COLOGNE, Germany — German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen railed against Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, saying in an interview that Europe must find new ways to determine “what hurts him.”
Her comments come as Putin claimed almost 77 percent of votes in Sunday’s national election, giving him another six years in office. Russian opposition activists have raised concerns about the fairness of the process.
Speaking to the Bild newspaper, von der Leyen said the West should not “make itself smaller than we are” in the face of Russian attempts to divide Europeans.
“NATO is the most powerful military alliance in the world,” she said.
However, she stopped short of saying Russia is at war with Europe, as other German lawmakers have suggested. If Berlin was to officially use that verbiage, a “discussion” would have to follow about “what that means for us,” von der Leyen explained, likely referring to the question of whether NATO mutual-defense plans would be triggered.
Asked whether she considers Putin an “opponent,” she also demurred. Such language has the potential to “slam doors shut” for Russia to return to “constructive” behavior, von der Leyen argued.
Russian policies for some time have followed a desire to return to the status of a great global power. Putin has given a voice to those aspirations by, for example, declaring earlier this month that Moscow had developed “invincible“ nuclear weapons.
Putin had no serious competition in Sunday’s election, building his appeal largely on foreign policy goals as the economy lags behind. Many Russian officials believe the West has humiliated them since the fall of the Soviet Union, now seizing every opportunity to flex what they consider a newfound geopolitical muscle.
Von der Leyen warned that choosing the wrong responses to Russia’s recent policies and actions ― annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, intimidating Eastern European NATO countries or propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad ― would play into Putin’s hands.
“He needs the enemy from outside,” she said, arguing that economic sanctions are the best way to punish Moscow.
An opportunity to tighten the sanctions already in place could come soon, as the United Kingdom reviews evidence in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, earlier this month. The weapon of choice was a nerve agent linked to a Soviet-era chemical weapons program.
The Russian government has denied any involvement in the case. British and U.S. officials claim Moscow had a hand in it.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.