Dan­ger­ous advi­sors

The book dis­cussed below (Why we need peace and freedom with Russia) explic­itly presents itself as an appeal for a change in Germany’s policy towards Russia. It brings together authors from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. They invoke Willy Brandt’s Ost­poli­tik, but inten­tion­ally leave out a few of its key cor­ner­stones: It was never only about the Soviet Union, but about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with all of our neigh­bours to the east. And the aim was not a special rela­tion­ship between Germany and Russia, but a pan-Euro­pean Frieden­sor­d­nung (“peace order”) that was to be based on nor­ma­tive prin­ci­ples – the non-use of force, equal sov­er­eignty of all Euro­pean states, respect for human rights. Those calling for friend­ship with Russia today while ignor­ing the inter­ests of Poland, the Baltic states or Ukraine, are not enti­tled to invoke the name of Brandt. Where did the habit­ual equa­tion of “Russia” and an author­i­tar­ian regime that sees itself as the oppo­nent of liberal democ­racy come from anyway? Last but not least, the policy of détente was firmly embed­ded in the Western alliance. Mil­i­tary deter­rence and dis­ar­ma­ment policy were two sides of the same coin. We asked Wolf­gang Eich­wede, former Found­ing Direc­tor of the Research Centre for East Euro­pean Studies (Forschungsstelle Osteu­ropa) in Bremen, and a true friend of Russia, for his assess­ment of the multi-author book.

The book, edited by Adel­heid Bahr, the wife of Egon Bahr, brings together chap­ters from 26 con­trib­u­tors calling for “peace and friend­ship” with Russia, among them politi­cians like Sigmar Gabriel, Wolf­gang Kubicki and Oscar Lafontaine, pub­li­cists like Wolf­gang Bittner, Daniela Dahn and Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, and researchers like Peter Brandt and Joachim Spanger, but also the con­duc­tor Justus Frantz, to name but a few. Given this high-profile author­ship, the col­lec­tion dis­ap­points, right down the line, in the sweep­ing gen­er­al­ity of the assess­ments and prej­u­dices, with the excep­tion of the more nuanced notes in the chap­ters by Gabriel und Kubicki. Who in Germany does notwant peace with the country’s large neigh­bor? Who, includ­ing and espe­cially among those crit­i­cal of the present policy on Russia, wouldn’t like to call Russia a friend? While a number of the chap­ters give voice to indig­na­tion about the unfavourable image of Russia, which they describe as a cre­ation of the press, they are not lacking in con­spir­acy the­o­ries about the wicked West, and par­tic­u­larly the USA. It would be hard to outdo this book when it comes to one-sid­ed­ness. In their censure of the media, more than a few chap­ters make use of pop­ulist figures of speech, who have “fallen into a hys­te­ria that is down­right infan­tile” (Bröck­ers, p. 54: “… einer ger­adezu infan­tilen Hys­terie ver­fallen”) or “indulge… in pompous and unre­flected Russia bashing” (Kiessler, p. 101: “…fröne … einem hochtra­ben­den und unre­flek­tierten Rus­s­land-Bashing”). What is more, dis­miss­ing the call to uphold demo­c­ra­tic rights as “moral impe­ri­al­ism” (Kiessler, p. 104) amounts to nothing short of mockery of Willy Brandt, whose name the authors so eagerly invoke.

Some aspects of the “appeal”, as the pub­li­ca­tion calls itself, are dis­cussed in more detail below.

First off, one simple but appar­ently nec­es­sary clar­i­fi­ca­tion: Willy Brandt’s policy was not called a new Russia policy but a new Ost­poli­tik. And the “Osten”– the “East” (of Europe) – was not made up only of the broken-up world power but encom­passed of all of the nations to the East of Germany: the Poles, the Czechs and Slovaks, the Baltic coun­tries, Ukraine and many others. It was in Warsaw that Brandt sank to his knees. It was from Warsaw that he addressed the German people. Nary a word of this appears in the volume under review. In line with old-style German great-power pol­i­tics, the “lesser” nations are simply absent from the dis­cus­sion. If they do appear, it is in the role of trou­ble­mak­ers. This is mon­strous. Only Russia’s power and size matter. Have the authors ever thought about just whose line of think­ing they are tapping into?

The recog­ni­tion of Europe’spost-war borders in the “Ostverträge” (“Eastern treaties”) was given vis-à-vis Poland and Czecho­slo­va­kia, and, with respect to the north­ern part of East Prussia, also vis-à-visthe USSR. Within the FRG, these treaties, with their acknowl­edge­ment of the his­tor­i­cal guilt of Germany, amounted to a rev­o­lu­tion in our polit­i­cal culture. Unques­tion­ably, this guilt exists in rela­tion toRus­sia as well. But not in rela­tion to Russia alone. The German Reich killed nearly a quarter of the inhab­i­tants of Poland. And it was Ukraine that paid World War II’shighest toll in blood. Against this back­ground, the authors’derogatory state­ments about Ukraine and their for­get­ting the nations between Germany and Russia betray a great deal about their lack of his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness. To describe the Russian annex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 as “right­ing a his­tor­i­cal wrong” (Frantz, p. 89) is to add insult to injury. Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 trans­fer of the penin­sula to Ukraine was, among other things, explic­itly a way for Russia to thank its neigh­bour­ing repub­lic for the sac­ri­fices the latter had made in the war. And by the way, the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion of Crimea voted in favour of the inde­pen­dence of Ukraine in 1991. This volume is rife with dis­tor­tions of history of this kind.

To return again to Willy Brandt’s policy of détente:just as it brought about a “change” in our (German) con­scious­ness, it also sought to promote “change” in Eastern Europe. The point of reduc­ing the level of polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion was to broaden the scope for move­ment and inter­nal free­doms on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ost­poli­tik oper­ated, by neces­sity, at the inter­gov­ern­men­tal level, but it had soci­eties in mind as well. This was the source of its unusu­ally pow­er­ful influ­ence, which, admit­tedly, was lost in the 1980s, as Sigmar Gabriel shrewdly notes (Gabriel, p. 95). Unques­tion­ably, the CSCE and the Helsinki process helped to create a new basis for trust between East and West. But to frame détente as the origin of human and civil rights (Spanger, p. 168) is to give it more honour than is its due. Pre­sent­ing the genuine achieve­ments of the soci­eties of Eastern Europe in the 70s and 80s as a feather in the cap of Western diplo­macy would be a grotesque mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of history. Ini­tially, the freedom-loving, resis­tant indi­vid­u­als and group­ings of Central and Eastern Europe were the archi­tects of the new Europe. Neither they nor the peace­ful rev­o­lu­tions of 1989–1991 figure as rel­e­vant points of ref­er­ence in the volume. Appar­ently, many find Vladimir Putin more appeal­ing.

The authors combine their anti-West­ern­ism with a fix­a­tion on power and the state. It was – or so the gist of many of the con­tri­bu­tions – the West that ruined Russia and exploited its weak­nesses in the 90s. The wild pri­vati­sa­tion, with its cat­a­strophic social con­se­quences, figures as an Amer­i­can strat­egy. US advi­sors were indeed involved, but the policy was defined by Russian econ­o­mists and, one shouldn’t forget, was exe­cuted along the chan­nels of the old nomen­klatura. I knew Anatoly Chubais, the min­is­ter respon­si­ble for pri­vati­sa­tion, back then and argued bit­terly with him about the, in my view, wrong path he was taking. German busi­ness­men and high-ranking politi­cians also cau­tioned against it. No, these were dis­as­trous Russian deci­sions, not skul­dug­gery on the part of the West. And inci­den­tally, Putin’s order, so highly praised, has not elim­i­nated the extreme inequal­ity in income dis­tri­b­u­tion or the network of oli­garch­sor the cor­rup­tion, though it has realigned them to favour the func­tional elite loyal to the regime.

As inter­preted in this book, though, the West did not stop at taking down the Russian economy. By expand­ing NATO, it also encir­cled Russia, turning Eastern Europe into a zone for “deploy­ment” (Wimmer, p. 185 and 187) against the former world power. Here again, the his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties are far from being this simple. In the imme­di­ate after­math of the col­lapse of the Soviet empire there were high hopes for a pan-Euro­pean secu­rity system. I myself had dreams of such a system. In reality, though, both sides set dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties. The wars in the Balkans overlay the visions of the Paris Charter. The Sre­brenica murders shook the world. Serbia, sup­ported by Russia, stoked the con­flicts. Yeltsin’sFirst Chechen War had already destroyed many illu­sions about build­ing the “one” world free of vio­lence. The missile attack on Grozny by the Russian Air Force became a factor alien­at­ing us in the West from Russia, and NATO’s bombing of Bel­grade had the same effect in reverse on the Russian pop­u­la­tion. Step by step, Europe lost its common lan­guage. Mean­while, the nations of Central Europe were rushing head­long into NATO –par­tic­u­larly eager, given their his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ences, to come under the pro­tec­tion of the USA. I visited Warsaw several times back then and never found any con­vinc­ing argu­ments for telling the Poles, who had been invaded by Germany in 1939 and com­pelled against their will to live under Soviet hege­mony after 1945, that con­cerns for Russia should prevent them from acquir­ing the same secu­rity status that we Germans had. Though the authors in the col­lec­tion may not be aware of it, to suggest arriv­ing at an under­stand­ing with Russia while ignor­ing the nations of Central Europe, as many of them do, is to think in the Great-Power cat­e­gories of the 19thcentury.

If one believes the general tenor of the col­lec­tion, Putin has repeat­edly stretched out his hand (Müller, p. 128), while the West, having expanded NATO east­wards, has sought to desta­bi­lize Ukraine (Lafontaine, p. 123) or force the coun­try­in­toa “West­ward turn” (Rogge­mann, p. 141). Sigmar Gabriel takes a dif­fer­ent line, char­ac­ter­iz­ing present-day Russia as “a revi­sion­ist power” (p. 92) and Putin as “not a status-quo politi­cian” (p. 93) – noting that he changes borders, vio­lates treaties and engages in great power pol­i­tics. Gabriel remains a lone voice in this pub­li­ca­tion though. The Maidan in Kiev is pre­sented as staged by the USA or as a brigade of armed com­man­dos. There is no dif­fer­ence between this dis­torted picture and that of the Kremlin’s pro­pa­ganda. But what I find the most aston­ish­ing is the display of a com­plete absence of under­stand­ing for social, protest and lib­er­a­tion move­ments on the part of authors who self-iden­tify with a milieu crit­i­cal of society. As they see it, the fact that a move­ment does not fit into their ide­o­log­i­cal cluster auto­mat­i­cally means that it is con­trolled from afar. Who among the authors issuing such scorn­ful judge­ments was actu­ally on the Maidan? Which of them has spoken with the indi­vid­u­als or organ­i­sa­tions rep­re­sent­ing the vast major­ity of the Maidan move­ment? Every­thing is clear: rev­o­lu­tions that con­tra­dict one’s own vision of the world are the result of behind-the-scenes machi­na­tions, prefer­ably those of the CIA. But even if the move­ment was sup­ported by funds from abroad, would that be so ter­ri­ble for a pro-democ­racy move­ment? Didn’t the SPD help fund the oppo­nents of Franco for decades, and so render a great service to Spain by doing? Willy Brandt, at any rate, whose biog­ra­phy is also a biog­ra­phy of resis­tance, acknowl­edged this.

Lastly, the call for prag­ma­tism in foreign policy.

Spanger’s call to accept Putin’s Russia for what it is and “will remain for the time being” (p. 168) pur­ports to be an attempt to ground us in reality. Of course, his “plural peace” ignores the fact that inter­nal plu­ral­ity can foster liberty, and con­versely, the sup­pres­sion of plu­ral­ity can promote con­flict. As a con­se­quence, it runs the risk of cement­ing hege­mo­nial struc­tures, recog­nis­ing Russia’s claim to power with respect to its neigh­bour­ing coun­tries and endors­ing the system that resulted in the Russian bomb­ings in Syria. So there can be no mis­un­der­stand­ing: peace is a cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tive of German policy. But how do we talk to someone who destroys peace in Europe and vio­lates treaties we have jointly and solemnly signed with him? We do talk with him and nego­ti­ate with him nonethe­less, even knowing that he is showing himself to be our adver­sary. However, there is no point in trying to court him, an approach advo­cated, in a show of alarm­ing naiveté, in many of the chap­ters. Instead, we must show him our, and indeed also his limits, limits that arise out of inter­na­tional law and the rights of the smaller, not so pow­er­ful states. Their recog­ni­tion is the basis for turning an adver­sar­ial rela­tion­ship into a part­ner­ship.

Put some­what provoca­tively: I do not want to be the friend of a pres­i­dent who reduces Aleppo to rubble and wages war on Ukraine, despite the love I feel for the culture of his people – and my aware­ness that many Russian artists and intel­lec­tu­als are ashamed of his. Bahr’svolume con­flates every­thing: because Russia has a great culture, we should come to an under­stand­ing with its author­i­tar­ian leaders. Or, to put the ques­tion dif­fer­ently, did an appre­ci­a­tion of Thomas Mann or Carl von Ossi­et­zky mean that the demo­c­ra­tic forces of the 1930s had an oblig­a­tion to make friends with the leaders of the German Reich? This is not meant to imply any equa­tion of present-day and his­tor­i­cal figures.

Return to realpoli­tik: how do we know that Vladimir Putin is in any way inter­ested in having the Euro­pean democ­ra­cies, which seek to unite the con­ti­nent, as part­ners? As buyers of natural gas and sup­pli­ers of tech­nol­ogy, we are useful, but we are not an equal partner in a world in which Putin mea­sures himself against the USA and China. Putin uses con­fronta­tion to boost his geopo­lit­i­cal weight. Peter Brandt’s idea of an eco­nomic union stretch­ing from the Atlantic to the Pacific pursues imag­i­nary capital inter­ests, if any at all (p. 50). To act in his father’s cause would be to fight for an area of freedom and justice. This not up for dis­cus­sion if we think in terms of a “plural peace” however. What is more, it is foolish to believe that we Germans could play Putin off against Trump. These are fan­tasies of power with nothing behind them. They would tear Europe apart.

This brings me to the great­est weak­ness of the volume: it is com­pletely devoid of prospects of any kind what­so­ever, whether I define them as anchored in realpoli­tik or as eman­ci­pa­tory. Not one of the chap­ters even begins to discuss what we should do or can do to advance the idea of a united Europe, a “Euro­pean House” in peace and freedom. Fine: so, we sac­ri­fice Ukraine and inter­na­tional law, we grav­i­tate only toward Russia, for us, Poland and the Baltic states do not exist. We know that all is not well with democ­racy in Russia, but then, the country was never made for democ­racy anyway (Egon Bahr). But then what? We cul­ti­vate our “friend­ship” with Putin, knowing all the while that he is build­ing up his alliances in Europe with anti-Europe forces and pop­ulists, in a bid to per­pet­u­ate our weak­nesses. Obvi­ously, we have to talk with him, but we also have to know that he is acting in fun­da­men­tal oppo­si­tion to our values and inter­ests in Euro­pean democ­racy and uni­fi­ca­tion. Putin is reac­tionary. But Russia is a thou­sand times richer than he – and therein lies great hope.

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