Never in the past 25 years have German and Russian relations, politically and emotionally, been so strained. Such was my perception after a short visit to Moscow for a series of meetings.
It is all about Ukraine. The crisis has yet to peak and further escalation is more than likely. No one who understands the history of unforeseen wars can dare claim that in such an explosive situation unintended confrontations and corresponding military escalations couldn’t happen. Europe has had more than enough experience in that arena. We’ve returned, it seems, to Cold War mode.
Any talk between Germans and Russians always turns to this single conflict. Given the opportunity, an oligarch said to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin will always bring up the subject of splitting Ukraine. The government in Kiev is almost without exception portrayed as “fascist,” or dominated by “neo-Nazis.”
It goes unheard when Germans note Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union, let alone NATO. Neither of these wishes are even up for discussion in the foreseeable future, nor is the fact that the West is most concerned with respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the West's sanctions, but they certainly increase anxiety.
Russians view the European Union as an appendage of the United States or NATO. Meanwhile, the new Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, is presented in Russian media as an “ally” of Mr. Putin because of his negative statements about Western sanctions.
In fact, Moscow generally views extremist movements of both left and right as favorable developments, including the National Front party in France, which is financed, in part, by Russian banks.
In a nutshell, rigid anti-Americanism dominates the scene as does any attempt to politically destabilize the E.U. agenda.
In this tense situation, rumors drift around Moscow, most of them centering on the actions of the president. Mr. Putin’s authority remains unchallenged and his strategy in Ukraine enjoys broad public support. “Russia, raised from its knees” is the common theme in propaganda.
Are advisors who advocate a moderate approach to the West still able to reach Mr. Putin? We know of telephone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama, but a knowledgeable source noted, “There is no longer any trust between the leadership in East and West.”
In short, there is no longer any channel of communication for a confidential exchange of opinions between leaders in Washington and Berlin with their counterparts in Moscow.
It’s clear that Russia’s economy is in critical condition. The fear that economic performance this year could decline by up to 5 percent is realistic. The price of oil and the value of the ruble have hit rock bottom. A swift recovery seems improbable.
Russia remains second only to America in being a global nuclear and military power. Few issues of global importance can be resolved without it.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the West's sanctions, but they certainly increase anxiety. This may be why Mr. Putin has unmistakably toughened his tone on the United States and European Union.
Who is well served by this? Any tightening of sanctions must be carefully considered. Don’t be deceived. The threat to ban Russia from using the SWIFT payment system, the global transfer service used by banks, would provoke an “unrestricted” response from Moscow.
Is there really no possibility of coming to an understanding? Putin is disappointed with Europe and feels Russia is being treated with contempt by the United States. Reportedly, this is not just a matter of him “saving face.” It is a matter of political substance.
This is why efforts by Ms. Merkel and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel to launch a discussion with Moscow on a Eurasian-European trade area are absolutely right. Perhaps the Ukraine conflict could also fit into such a framework.
As for the United States, it must again accept that Russia is much, much more than just a “regional power.” It remains second only to America in being a global nuclear and military power. Few issues of global importance can be resolved without Russia, much less against it, including the crisis in Ukraine.
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