Brookings’ foreign policy, security expert Constanze Stelzenmüller outlines implications of ongoing Russian-Ukraine war

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A lot has happened in the world since Constanze Stelzenmüller’s last visit to Chautauqua. Since she spoke for the Chautauqua Lecture Series in 2015, there have been two U.S. presidential elections, new violence in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stelzenmüller, the inaugural holder of the Fritz Stern Chair on Germany and Trans-Atlantic Relations in the Center on United States and Europe at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., spoke Tuesday, June 28, at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater.

Matt Ewalt, vice president and Richard and Emily Smucker Chair for Education, introduced her lecture: “Putin’s War: What it Means for America’s Role in Europe and the World,” for the Week One theme “What Should be America’s Role in the World?”

Stelzenmüller, who is a trans-Atlantic foreign security and policy expert, outlined her presentation for the audience. She first set the scene for where the world stands 125 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“Casualty numbers for this war are really hard to come by and they’re disputed,” Stelzenmüller said. “According to American and U.K. intelligence numbers, there are about 16,000 Russian military dead, 11,000 Ukrainian military dead. That’s a lot.”

Civilian casualties are harder to confirm, she said, ranging between 5,000 and 20,000.

“In the sudden years of proxy war in eastern Ukraine leading up to this invasion, between 2014 and now, 14,000 were killed,” Stelzenmüller said. “So we’re already nearing somewhere around 30-40,000 dead in four months. That makes this one of the deadliest wars in Europe in a very, very long time.”

Beginning in the early ’90s, until 2005, Stelzenmüller was a journalist for a German national weekly paper. She worked as their human rights expert, then as their security and defense editor and covered wars in Somalia, Balkans, Afghanistan and more. But, she admitted to feeling true fear for the first time in her professional life at the current state of geopolitical affairs.

“I’m feeling fear for us, for our way of life, for peace in Europe (and) for peace in the world,” Stelzenmüller said. “So much more than Ukraine is at stake here, and … I can’t tell you with confidence or certainty at this point that this is going to end well.”

With the different ways of how the Russia-Ukraine war could end, Stelzenmüller then reflected on each possibility and why they would or would not work.

Peace negotiations or a ceasefire are highly unlikely, Stelzenmüller said. 

“Vladmir Putin, the dictator of Russia, is not to be believed, not to be trusted, and would (use) a ceasefire or negotiations to regroup and attack again,” Stelzenmüller said. 

Putin has been dangling the threat of nuclear weapons for months, and Stelzenmüller said this is a “civilizational breach.”

“This is the first time a major power since 1946 has threatened the use of nuclear power,” Stelzenmüller said. 

Not only is Putin putting blocks on Ukraine’s ports, he’s also spreading misinformation and propaganda, she said. 

“Putin has already said ‘Ukraine is not a country, it’s run by Nazis,’ ” Stelzenmüller said. “It takes some doing to refer to a country that has performed as admirably as Ukraine … to refer to a country that has a Jewish president, as a country that is ‘run by Nazis.’ That is how perverted the Russian disinformation war has become.”

Stelzenmüller asked what this means for the western alliance: the United States, Europe and NATO. Countries that support Ukraine have done everything from sending weapons, food and resources, blocking Russian imports from their ports, and implementing economic sanctions.

“I have never seen anything like this,” Stelzenmüller said. “I have never seen so much unity, so much strength (and) so much resolve.”

Countries have to be careful about both cutting ties with, or staying involved with, Russia. Economic fallout has worldwide ramifications, and will affect geopolitics, geoeconomics, health, international order in institutions, international law, the global order and America’s own domestic politics.

“We may be heading towards something that feels perilously like a system overload, where we feel ourselves to be paralyzed because it’s just all too complicated and too much is at stake,” Stelzenmüller said.

The EU, for the first time in history, has authorized military support and “we’re clearly learning to use the language of power in Europe in ways I didn’t think were possible,” she said.

Germany has taken several steps to advance aid to Ukraine. The German federal legislature signed an additional $100 billion to the original 2% in their defense budget, to spend extra on renovating German defenses.

“Now (there’s) finally heavy weapons (going) to Ukraine that the Bundeswehr, the armed forces, doesn’t have for themselves,” Stelzenmüller said. “(Germany has) already cut off Russian coal. We will cut off Russian oil by the end of this year, and 55% of energy that comes from Russian gas is down to 35%.”

Transformative change is hard for people of various countries to get a grasp on, Stelzenmüller said. Ever since the two world wars in the 20th century, nations have been more conservative in wanting to get entangled in political conflict.

“(People’s attitudes toward conflict are) not changing because we have seen the light,” Stelzenmüller said. “It’s changing because Putin is not stopping and because we are in mortal peril.”

All of this, Stelzenmüller said, impacts Americans, and she noted that the Biden administration has shown leadership like she’s never seen before.

“I have never seen such an exceptionally careful, respectful and energetic collaboration and coordination by an American administration with its European allies in my life,” Stelzenmüller said.

This conflict between Russia and Ukraine has proven to expand beyond just these two countries. It’s affecting the trans-Atlantic economy, which America has $6 trillion in, and America profits an additional $300 billion from U.S. companies located in Europe.

A worldwide conflict such as this has an impact everywhere. Stelzenmüller pivoted to a call to action to complete her lecture.

“This is not just about the fate of 44 million Ukrainians, although it is very much that, and I think we owe them every (aid) that we can give them,” Stelzenmüller said. “It’s not just about prosperity and global economic stability. … This is truly a worldwide fight for freedom, democracy, peace and self-determination as free nations.”

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.