Ukraine Standoff

Don't Poke the Russian Bear

Matthias Platzeck. Source: Werner Schuering / imagetrust
Matthias Platzeck.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Russia is not placated, it may cut off natural gas supplies to the West and increase its military adventurism in Europe.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The German-Russian relationship deteriorated swiftly over the summer after the E.U. imposed sanctions.
    • Russians in general think the U.S. and E.U. have exploited the Ukraine crisis for their own territorial agendas.
    • Germany and the E.U. need to re-engage with Russia in forums such as the OSCE, Mr. Platzeck said.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Handelsblatt: Mr. Platzeck, when you became the new director of the German-Russian Forum in March, you said there was a solid foundation between the two countries. Today, the relationship is more tense than it has been in decades. What is your reaction to this drastic change?

Matthias Platzeck: I could never have dreamed that so severe a crisis could develop as quickly as it has. In spite of all cultural and historical differences, I assumed that what we have developed together over the last 20 years in economic and interpersonal relations would be more resistant to crisis.

How could the basically positive relationship between Russia and Germany worsen so rapidly?

Apparently we don’t know each other as well as we thought. The annexation of Crimea, which the West considers to be a violation of international law, and the warlike situation in Ukraine have changed the mood dramatically.

During your visits to Russia, what is the mood in the country?

People have the feeling of being treated unfairly by the United States and Europe. That’s what I hear from Russian citizens and politicians, regardless of their feelings toward (President Vladimir) Putin. Many Russians think, “The West is against us, we have to defend ourselves.” These are words and reactions that I never experienced a few years back.

What is causing these fears?

The basic mistake that both sides are making is to blame the other 100 percent. We in the West say Putin alone is responsible for the escalation. Moscow, on the other hand, believes it is taking the right path and has made no mistakes. This is a situation that requires diplomacy of the highest caliber to avoid worsening the crisis.

“I could never have dreamed that so severe a crisis could develop as quickly as it has. In spite of all cultural and historical differences, I assumed that what we have developed together over the last 20 years in economic and interpersonal relations would be more resistant to crisis.”

Matthias Platzeck, Former State Premier in Brandenburg, Director of the German-Russian Forum

What possibilities do you see for ending the sanctions spiral?

I value the remark by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – that the West didn’t do everything right either in the last months and years. That is a step in the right direction.

What did the West do wrong?

Let’s take a look at the planned association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. We in the West neglected the fact that an agreement of this sort also impinges dramatically on Russian interests.

What do the Russians have to do with this agreement? Ukraine is an independent country.

That is true in terms of international law, but the political life between two countries is influenced by other factors. And so Brussels would have been smart to take Russian interests into account from the very first day of planning the association agreement. I would have wished for the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to invite the Russians to the table.

 

German companies in Russia

 

So is it the E.U.’s fault that we have a conflict in Ukraine?

In European politics, the general opinion is that the Russians broke international law by annexing the Crimea. But there is a backstory to the affair. That’s why I say we should not just look at the current situation. We should ask ourselves: How did we get here? How do we get out? And where do we want to go?

And by annexing the Crimea, Russia was only reacting to a forward thrust by the E.U.?

The annexation of Crimea is a violation of international law. But it should be remembered that in the past, Russia made Europe many offers. For instance, a common economic sphere from Vladivostok to Lisbon. Or a joint security strategy. In 2001, Putin spoke in the Bundestag about closer cooperation with Germany and was applauded loudly by our legislators. We should never forget that this is the same president today. But all of Russia’s suggestions were swept off the table. More often than not, it was our American friends who blocked things.

President Putin argues that NATO is extended too far to the East and threatens Russia. Did the West underestimate this sensitivity?

It is always a mistake to ignore what it feels like to be threatened. That feeling unites Russian society. NATO should have paid attention to this basic fact in its negotiations.

In European politics, the general opinion is that the Russians broke international law by annexing the Crimea. But there is a backstory to the affair. That’s why I say we should not just look at the current situation. We should ask ourselves: How did we get here? How do we get out? And where do we want to go?

You are considered an optimist. Do you believe that relations between Germany and Russia will ease?

I’ve given up hope that everything will calm down in the next two to three years. Too much has gone wrong in the last months. Or the relationship was never as good as we wished it to be. When did Russia please Germans the most? Actually in its weakest phase, under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

But that very time, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, continues to be a trauma for many Russians.

A trauma that they never want to experience again. And now Russia is beginning to show strength and make demands in a partially unacceptable manner. It is important, though, that if we want to move forward, the Crimea issue be resolved in terms of international law.

So the West should recognize the Crimea as Russian?

I can imagine various possibilities, but Moscow and Kiev have to work that out themselves. Perhaps through a renewed referendum or debates about financial compensation paid by Russia to Ukraine. Or by a combination of measures. Breaks can be healed. But it must be remembered: Germany and Russia are not currently linked by friendship. I can’t predict how Russian policy will develop. So for the near future, we have to keep a balance between more cooperation and a readiness for the possibility that Russia might change in an unpredictable way. At the same time, the West and Russia should work together to stabilize Ukraine as a country.

Can’t Ukraine do that itself?

Sovereignty remains with Ukraine. But help is required. From my perspective, however, the wish to join NATO would not contribute to defusing the crisis. That would raise the escalation to a new level.

How dangerous is the current situation?

It is extremely dangerous, not only in terms of international law. For weeks and months now, we haven’t been able to get out of the spiral of sanctions. I have the impression that on the whole, the West is not prepared for the current situation. It is perhaps even unable to cope.

When you speak in Moscow as a representative of German policy, what pressure do you feel from the Americans and the E.U.?

I don’t feel any pressure, because I don’t let myself be pigeonholed. Instead, I would like to use reason and common sense to make sure we don’t lose Russia. Because without Russia, we will not have a positive economic development in Europe over the long term. And no viable security arrangements.

What should the West do to defuse the situation?

After resolving the Crimea issue in conformance with international law, we could offer the Russians a new dialogue in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one that takes into account Russia’s sense of being threatened by NATO. The OSCE is so important because it is the only organization in which the Russians have a voice — in contrast to the E.U. and NATO.

What more?

The ceasefire in Ukraine must be strengthened. The best thing would be to monitor the borders. Maybe there are drones that can fly in winter. When that has been accomplished, the West can withdraw sanctions piece by piece, and ultimately cancel them altogether. I would not like to imagine Russia, as the world’s second-largest nuclear power, in a politically unstable situation. If economic sanctions create social unrest, and ultimately bring down the current government, it is totally unclear into whose hands the atomic weapons would fall. We should always take that into account when we talk about Russia.

 

Maximilian Nowroth is a trainee at the Georg von Holtzbrinck School for Business Journalism at Handelsblatt. He attended business school in Mannheim, Germany, and in St. Petersburg, Russia. To reach him: m.nowroth@vhb.de

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