24. February 2022

Attack on Ukraine Ukraine conflict: Bonn Historian: End of an Epoch in Europe

Bonn Historian: End of an Epoch in Europe

With Putin's attack on Russia's neighboring state Ukraine, a historical epoch has come to an end, says Prof. Dr. Martin Aust, historian and Eastern Europe expert at the University of Bonn. How the conflict will continue is uncertain. But one thing is clear: President Putin is leading his country into isolation. We conducted an interview with Prof. Aust on this topic.

Symbolic photo
Symbolic photo © Photo: colourbox.de
Download all images in original size All rights reserved!

Prof. Aust, how did you react to the news of the attack on Ukraine?

Prof. Aust: The news is hard to take. I know many people in both countries with whom I have worked for many years. Now I am very worried. In addition, the situation here in Bonn seems unreal: While Russian missiles are hitting Ukraine, the street carnival has begun here in the Rhineland region. It's hard to reconcile all that.

How do you assess the current situation?

Vladimir Putin has launched a war of aggression on Ukraine tonight in violation of international law, attacking the country from three sides. In doing so, he has not only broken his recently given word, but has opened a Pandora's box geopolitically. Tonight, nothing less than an era that began with the collapse of communism has come to an end. A long-lasting era of peace and unity in Europe is over - with far-reaching consequences that cannot even be foreseen today.

What does this mean for our country in concrete terms?

Decades of German policy toward Russia are in tatters. The strategy of integrating Russia into a strategic partnership and building a reliable relationship with President Putin through economic relations and a German no to Ukraine's accession to NATO has failed.

How could this happen?

Vladimir Putin eludes familiar categories. By announcing the recognition of the "people's republics" in eastern Ukraine in his speech on Monday evening, and technically declaring war on the neighboring country today, he has made it clear that he no longer thinks in the categories of diplomacy and strategy. He rather imagines himself in historical dimensions on the tracks of former empires. He has revealed an understanding of history from which, in his own logic, he believes he cannot act otherwise. Putin has shown himself to be an unpredictable political actor who, unfortunately, seems to be capable of everything. He has threatened the West with “countermeasures never experienced before” in the event of an escalation – which is practically a threat that also includes the possibility of nuclear war.

Shouldn't the politicians of the West have realized this earlier?

From today's perspective, one has to say: we were wrong about Vladimir Putin. But as we all know, hindsight is always the wiser. In the course of time, it is noticeable that there has been a new change in the fourth Putin presidency since 2018. Putin has never shied away from the use of force to achieve his goals. This was the case when he took office as prime minister in 1999 and launched the war in Chechnya. When he annexed Crimea and intervened in Syria, Putin was still weighing opportunities and risks. He no longer gives that impression. He thinks in historical categories of the imperial formations of the tsarist empire and the Soviet Union, which he has adopted very arbitrarily.

What reactions do you expect from the world community now?

Putin's policy has already led to a unity in recent months that was almost lost on the Western states of the West. After all, what is called "the West" has become more and more frayed in recent years, for example as a result of Brexit or the Trump administration in the United States. There is also much dissent within the EU, for example over migration and refugee policy. In the face of the troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, the ranks have closed again. And with Putin's attack, all differences are now fading into the background: the EU, NATO and the U.S. appear more solid than ever.

So does the Russian ruler stand isolated?

This is how it looks: Putin is isolating Russia from Europe and the U.S.: I am curious to see what extent this isolation will take, which we will only see. Russia is also isolated globally, for example at the United Nations. China alone has not yet completely moved away from Putin. There is a strategic partnership between Russia and China, but it is not unconditional, as it turns out. China's Foreign Ministry has only recently declared its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but now makes no condemnation of the attack on Ukraine.

Is a return to the negotiating table still possible at all?

At the moment, I don't see any prospects for that at all. For one thing, Putin has given Ukraine the impossible ultimatum of committing to neutrality. That will surely be rejected soon. And second, Putin has lost all credibility. His statement that Russia is not planning a war of aggression is only a week old. He has gambled away people’s trust. 

Prof. Dr. Martin Aust (born 1971) has held the professorship of History and Culture of Eastern Europe at the University of Bonn since 2015. Previously, he was Professor of History of Eastern Europe/East Central Europe in Munich and Regensburg. In the spring semester of 2015, he was a visiting professor at the Department of History at the University of Basel.


Prof. Aust has been interviewed by Prof. Dr. Andreas Archut from the University Communications Division.

Media contact:
Prof. Dr. Martin Aust
Department of Eastern European History
Institute for Historical Studies, University of Bonn
Phone: + 49 228 - 73 9304
Email: martin.aust@uni-bonn.de

Wird geladen