Germany and Russia: as much cooperation as possible; as much conflict as necessary


The events happening in Ukraine are dividing the German public like hardly any other political event before. But this is not so much about Ukraine. The empathy or antipathy for the revolt against the Yanukovych regime is blanketed by a deeper difference: the view of Russia. As in earlier periods of German history, Germany’s relationship with the West is reflected in Russian politics. This relationship is ambivalent both with respect to Russia as it is with respect to the liberal/capitalistic world. It fluctuates between attraction and rejection, hostility and fascination.

The war of extermination that Hitler’s Germany carried out against the Soviet Union and the following period of the Cold War mask another tradition anchored deeply in political and cultural memory: the idea of a German-Russian alliance. This covers everything from the alliance between Prussia and tsarism against the revolutionary activities from 1789 and 1848 to Gerhard Schroeder’s Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis as a project to counter the Transatlantic Alliance. Its cultural backdrop is the feeling of a spiritual kinship between two nations that reject the disdainful materialism of the Anglo-Saxon world. This also includes an economic calculation. What is known as The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations today was the Russian industrial syndicate in the Weimar Republic. Today, just as before, the focus lies on privileged access to the abundance of natural resources from the Eastern giant in exchange for the supply of industrial goods. The political conditions of Russia were not of importance. The principle of German companies has always been “Business is business.”

For the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe however, the special German-Russian relationship has never held any advantages, whether it be the splitting up of Poland between the Tsarist Empire, Prussia, and Habsburg at the end of the 18th century or the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 whose secret additional protocol provided for a detailed “Boundary of the Respective Spheres of Interest in Eastern Europe.” Even today, bad memories are triggered in Warsaw or Riga when the impression is given as if the countries “between Europe” are merely room for maneuvering between the dominating powers of the West and East.

The question of the sovereignty of Ukraine is a litmus test for Europe’s peace order. The rejection of violent border changes was already specified in the final act of the “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe,” which was signed in August 1975. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the recognition of new borders was confirmed in numerous agreements, including between Russia and Ukraine. The return to armed historical revisionism, which has already been exercised with the annexing of Crimea, strikes at the heart of this order. This also applies to the global disarmament regime. The territorial integrity of Ukraine was guaranteed by Russia, the US, and Great Britain in exchange for Ukraine destroying its atomic weapon arsenal. When such security guarantees are no longer worth the paper they are written on, that is a clear signal to the international community that only those countries having atomic weapons are protected from military intervention.

The non-alignment of the countries that resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union is up for debate as well. Even the term “near abroad,” as the seceded Soviet republics were dubbed by the Kremlin, indicates the claim to restoration of a Russian sphere of influence. Those belonging to this group have only limited sovereignty – completely in the tradition of the Brezhnev doctrine of olden times. This doctrine is now being applied without restraint to Ukraine. Putin has obtained overall authority from the Duma to send troops to Ukraine; Foreign Minister Lawrow is threatening intervention if the “legitimate interests of Russia” are violated or if “citizens of Russian origin” are endangered. The Kremlin is playing the Great Russia card just as Milosevic once played Serbian nationalism against the rebellious Yugoslavian republics.

It doesn’t help to simply turn a blind eye to the regressive change Russia has undergone under Putin. The Russian government, at its core a good ol’ boy network of former intelligence service officials, has fully renounced the West in recent years. The Moscow of today is a global headquarters of authoritarianism. Its allies share two basic positions: rejection of liberal democracy and opposition against the US. The regime has also set an anti-democratic course at home. Parliament, the Justice Department, and mass media have been forced to toe the official line, basic citizen rights have been overridden, and the system of vertical power has been systematically strengthened. We would rather paint a pretty picture of reality than confront the unpleasant challenges. The helpless appeals to the Russian government to please avoid further escalation of the situation; the delaying of serious sanctions, bordering on self-denial; the de facto acceptance of the dismantling of Ukraine – all of these are signals that Germany will offer no resistance against the brutal power politics of Putin.

The lack of a decisive “Up to this point and no further!” is escalating the situation; actually the opposite is the result: The head-in-the-sand policies of the EU are giving the Russian government carte blanche. No one wants a military confrontation with Russia. But the country is much more economically dependent on Europe than vice versa. And it is certainly not an alluring prospect for the Russian elite to be cut off from their accounts, companies, and vacation homes in the West. This situation will also not be changed by the nationalistic tide flooding the Russian media – a policy of heroic self-isolation does not offer a sustainable perspective.

The EU cannot give up on the project of a unified and free Europe without giving up on itself. This includes the promise that all European nations on the path to becoming a democracy and constitutional state can become a member of the European Community. Ukraine is the touchstone of this promise today. The door must also remain open to Russia for close political and economic association with the EU. A strategic partnership, however, can only be built on the basis of common values. Until then, the following applies: as much cooperation as possible; as much conflict readiness as necessary.

This article was translated from German. It was first published by Süddeutsche Zeitung on 4/30/14 with the title “Seelenverwandte Gegner.”

Ralf Fücks - Co-President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung