Putin’s Poi­soned Chalice*

An answer to Wladimir Putin’s fine tuned op-ed in the German weekly Die Zeit by Ralf Fücks, Center for Liberal Modernity.

In a recent op-ed piece, Vladimir Putin called for dia­logue between Russia and Europe. Ironic, as he was the one who destroyed the basis for such talks in the first place.

Vladimir Putin’s excur­sus marking the 80th anniver­sary of the German inva­sion of the Soviet Union is a small mas­ter­work. The piece plays skil­fully on the complex mixture of emo­tions that Germans harbour towards Russia. Putin knows only too well that the guilt and shame evoked by the war of anni­hi­la­tion waged by the Wehrma­cht and the SS are directed almost entirely towards Russia, though that the violent excesses of the eastern cam­paign were no less brutal in the ter­ri­to­ries of Poland, Ukraine and present-day Belarus. A great many nations suf­fered under the war and occu­pa­tion. A great many nations paid in cur­rency of immea­sur­able sac­ri­fice to bring Hitler’s Germany to its knees. Yet the empathy that Germans feel towards the victims and their lib­er­a­tors is far from evenly dis­trib­uted – an asym­me­try that the Kremlin does its best to encourage.

The glo­ri­ous victory in the “Great Patri­otic War” is a key source of legit­i­macy for the Putin regime. Nothing can be allowed to cast a shadow on this image. The Hitler-Stalin Pact, the carving up of Poland by mutual agree­ment, the impe­ri­al­is­tic divid­ing up of Eastern Europe before the 22nd of June 1941: Putin piece alludes to none of these. Nor does he see any reason to mention that lib­er­a­tion from Nazi rule led directly to the estab­lish­ment of another form of tyranny in the eastern half of Europe. The twofold expe­ri­ence of vio­lence under­gone by the peoples of East Central Europe under Hitler and Stalin has no place in Putin’s picture of Great-Russian history.

The anti-Western under­cur­rent in Germany, the chronic ambiva­lence towards Amer­i­can and deep-seated reser­va­tions about NATO combine to form a second motif in Putin’s com­po­si­tion. If we believe him, the east­wards expan­sion of NATO was the orig­i­nal sin that destroyed New Europe. This is reality turned upside down. NATO was never a threat to Russia. It is not anti-Russian in either its polit­i­cal or its mil­i­tary ori­en­ta­tion. Nor did the ini­tia­tive for NATO’s enlarge­ment orig­i­nate in Wash­ing­ton. On the con­trary, it began in the new democ­ra­cies in East Central Europe, which were seeking insur­ance them­selves against the risk of a re-emer­gence of impe­r­ial ambi­tions in the Kremlin. Russia’s mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions in Georgia and the Ukraine have con­firmed that their fears were justified.

Finely tuned for a German audience.

The melody of Putin’s piece is finely tuned for German ears. His plea for a “Europe from Lisbon to Vladi­vos­tok” is aimed at detach­ing us from the USA, at long last, and replac­ing our ties with the West with an alliance with Moscow. There has long been fertile soil for this in Germany – from the far left to the far right. There are ele­ments in the German economy that are still attracted to the idea of a strate­gic alliance within which Russia pro­vides the raw mate­ri­als and Germany the advanced tech­nolo­gies. Nord Stream 2 belongs very much in this tra­di­tion. In the polit­i­cal arena as well, there are those both in con­ser­v­a­tive circles and on the left who are quite taken with idea of a Berlin-Moscow axis acting as a geopo­lit­i­cal coun­ter­weight to America and China.

Putin cul­ti­vates these lean­ings quite delib­er­ately. He is betting that a Europe without the transat­lantic bonds of mutual alliance will come under the polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary dom­i­nance of Russia. In the Kremlin’s eyes, Germany is the “swing state”: with a victory here, he can take NATO down. No effort is too great for a reward like that. And the profits from natural gas and oil exports make for deep pockets.

Russia destroys the basis for dialogue

Dia­logue as a panacea for for­giv­ing and peace­ful coop­er­a­tion forms a third motif that runs through Putin’s piece. The threads of con­tin­u­ing con­ver­sa­tion must not be allowed to break down – this is a ubiq­ui­tous refrain in the Russia debate. Yet con­ver­sa­tion is not in short supply. Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel speaks with Putin on the phone reg­u­larly, the Euro­pean foreign min­is­ters take turns meeting with their Russian coun­ter­part, Sergey Lavrov. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and of the OSCE; there are joint eco­nomic forums, city part­ner­ships and the Peters­burg Dia­logue. Yet none of this has pre­vented the Kremlin from steer­ing a course towards con­flict. The list of its trans­gres­sions is quite long – from the unde­clared war against Ukraine to the cyber-attacks on the German Bun­destag to the assas­si­na­tion attempts on Putin oppo­nents in Europe.

No amount of will­ing­ness to engage in dia­logue can change the fact that we are in the midst of a new con­flict of systems, with liberal democ­ra­cies on the one side and their author­i­tar­ian coun­ter­parts on the other. At the very least, we should recog­nise just who it is we are dealing with in Moscow. Oth­er­wise, the Euro­pean “good-will” diplo­mats will face treat­ment like that meted out to Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief of foreign rela­tions, when he was pub­licly humil­i­ated by Lavrov.

The Russian lead­er­ship has been sys­tem­at­i­cally destroy­ing the bases for a serious dia­logue. On the domes­tic front, they have steadily ratch­eted up the pres­sure on civil society. Freedom of expres­sion has been restricted through a whole series of repres­sive laws. More than 160 NGOs have been branded “foreign agents”. Any polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion is pre­vented before it can get started. Tele­vi­sion, the justice system and the Duma were forced into line long ago; crit­i­cal thinkers are driven out of the country.

Mean­while, the list of “unde­sir­able foreign organ­i­sa­tions” barred from any kind of activ­ity in Russia grows ever longer. It includes foun­da­tions for democ­racy, like the Euro­pean Endow­ment for Democ­racy and the Open Society Foun­da­tions, research insti­tutes and Euro­pean plat­forms for demo­c­ra­tic elec­tions. Very recently, the DRA (German-Russian Exchange) and the Center for Liberal Moder­nity were added to the list of the banned, putting an end to years of coop­er­a­tion with Russian friends and part­ners. In the future, anyone who coop­er­ates with us risks a prison sen­tence. Clamp­ing down inside the country and closing the doors to outside influ­ence go hand in hand.

That diplo­matic chan­nels to Moscow must be kept open is self-evident. We should be doing every­thing in our power to support demo­c­ra­tic forces in Russia at the same time, though.

Putin is not Russia

Vladimir Putin is not Russia. There is a growing demo­c­ra­tic aware­ness in the regions and in the younger gen­er­a­tions. They are our strate­gic part­ners. We must not allow Moscow to dictate the terms for dia­logue. Russian state media and web brigades are influ­enc­ing public opinion in the West on a grand scale; the Kremlin is coop­er­at­ing with pop­ulist parties on both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum all across Europe. This, while coop­er­a­tion with Russian part­ners is pro­hib­ited as “inter­fer­ence with inter­nal affairs”. This is unacceptable.

So, what should our response to Putin be? Russia is welcome in the common Euro­pean house. Yet eco­nomic and polit­i­cal part­ner­ship have to be based on common values and rules. There is no getting around that. An offer of Euro­pean coop­er­a­tion that omits any mention of democ­racy, human rights, or the equal secu­rity and sov­er­eignty of all states is a poi­soned chalice.

*Trans­la­tion from the German of “Putins vergiftetes Angebot”, an opinion piece pub­lished in ZEIT ONLINE on 24 June 2021.


Ralf Fücks is a founder and Man­ag­ing Partner at the Center for Liberal Modernity

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