BERLIN — Over the past two weeks, since the allegations of election rigging in Belarus, there have been calls for Germany to open a dialogue with Russia. As if the country with the world's largest nuclear arsenal and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council is nothing more than a wayward child that Germany needs to bring into line.
The suspected poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has somewhat taken the wind out of the sails of people calling for Germany to scold Russia into behaving. But they'll soon be at it again. Not because it is suspected that the poisoning was carried out by agents of the Kremlin, but because there is a widespread misperception in Germany when it comes to relations with Russia. Many people believe that dialogue has some kind of magical power. That lines of communication between Berlin and Moscow must be kept open, that there must be a constant exchange of views, as if that will magically improve relations with their Eastern "neighbor."
The word is often used to describe Russia, although the two countries do not share a border. This approach paints international relations as some kind of support group, where everyone talks about their problems, maybe sheds a few tears, and goes home feeling supported and understood. But that is not how international relations work, even with Germany's closest partners. Why should it be otherwise when it comes to Russia?
Berlin and Moscow are already in regular contact, and Germany goes to great lengths to show respect for Russia where it matters. World War II, instigated by Germany, claimed the lives of millions of Russian citizens, whose descendants haven't forgotten. Two weeks ago, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited St. Petersburg to commemorate the Siege of Leningrad, the Nazi blockade that led to millions of civilians starving to death. It is a place heavy with meaning. As a gesture of reconciliation, Germany has funded a German-Russian Centre in St. Petersburg, where citizens of both countries will be able to meet, talk and remember the past.
Dialogue is important. But it doesn't make conflicts between Moscow and Berlin magically disappear, any more than it makes relations between Brussels and Washington perfectly harmonious. The geopolitical realities cannot simply be talked away.
Those who dream of a united Europe running all the way from Lisbon to Vladivostok should ask themselves whether they would also want open borders with the Central Asian republics, as Russia has long maintained. If we work more closely with Russia, that also means working more closely with its friends. For most Germans, Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping aren't at the top of the list of must-have neighbors.
Russia has fantasized about what would be possible if its own nuclear arsenal was combined with Europe's spending power.
And we must not forget that in a united Europe, Russia would hold the power. All of Russia's efforts to "normalize" relations with Europe, all complaints about the lack of a united European foreign policy have one long-term goal: tempting Europe away from Washington and taking it under Moscow's wing.
Berlin's reaction when the U.S. attempted to block the German-Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2 may be interpreted by the Kremlin as foreshadowing a new reality, where all Russia's dreams come true. For a long time – even before Putin came to power – Russia has fantasized about what would be possible if its own nuclear arsenal was combined with Europe's spending power.
In recently declassified conversations with U.S. President Bill Clinton, Putin's apparently weak, pro-West predecessor Boris Yeltsin spilled the beans about what the Russian elite have been hankering after for decades: "I ask you for one thing: just give Europe to Russia," said Yeltsin at his last meeting with Clinton in Istanbul in 1999.
Protester disguised as Putin during a denuclearization demonstration in Berlin on July 20 — Photo: Fabian Sommer/DPA/ZUMA
According to Yeltsin, the U.S. had no business in Europe, while Russia had always had one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Clinton didn't take this remark seriously, but the desire in Russia to hold sway over Europe is still strong today.
We must acknowledge that the scope for improvement in German-Russian relations is tiny. And that's not just down to Vladimir Putin. Russia is too large to bend to the wishes of Europe, but at the same time, its economy is too small to impose a hegemony.
Perhaps in the next few years Moscow will show some willingness to give up its puppet rulers in eastern Ukraine and resolve the conflict in Donbass. But whether Putin remains in power or finally steps aside to allow someone else to take his place in the Kremlin, Russia will not relinquish control of the Crimean peninsula. Mutual sanctions will be in place for years.
Russian opposition leaders, from liberals to nationalists, dream that one day Russia will be a "normal country." Perhaps they would have a chance to find out what that would look like if Russia ever has a true parliament with genuinely free debate. Putin – apparently a reliable partner to the West – has shut down all debate in his country and brushed many problems under the carpet.
Don't get your hopes up.
Whether an aging Putin holds onto power in the next decade or hands over to a successor, the unresolved contradictions of his rule will keep bubbling away. What role will Russian nationalism play? How will the various ethnic groups respond? What will the balance of power look like between the centralized government and the regions? Should Russia prioritize costly, aggressive foreign policy or a true welfare state? How does scientific research move forward without the legacy of Soviet funding? Who should pay more: the individual or the state?
The consequences of these conflicts will be felt in Germany and across Europe. Once Russian society has reached a general consensus about these questions, the country will have to renegotiate its relationships with Germany and Europe.
In the next 10 or 15 years, Russia may well embrace more European values in some areas, as Russian millennials who are not steeped in Soviet history take positions of power and authority.
But we shouldn't get our hopes up. Russia may be part of Europe in a cultural sense, but politically, even without Putin, it will go its own way. And that may not be the way we want.
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