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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