The West must find way to deal with Russia, not only because of its spoiler capacity, said Ralf Fücks, president of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation and a former Green Party official.
He elaborated in an interview with RFE/RL:
“The destructive potential of Russia is so big. Moscow has not succeeded in building constructive alliances and modernizing its economy, but it has a huge potential to provoke a limited military conflict, then to play along the lines of division in Europe or in the Middle East. The current involvement of Russia in Syria is very illustrative of its position demonstrating that “you cannot ignore us. We’re a global player and you have to come to terms with us.” To a certain extent it’s true, but not at any cost. Therefore, the West should find a [delicate balance] between engagement with Russia, on one hand, and its containment and deterrence on the other."
The rest of the interview follows:
RFE/RL: The ongoing refugee crisis, to certain extent, has overshadowed problems in Ukraine…[and]…the West has imposed economic sanctions on Russia, which definitely hurt the Russian economy. However, it Putin appears unimpressed with the US and EU punitive measures and enjoys strong domestic support, according to public polls.
Fücks: I don’t think that sanctions have not impressed Putin. There is a learning process within the Russian elite …[the country’s economy]… has begun to pay a high price for its military aggression against Ukraine. …Russia has wagedvery comprehensive warfare against Ukraine, combining military, economic and ideological means.The Kremlin also employs propaganda directed at the European public.
However, given the combination of Western sanctions and the decline of oil, gas and commodity prices on the international market, the Russian economy is in a really critical situation.
I think that at least a part of the Russian elite is aware of that and has started to consider an exit strategy. At the same time, it’s clear that, for Putin, a democratic and economically successful Ukraine would pose an extreme challenge and a risk to his power.
It is not clear if Russians will be poised to find a compromise that would respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, including its rights to choose alliances. Or whether Moscow will try to divide the EU and to get rid of sanctions without any substantial concessions.
That is a risk, because, especially the business community and European communists are eager to return a “business as usual” with Russia.
RFE/RL: You mean the risk of dividing the EU?
RFE/RL: You mean just along business or national lines, too?
RFE/RL: Germany has long nurtured very close relations with Russia because of the import of energy. At the same time, the vast Russian market is very attractive to the German business community.
Fücks: Yes, German industry, particularly oil, gas and chemical, but also car manufactures, machinery – all of them have strong interests in Russia and put pressure on the German government to lift the sanctions.
On the other hand, chancellor Merkel responds: “How we could return to normal relations with Russia as long as there is the war in Ukraine and Russia is occupying not only Crimea but also de facto controlling the Donbas region”.
Therefore, without a substantial move by Kremlin, I don’t see that we can move to a “business as usual”.
At the same time, we have to be aware that the sanctions play into Putin’s hands because he can use them as an excuse for all [Russia’s] domestic problems and to advancehis own agenda.
RFE/RL: You mean, to crack down on the media and dissents? It can be likened to the situation in Serbia when the UN imposed sanctions in 1992 because of the war in Bosnia and Croatia with the aim to force Milosevic to change his policy.
Fücks: That’s true. Maybe we should recognize that there is no shortcut, no immediate solution, but we need stamina and endurance to contain the expansionist ambitions of Russia and to strengthen Ukraine – to reform its public administration, to establish the rule of law and a transparent legal system --and to attract foreign investment.
RFE/RL: The Western sanctions hurt the Russian economy. Its GDP fell 3.5-4 per cent; the Russian ruble plummeted. However, it’s quite unlikely that Putin would act as Gorbachov did when he decided in the middle of 1980s to discontinue the arms race, because of the dismal state of USSR economy. Will Putin push for a kind of federalization of Ukraine to preserve Russian influence?
Fücks: The idea of federalization is a slippery slope. Given the way Putin plays his “federalization cards,” the outcome would be similar to what we see now in Bosnia, with two ethnic entities and cantonization. Thus, it would lead to the weakening of political union in Ukraine and its federal government. The international community cannot agree with this approach. However, we should support decentralization in a way that would strengthen municipalities, giving cities more political competencies and financial resources. Boosting local democracy is absolutely necessary. In addition, let’s give Donbas an autonomous status as long as there are a single foreign policy, unified police forces and Ukrainian border control. It means that Donbas would not be a Russian protectorate.
RFE/RL: It’s much easier to elaborate this idea theoretically than to implement it.
Fücks: That’s true.
RFE/RL: In spite of fierce conflicts during two world wars, Russia and Germany, historically, have fostered very close relations. Russia possesses large reserves of raw material needed for Germany’s sophisticated industry, while Moscow seeks German investment. At time of their rapprochement, many speculated about “German-Russian axes”, which, the rest of Europe and the US would be cautious about and would try to derail. Recently, Gazprom and its European partners signed, in spite of sanctions, the agreement on Nord Stream 2, which Kiev, Slovakia and Poland strongly oppose. What is Berlin’s real position regarding relations with Moscow?
Fücks: If you look at the positon of the German government, I would say that chancellor Merkel has so far done a remarkable job. She holds together the EU in terms of the sanctions against Russia. At the same time, she still keeps open diplomatic channels to Russia. She is in a constant dialogue with Putin as foreign minister [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier is in contact with his Russian counterpart [Sergei] Lavrov.
RFE/RL: Is the Steinmeier’s positon different compared to Merkel’s given the fact he is a leader of the Social democratic party which in the past nurtured very close relations with Moscow?
Fücks: Maybe slightly, but I don’t want to speculate, because officially there is the only one German positon.
RFE/RL: Does he follow the so-called “Schroder line”?
Fücks: I wouldn’t put Steinmeier in the same box with Schroder, but maybe he is more oriented to the old détente policy of the Social democrats in 1970s and 1980s aimed at fostering cooperation at that time with the Soviet Union.
I think that the notion-- that more cooperation with Russia would put it on a democratic pathway and make it a friendly neighbor – turns out to be an illusion.
Lot of offers to Russia in terms of its integration and cooperation has been made. Think about the Common European Energy Policy; the support to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization; the NATO – Russia Partnership Council has been established; lot of cultural exchange.
I wouldn’t agree to an interpretation that the current crisis is a fault of the West because, it tries to isolate Russia. Nevertheless, it’s clear that, in some way or other, we have to find a way to deal with Russia not only because of its spoiler capacity.