGA: So interestingly, the almost the entire Munich security conference was about this one question. And I was a Ukrainian lunch where the editor of The Economist tried very hard to get three prime ministers and one president elect Pawel of the Czech Republic to answer this question, somewhat in vain? Because it’s a question that Western leaders are uncomfortable asking because it’s a question of Crimea, above all.

At an absolute minimum, Ukraine should regain absolute sovereign control and security in the borders of the 23rd February; that’s an in my view as an absolute minimum; otherwise, it can be construed by Vladimir Putin as a victory and sold that way to the Russian people. Everybody I talked to in Ukraine, everybody wants to go for Crimea. And there are very strong moral arguments.

I talked to a wounded soldier in the Lviv who said, “Too many people have died for us not to get back Crimea.” I subsequently heard he himself had been killed at the front.

There are legal arguments, it’s a crass violation of international law. Political arguments, the opinion polling shows that any Ukrainian politician who explicitly gives up Crimea is toast, probably even Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

And cultural arguments; we want Ukraine to remain a multicultural country. What about the Crimean Tatars? There is something called the Crimean autonomous platform, which I visited headed by a Crimean Tatar, which is right in the centre of the government quarter because President Zelenskyy wanted wanted it there. So, there are all these long term arguments.

But on top of that…(Ukrainians) cannot really be secure if just across the pond at the Sea of Azov there is a Russian missile launcher sitting in Crimea. I say to British friends, imagine a hostile power with missile launchers in the Isle of Wight. Bornholm, or whatever example you want to take.

But as important as these were, the short term strategic argument was this: Crimea is the one thing that Russia really cares about, that ordinary Russians really care about. If you can put pressure on Crimea through hitting the Kerch Bridge, that might actually force Russia to negotiate.

And so that seems to me where we want to go in the war. And if there is, then a very painful compromise to be made, and it can only be made by Ukraine in the war, in which for some period, not de jure but de facto, Russia keeps control of Crimea, but in return, they get hard security guarantees from a number of NATO member states, including the US, Britain and Poland.

That’s a deal quite a few Ukrainians said to me they would take, so I think this question of what we’re prepared to offer, notably hard security guarantees because NATO membership, before Viktor Orbán and Recep Erdoğan agreed to that, that’ll take some time. I think that’s now front and centre of the debate.

JF: This brings us back to a controversial argument made by Henry Kissinger that you need to keep Russia as part of the global order, and you need to somehow negotiate with them. You cannot allow yourself to have a rogue state with one of the biggest nuclear arsenals, and how do you take this?

TGA: Of course, we must take that seriously. We’re speaking on the day when Putin has just announced that he’s going to abrogate a nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. So, of course, we must take that seriously.

But that’s not how I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about how you get to Ukrainian victory. And I think it’s short-to-medium term. I’m not thinking about saving Russia’s amour-propre, let alone saving Putin amour-propre.

Look. It’s been fascinating working on this book, which concentrates on the last 50 years. You know, Kierkegaard said life is lived forward but understood backwards. And I only know realise now that the last 50 years have actually been about the decline of the Russian Empire.

Imperial decline takes a long time. It’s a very painful process; the empire tries to strike back, (and) I think we’ll still be dealing with the decline of the Russian Empire, probably for decades to come, if you think how long it took for the Ottoman Empire or the Austro Hungarian empire.

We have only very limited possibilities directly to influence what happens in Russia. What we can do is to shape the external environment geopolitical, cultural and economic in which, with time, Russia finally understands and accepts, like other post colonial powers, that it’s lost an empire and has to find a role.

WP: Well, that’s actually the underpinning assumption of our scenario-based report. War and the Future of Europe, assuming that with the decline of Russian power in the world, they assume more assertive and aggressive posture vis-a-vis neighbours, the West, which we observe, but I think you also pointed out to what Ukraine needs to do.

JF: And part of this path entails the collapse of the Russian imperialism. As you said, we are witnessing a broader developments here, almost like a Hegelian process. And in your new book, you argue that 1989 was actually a history not with a capital H, but with a small h as a sequence of unforeseen developments. So do you believe that nowadays, we’re facing a Hegelian capital “H” history? Or is it, once again, a small age history?

TGA: Without question, there is only a small age history. Big age history is philosophy of history. It’s German philosophy. And there are many examples of contingency in the way we got here.

I mean, starting with 2014 and the weakness of the Western reaction, 2014 was the turning point of which the West failed to turn, but all the way up to the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Future historians will weigh the question whether Putin would have taken this risk, if he hadn’t thought that the Biden administration was very weak looking at Afghanistan.

Equally, ten days ago, I was at Hostomel, the airport just outside Kyiv. If the Russian troops had actually taken Hostomel, they might have taken Kyiv or they might have taken Zelenskyy, and it would have been a very different history. So history depends on fortuna; it depends on contingency. And it depends on human will.



This article has been prepared in the framework of a cooperation programme between major press titles in Central Europe led by Visegrad Insight at the Res Publica Foundation.

This discussion is an abridged version from our podcast, found here; segments have been edited and shortened for brevity and cohesion.

It was translated into Czech and published on Hospodářské noviny.

Featured image from: Photo by Artem Zhukov on Unsplash

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