Foreign Policy

Russia Needs Understanding, Not Empathy

Germany's best frenemy: Vladimir Putin. Source: Handelsblatt

He’s been called “a mercenary for the Kremlin” who is taking “blood money” from the Russians. But those accusations leave senior German politicians cold, including ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

The accusations, made in Germany’s mainstream media, are understandable. Mr. Schröder is a long-time supporter of the Nord Stream pipeline consortium that pumps gas from Russia to Europe and recently, amid much controversy, he became the chairman of the Russian state-controlled oil producer, Rosneft.

But he can shrug those accusations off because, for Mr. Schröder, Germany’s relationship with Russia has always been about more than money.

Talking to Handelsblatt about the country’s Russian connection for a solid two hours in his Hamburg office, Mr. Schröder keeps referring back to the Second World War, his meetings with Russian veterans and the “beauty of forgiveness.”

Mr. Gauck believes he has “an understanding of power” and no time for those who grow “misty-eyed” at the sight of the Russian strong man.

“Peace in Europe will be stable and assured when these two countries [Germany and Russia] take care of their relationship,” he argues. For Mr. Schröder, stronger economic ties can lay the groundwork for a geopolitical friendship, he says, that will allow Germans to warm to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a man he once infamously called “an impeccable democrat.”

The real goal is peace: Overcoming Germany’s own history by making real peace with the country it invaded and brutalized just decades ago. A “historical reconciliation,” says Mr. Schröder, would allow a “spiritual kinship” to flourish. And if that means Germany distancing itself from the US, then so be it.

More concretely, Mr. Schröder wants an end to sanctions and, in effect, German recognition of the occupation of Crimea and of Russian influence in Ukraine. Mr. Putin – with whom the former chancellor enjoys a rather macho friendship – should above all be seen as a reformer, he says.

And then there is Mr. Schröder’s opposite in this particular cold war, Joachim Gauck. Mr. Gauck stepped down as the federal president earlier this year; he was once a well-known East German dissident, and chaired the commission investigating the crimes of the East Germany’s secret police.

During a meeting on a rainy Berlin afternoon in his office – this is one of the first interviews Mr. Gauck has given since he left the presidency – the little ironies are hard to miss. Such as the fact that his tidy rooms are inside the former East German ministry of justice. Mr. Gauck tends to spare his words but he does want to make his opinions on Germany’s relationship with Russia known.

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Comparing GDP per head of population

Mr. Gauck has only ever met with Mr. Putin once. A short handshake and a press release that told of “a very frank discussion” were cover for what insiders later said was fairly cold encounter.

Since then Mr. Gauck appears to have managed to avoid the Russian leader and even any trips to Russia. But he’s had plenty of experience with Russian leaders. His father spent four years in a Stalinist-era gulag in Siberia and he himself lived under Soviet-trained Communist rulers in East Germany. One of his first jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was opening the files collected by the East German secret police, the Stasi – the paperwork related to their victims was almost endless because almost every citizen in East Germany, one of the most-surveilled states in the world, had their own file. So Mr. Gauck, who believes he has “an understanding of power,” has no time for German admirers of Putin, who grow “misty-eyed” at the sight of the Russian strong man.

The fact that some in Germany sympathize with Mr. Putin is verging on a “grotesque twisting of reality,” Mr. Gauck says. “Putin was an agent of the oppressors. He is a leading figure among an international cadre that turns up over and over again, at different times: The international figureheads opposed to progress.”

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Exports to Russia and imports from Russia

Mr. Gauck understands why Germans want to understand, and even empathize with, Russia, and it has a lot to do with historical guilt from the world wars. But, as he notes, “we must ask ourselves whether we really want to be advocates for those who are enemies of our own values. Our guilt should actually make us advocate for those to whom injustice is done,” he argues.

Germany needs to give up on its illusions of Russia, the senior politician says, because it’s a wishful picture of a country that never existed. If that means a new cold freeze in relations with Russia, even a new confrontation, then Germany and Europe must pay that price, says Germany’s former president.

More than any other Western country, Germany has a vexed relationship with Russia. It is a history marked with prejudice, hatred and bloody war. But it has also been suffused with fascination: The poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw “German and Russian souls” seeking each other out in a mystic communion and he was not alone in this thinking.

More practical connections have indelibly shaped the German-Russian relationship. For centuries, Russian czars looked to Germany for modernity. Peter the Great brought in German experts to help set up a new capital: St. Petersburg,­ facing west toward Germany and Europe. In that new city, German scholars reformed Russian science, and German soldiers and administrators changed the face of Russian government.

Vladimir and Angela Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin know plenty about each other’s countries. Back in East Germany, where she grew up, Ms. Merkel won prizes in Russian studies and still speaks the language fluently. While stationed in East Germany for five years as a KGB officer, a young Vladimir Putin looked on as the Soviet empire collapsed around him. Source: Handelsblatt
Angela and Connie Funny way to treat your friends: The now-infamous 2007 incident when Mr. Putin introduced Ms. Merkel to his dog, Connie. Later on Mr. Putin denied he did this on purpose because he knew Ms. Merkel was scared of dogs. “I did not know anything about that,” he told the Bild newspaper. “I showed her my dog because I thought she would like it. I told her so later and apologized.” Source: DPA
Vladimir and Gerhard Then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin go for an evening stroll in Sotchi in 2004. The world leaders are reputed to have a serious "bromance" going on. Mr. Schröder says Germany was Mr. Putin’s gateway to the world and that he has a “very emotional relationship” with the country. Both his daughters went to German schools.
Gerhard and Vladimir Mr. Putin and Mr. Schröder meeting in St. Petersburg in 2005. Mr. Schröder has come in for criticism for defending his Russian pal and critics suggest that too much of Germany's post-Soviet relationship was based on the friendship between the two. Source: Reuters
Gerhard and Rosneft Former chancellor, Mr. Schröder announces that he will be taking the job of chairman of Russian state-controlled oil producer, Rosneft, at a shareholder's meeting in St. Petersburg in September 2017. “He has entered history as the most loyal German leader to Russia,” Rosneft chief executive, Igor Sechin, told the meeting. Source: DPA
A 'Reprehensible' Choice Protestors in Berlin dressed as Mr. Putin and Mr. Schröder in September 2017: They are demonstrating because Mr. Schröder, 73, took up the Rosneft job. The head of Germany's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen, was similarly unhappy, calling the appointment "reprehensible" and saying it would worsen relations between Germany and Russia rather than improve them. Source: DPA
Vladimir and Joachim Their meeting didn't go so well: Putin with then-German President, Joachim Gauck in Berllin in 2012. After the meeting, word leaked out that Mr. Gauck had spoken freely about his distaste for Mr. Putin’s crackdown on opponents and journalists.
Helmut and Mikhail It is the way that Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev helped to end the Cold War that still shapes today’s German-Russian relations. Here, the Russian leader meets with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the garden of his holiday house in 1990; the group, which includes both country's foreign minsters, discussed German reunification. Source: DPA

In spite of such ties, the two countries were frequently at war, and never more so than in the twentieth century. When the Russian aristocracy fell in 1917, Germany gave Lenin and his comrades free passage across Germany, hoping they would foment a revolution back home. They did. A few short years later, Adolf Hitler’s war would cost nearly 30 million Soviet lives. Then in, 1945, the tide of occupation turned, with Cold War divisions cutting through the heart of Germany.

But it was the sudden end of that Cold War that most obviously shapes today’s German-Russian relations. In the late 1980s, Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to allow Russia’s satellite states to go their own way, meaning the Berlin Wall could fall without bloodshed.

But Mr. Gorbachev’s hopes for a “common European home,” one that included Russia, came to nothing. Instead the Russian economy collapsed and the nation’s global power dwindled, while the western defense alliance, NATO, expanded right up to its borders. In the decades since, as a unified Germany prospered, Russia began to look more and more like history’s loser, its population falling, its oligarchs triumphant, its politics corrupt and its brutality on show for all to see.

All this laid the foundations for Mr. Putin’s rise and probably his motivations, as well as the popularity of his promises for a resurgent Russia, back on the world stage. Those promises have been fulfilled to some extent. But one great victim of those past years was Russia’s fledgling democracy, battered by authoritarianism and public despair.

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GDP, changes from previous year

During the 1990s, Russia somehow belonged to the west but stood outside of it. During those years Germany lacked the will or the expertise to come up with a new policy to deal with the former Soviet states and a new Russia. Too much of the new post-Soviet relationship was based on the “boys club” friendship between then-chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Mr. Putin. Preoccupied with reunification and later on with European integration, German policy toward Russia was based mostly on energy and economics. Indeed Mr. Schröder’s government strengthened energy cooperation and began the infamous Nord Stream pipeline project.

It could well have gone on like this – but geopolitics got in the way. About a decade ago, Mr. Putin shifted his foreign policy: It was less intimidated by Europe, more opportunistic and more willing to use force and take risks, most tellingly by invading Georgia in 2008.

By 2014, Russia had also interfered in Ukraine, using shocking tactics at times. The German government, led by Angela Merkel, had little choice but to confront such Russian expansionism.

Perhaps Mr. Putin had hoped for more understanding in Berlin. In his speech announcing the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, Mr. Putin explicitly referred to German reunification. Moscow had supported Germany then, he said, so surely the Germans, of all people, should understand that “Russia is now the biggest divided nation on the planet.” Very simply, Germany must now “support Russian unification.”

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Figures for unemployment in Russia

But the Russian president had miscalculated, or perhaps he was only paying lip service to the idea anyway. Angela Merkel refused to make any kind of deal with Moscow and she wouldn’t contemplate the idea of Russian “zones of influence” or any sentimental history. In fact, Ms. Merkel felt she had been lied to and Mr. Putin was seen as dangerous. Instead Germany sought to deepen European ties, and carried on to impose further sanctions directly on Mr. Putin’s regime and his associates.

But in a way, Berlin had miscalculated too. German politicians had underestimated Mr. Putin’s resolve and ability to turn his back on Europe. His new direction came at a time when America was reconsidering its role as the world’s policeman, sealed by Donald Trump’s arrival as US president.

The new Russian attitude was embodied by Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at the Munich Security Conference this February, when he spoke about the new “post-west” world order. Former elites need to make room for a multipolar collection of sovereign states that all acted in their own interests, Mr. Lavrov said. Looking at Russian moves in places like Syria and most recently Iraqi Kurdistan – where the Russians just became the small region’s biggest financial backers, after a controversial independence referendum – one can see that cunning Russian pivot in play

Mr. Putin’s attitude to the West, says a prominent German who has known him for many years, is basically: “Kiss my Russian ass.” In Mr. Putin’s view, Russia is returning to the winning side, in both moral and military terms. “Russia is learning to be itself again,” is the Russian media slogan, as an integral, and some would say manipulative, part of the “global, non-West.”

There’s hardly any doubt that Germany won’t be following Russia to the “non-West.” That would entail leaving Europe and this is impossible: Europe is the cornerstone of German foreign and economic policy. Indeed for many, Germany embodies “the West.”

So how does all this end? The oppositional positions taken by the two senior German politicians, Mr. Gauck and Mr. Schröder, clearly symbolize the tense, current relationship between Germany and Russia. While nowhere near the bloody conflict of the past, today the two countries view each other through a lens clouded with mistrust, conflicts of interest, mutual recriminations, economic sanctions and even the occasional threat of military confrontation.

Perhaps both attitudes are wrong for this time, and a combination of the two is the most pragmatic. Germany’s large and active eastern neighbor cannot be ignored by central Europeans, but nor should the historic Russian connection be romanticized.

As Karsten Voigt, a veteran Berlin foreign policy observer and member of the Social Democratic Party, puts it: “Anyone that wants to achieve peace in Europe long term, a peace that involves Russia, should not stop measuring the Russian leadership against the crucial [European] principles and norms of such a peace.”

As a correspondent for German magazine, Stern, Katja Gloger interviewed Russian leaders Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev and spent much time with Vladimir Putin, when he first came to power in Russia. She has written a book on understanding Russia called “Fremde Freunde”, or Strange Friends in English. This story was adapted in English for Handelsblatt Global. 

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