We are connected with Russia not only because of its geographical proximity, but also through a wide range of historical, cultural and economic relations. When looking back, we see terrible lows, such as the Nazis’ war of annihilation in the then Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but also many highs, such as our successful and reliable cooperation on trade, culture and research.
At the moment, the EU’s and Germany’s relations with our eastern neighbor are under severe strain. The Navalny case is a further low point and speaks volumes with respect to the current Russian leadership. Feelings are running high on the question as to the right way to deal with Moscow, while opinion on the “Russia question” is divided.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is also struggling to find the right course of action as it feels committed to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik for good reasons. After all, that moment of “change through rapprochement” with the Soviet Union undeniably made our world more peaceful and made an indispensable contribution to the unification of Germany and Europe. Today, however, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik is at risk of becoming a mere buzzword – among other things as regards the nostalgic perception that it can be transferred lock, stock and barrel to the here and now. As one insightful commentator recently put it, unthinking calls for a return to the past fail to recognize what Ostpolitik actually was at the time. And such, calls all too often ignore what the Kremlin is seeking to achieve today.
Ostpolitik started by acknowledging the status quo in order to then change it. The objective was the peaceful balancing of interests with our neighbours to the east. The key to this always lay in Moscow. For example, those wanting to make travel easier for people in the East Germany needed the approval of the communist leadership in the Kremlin. Today, Germany is united, and Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are sovereign states with whom we share membership in the EU. Ultimately, Willy Brandt’s policy emerged against the backdrop of the confrontation between the two blocs and helped overcome it. The bipolar world of the Cold War era has since become a thing of the past. A glance at our eastern neighborhood reveals that there is simply no discernible status quo today. Russia under President Vladimir Putin is becoming increasingly expansive and confrontational in its approach, one that is rooted in concepts of spheres of influence. The Kremlin sees Russia as a force for order in the post-Soviet sphere, as it recently demonstrated once again in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its immediate neighborhood, however, Moscow has created a belt of unresolved conflicts and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in violation of international law. In Belarus, Russia supports a dictator who desperately clings to power and uses massive violence to suppress the peaceful democracy and freedom movement.
Moscow is defining itself more and more in opposition to liberal democracy and the “West” and is taking an increasingly aggressive stance towards the EU. Hacker attacks, the presumed contract killing of a Georgian in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten park and targeted disinformation campaigns in the coronavirus crisis are recent examples. The list is long.
We are aware that the Russian leadership seldom passes up an opportunity to seek to drive a wedge between us. Since the poison attack on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, our relations with Russia have to navigate even more difficult waters. This case dramatically demonstrates the lengths to which the Kremlin is willing to go to prevent a strong opposition. Moscow’s aggressive stance in international affairs goes hand in hand with increasing repression at home. We must bear these painful realities in mind when we address the “Russia question” today.
A central component of a prudent response must be a consistent “one Europe” policy. In dealing with Russia, we need a European policy of unity and determination. Moscow is deliberately bilateralizing relations. We often make things too easy for the Russian leadership in this regard. If we do not allow ourselves to be divided, we can deploy the EU’s combined strength to effectively defend our values and interests vis-à-vis Russia. Despite all legitimate national interests, the EU must be the authoritative framework for orientation and action. It is high time, therefore, for a strategic debate and for the development of a common European policy on Russia a priority.
Despite or precisely because of all our differences, walls of silence in our direct dealings with Moscow cannot be an option. The EU has a strategic interest in cultivating the dialogue with Moscow. This is not just about the necessary management of difficult relationships or avoiding further escalation. We must also remain in dialogue in order to keep valuable scope open for civil society exchange. Moreover, many international challenges can only be overcome together with Russia. This applies to the resolution of conflicts, such as in Ukraine, Belarus, Syria and Libya, and also to issues of international arms control and disarmament. And it applies to global issues such as climate change and tackling epidemics. The areas of the environment, climate and healthcare in particular have potential for deeper cooperation from which both sides can benefit in a tangible way.
However, continuing to focus on dialogue in no way means kowtowing to President Putin or glossing over things that bother us. When it comes to our values and interests, we must not shy away from confrontation. At the end of the day, we must keep viable channels open for addressing common problems and speak candidly in our direct dealings with Moscow. The more difficult our relationship with Russia is, the clearer the language we use should be. We must leave no doubt whatsoever that our fundamental values are non-negotiable for us Europeans. That is why the EU did not mince words in the Navalny case and responded decisively with targeted sanctions. The clear message is that there will be no simple “business as usual” with the EU. We reiterated this in response to Mr. Navalny’s arrest and the authorities’ harsh crackdown on nationwide protests. When breaches of international law and serious human rights violations through the use of chemical warfare agents are committed, when the principles of the rule of law and civil rights are in jeopardy, then this concerns us all.
Particularly in light of these developments, the dialogue with Russia must, of course, not be limited to representatives of the state and policymakers. We must take steps to avoid further estrangement between the people of both countries. It is therefore important to actively promote cooperation in culture, science, sports and the media. Youth exchange has a crucial role to play, and young people are the bridge-builders of the future. It is also particularly important to establish the closest possible contacts at the level of civil society. Today, many courageous and dedicated Russian citizens are discriminated against and harassed as “foreign agents” as a consequence of tightened legislation. They deserve our tangible European and German solidarity. After all, Russia is not only a neighbor and a key player on the world stage, but also a country where human rights are trampled underfoot time and again. In view of the recent protests and the upcoming elections to the Duma in the autumn, we must reckon with the Kremlin continuing to tighten the thumbscrews and further restricting civil society and political engagement. In its dealings with Alexei Navalny, the Russian Government has cynically demonstrated that it considers the notion of political freedom to be an acute threat to its system of rule.
Political freedom is an indispensable part of our European foundation of shared values. But the EU must also be in a position to defend this foundation. With regard to Moscow, this means we should strengthen our resilience as a matter of urgency. We need to raise our game considerably especially in the digital and communication spheres. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Moscow and others have once again made this painfully clear to us with their mask and vaccine diplomacy. The EU needs to bolster its defenses against cyberattacks, targeted disinformation and conspiracy theories in the digital domain. It should go on the offensive in terms of its communications strategy in the fierce competition with authoritarian powers. Too seldom do we succeed in setting positive examples of our own impact and embedding these in a convincing European narrative.
We need to place our efforts on a much broader footing in terms of energy and raw material imports and focus on a diverse mix in our energy supply. The severely strained relationship with Moscow and the renewed criticism of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline must now be seized as an opportunity to finally drive diversification forward with even greater resolve. In so doing, we will avoid unilateral dependencies on individual energy suppliers and take a major step towards greater European sovereignty. This would nip in the bud many a difficult debate with our EU partners and our most important allies. At the end of the day, European energy policy serves the EU best when it strengthens our cohesion and our ability to act and no longer divides us.
Speaking of dependencies, we need only consider Russia’s lopsided economic structures to realize that Moscow depends on its oil and gas exports to the EU. The EU continues to be Russia’s most important trade and investment partner. Our largest neighbor needs the EU. This state of affairs is not altered by the fact that the Kremlin is playing the Chinese card to an increasing degree. Today, people in Russia are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that the European Green Deal will have a significant impact on the Russian economy and increase the need for adjustment. We can offer Russia our support and deeper cooperation in this transformation. That is in our own best interest, too. The EU should deploy the full range of its instruments, including effective levers to defend our values and interests, and also tireless commitment and the courage to strike out with new initiatives.
However, a considered European policy on Russia needs to be closely embedded within an ambitious European Ostpolitik. European Ostpolitik in the 21st century that does not stop at thinking in terms of mere geostrategic spheres of influence should not only comprise our largest neighbor, but also the other countries in our eastern neighborhood, many of which were themselves part of the Soviet Union or were ruled by it. We must take their experiences, concerns and fears more seriously and take them more into account than we did in the past. Germany in particular, more than others, has a role to play as a bridge-builder and mediator. Within the EU, we should now swiftly undertake further steps to strengthen the Eastern Partnership and to provide our partner countries with the best possible support, particularly with respect to reforms in the rule of law, democracy and the economy. Ultimately, however, a European Ostpolitik must never lead to sovereign, independent states being torn between their traditional ties to Russia and their orientation towards Europe. The people of these countries should be able to decide for themselves which path to take and not have to choose between the EU and Russia – neither in Belarus nor elsewhere. Even the Russian President does not wield a veto right here. Turning towards Europe does not automatically mean turning away from Russia.
Our relationship with Moscow is at a low ebb at the beginning of 2021. Significant improvements are not on the horizon right now, not least since the Russian Government currently shows little interest in this. But we must not put up new walls now. Broad-based dialogue and cooperation on selected issues are both a necessity and an opportunity. In its dealings with Russia today, the EU needs a realistic perception of the situation, a united front coupled with a clear stance and, last but not least, staying power – with targeted pressure where necessary and offers of cooperation and détente where possible. We should coordinate as closely as possible with the new U.S. administration in this regard. President Biden rightly expects us to assume greater responsibility in the EU’s eastern neighborhood and throughout Europe. Our response to the “Russia question” is ultimately also a litmus test for our much-vaunted capacity to play a role on the international stage and our aspiration to achieve European sovereignty.