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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