firm friends

Why we need to reach out to Russia

russia, nord stream pipeline
All roads lead to Moscow. Source: Imago/Zuma

How should we deal with Russia? In recent years, this question has triggered numerous heated debates and is especially significant for the eastern German states. Russia has long been an important trading partner. For the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Russia was third in its ranking of top foreign trade partners in 2017, and the trend is up after two difficult years.

Our state has been focusing for some time on expanding these economic ties with Russia. We have a well-functioning partnership with the region around St. Petersburg that includes close business links. We’re also working increasingly closely in culture and science. We are delighted that our partnership recently won an award in the presence of the German and Russian foreign ministers.

Shipping to and from Russia is particularly important for our Baltic ports. And a number of very important companies in our state are under Russian ownership. After all, the arrival point of the Baltic pipeline Nord Stream 1 is in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and its construction and operation created and secured jobs in our state.

To make one point clear, also against the background of the continuing debate about Nord Stream 2: The pipelines aren’t just important for Mecklenburg-West Pomerania but for all of Germany. We were right to decide to phase out nuclear power. We also want to phase out coal in the foreseeable future. Renewable energy will no doubt make a big and growing contribution to the energy supply. But to guarantee the reliability our industrial economy requires, we will need gas as an additional energy source. That is why I support the construction of further pipelines.

Nord Stream 2 has encountered criticism from various quarters. A number of critics are pursuing economic interests, and I don’t condemn them for that. But what I do object to is dishonest criticism. The claim that the pipeline will render Germany completely dependent on Russia is nonsense. Both sides have an interest in reliable gas delivery. And Germany will continue to derive large portions of its energy needs from other sources and regions. Germany must be able to decide itself from where and how it obtains urgently needed raw materials.

I’m not denying or ignoring the fact that relations between Germany and Russia have become difficult. But I’m convinced that Germany and Russia have a shared interest in closer partnership.

That’s why I support dialogue even in difficult times. That doesn’t mean making easy concessions or refraining from criticism. On the contrary. I’m convinced that it takes close dialogue to convey effective criticism and to make progress in gridlocked conflicts. In any case, it’s a more promising approach than wagging one’s finger from the outside.

Surveys show that a clear majority of Germans in both the east and west want more dialogue with Russia. It’s good that the chancellor and the foreign minister emphasized the need for this dialogue during their recent visits in Russia and at the meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Meseberg Palace.

I as a Social Democrat know that it takes rapprochement to initiate change. Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Egon Bahr took this path when there was much to criticize the Soviet Union and East Germany for. They were vilified for that, but their path was proved right. I owe it in part to their Ostpolitik that my family and I live in a unified Germany and that I can hold political office.

Economic contacts create ties and can help to resolve conflicts. At the moment, mutual sanctions pose obstacles to this to a certain degree. It’s clear that both sides need to move to ensure that they can be dismantled. Russia in particular must compromise as well, of course. But I’m surprised at the knee-jerk opposition that the call for a step-by-step reduction in sanctions regularly triggers. The sanctions aren’t an end in themselves. Our goal must remain to reduce them gradually — in conjunction with peace gradually being restored to Ukraine.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in any case will keep on expanding its economic ties with Russia in the years to come. There are many areas where we can cooperate far more closely. The third Russia Day will be held in Rostock next week to help bring this about. I’m delighted at the strong interest in this event — and I have no doubt it’s the right path, economically and politically.

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