By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

“America’s current mix of sanctions and diplomacy isn’t working! And it is urgent to rethink our Russian Policy,” this is the main thesis of an “open letter” that was written  and co-signed in May 2020 by more than 100 top American security, defense experts, diplomats and former US Ambassadors to Russia. The letter was published in the US Magazine “Politico” (8th of May 2020). In the appeal which hardly found any resonance in Europe or in Germany, American experts concluded that US-Russian relations are at a “dangerous dead-end.”

The risk of a military confrontation that could go nuclear is again real, they stated. “We are drifting toward a fraught nuclear arms race, with our foreign policy arsenal reduced mainly to reactions, sanctions, public shaming and congressional resolutions. The global Covid- 19 pandemic and the resulting serious worldwide economic decline, rather than fostering cooperation, have only reinforced the current downward trajectory.” The signers – among them Rose Gottemoeller (Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security 2014-16) as well as former Secretary of State George Shultz (1982-89) as well as Thomas Pickering (Ambassador to Russia 1993-96) demand that a “change of our current course is imperative” and underline that it makes “no sense for the US and Russia to destroy each other and in 30 minutes end with civilization as we know it.”  “There should be a serious strategic dialogue with Russia that addresses the deeper sources of mistrust and hostility and focusses on the large and urgent security challenges facing both countries.” This includes:

*the imperative  to restore US- Russia leadership in managing  a nuclear world made more dangerous by destabilizing technologies , shifting attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons … That  means extending the new START Treaty and swiftly moving to a next phase of arms control to strengthen nuclear stability, carefully adjusted to a world of multiple nuclear actors.

* the imperative to make safer and more stable the military standoff that cuts across Europe’s most  unstable regions, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, working vigorously to preserve existing constraints, such as the open Skies Treaty, and creating new confidence building measures.

* The success of US- China policy will in no small measure depend on whether the state of U.S.-  Russia relations permits three- way cooperation on critical issues.(…)

The authors emphasize that “premising US policy on the assumption that we can and must change” the framework of “Russian politics” is misguided.   “We must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be, fully utilizing our strengths but open to diplomacy. So focused, we can both cope with the challenge that Russia possesses and strive to put the relationship on a more constructive path. Failure to do so carries too high a price. Among the more than 100 signers there were aside the above mentioned initial signatory Rose Gottemoeller Thomas Graham, Senior Director for Russia, National Security Council staff 2004-07; Fiona Hill, Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs, National Security Council Staff 2017-19; Jon Huntsman Jr, Ambassador to Russia 2017-19; Robert Legvold, Columbia University and Thomas Pickering, Ambassador to Russia (1993-96).

Foreign Ministers Heiko Maas and Sergej Lavrov see each other face-to-face

On the background of the above mentioned open letter – one should pay attention to the visit of German foreign minister Heiko Maas on the 12th of August to Moscow, where he had consultations with the Russian foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov about a wide range of issues, which both countries are concerned about and which they try to solve constructively:

1.This includes the question how to get further in terms of the peace efforts in the Ukraine, i.e. consolidate the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, followed by more concrete steps to realize the demands agreed upon by the Normandy format partners in Paris 2019 and a robust OSCE mission in Eastern Ukraine to verify results of the ceasefire. 2. How to realize the steps recommended in the final resolution of the Berlin Libya summit in January, i.e. how to guarantee the sovereignty and integrity of Libya. 3. How to implement the UN Security resolution 2254 in respect to Syria and preserve peace and integrity of Syria. 4. How to maintain the dialogue with Iran concerning the maintenance of the JCPOA agreement which Russia as well as the Europeans obviously want to maintain. 6. How to reopen new channels of communication concerning Cyber Security. 7. A relevant issue during the consultations was the Energy Project “Nord Stream II” (gas pipeline between Russia and Germany to be used and diversified in favor of Europe’s overall energy security).

Both Ministers Heiko Maas and Sergej Lavrov emphasized in a common press conference that the renewed sanction threats from the US directed against Germany were not acceptable. These threats culminated recently in a letter sent by three US senators sent to the Mayor of the city Sassnitz on the Island of Rügen, that site where the remaining construction (120km) for the pipeline is supposed to be completed.  In the letter the three Senators threatened the companies involved in the construction with “financial annihilation”- which unleashed a storm of protests coming from German industry and from leading SPD politicians, among them also from Minister President of the Federal State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Manuela Schwesig (SPD).

The visit of Heiko Maas coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Moscow Treaty, which both Maas and Lavrov referred to. The treaty which was signed August 12 1970- opened a new era of Ostpolitik and détente under then Chancellor Willy Brandt, following a policy based on the principle “change through rapprochement” which resulted in the Helsinki process and German reunification. It is noteworthy that while Maas visited Moscow, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a demonstrative visit to Austria and some countries in Central Europe, simply avoiding visiting Berlin.

US sanction threats against Nord Stream II rejected

During the one hour press conference which was transmitted live from Moscow- which unfortunately was not adequately reflected in the German mainstream media – it became clear that both the Russian and German side are making renewed efforts to iron out misunderstandings and tensions that have piled up in the recent months and to define a common position in respect to the Nord Stream II project and other urgent international conflicts. Both diplomats -were criticizing the reckless US behavior concerning the sanctions threatened by the US against this project. According to German Foreign Minister Maas: “No state has the right to dictate which energy policy the EU should choose, and this will not succeed.”  Maas further underlined that during a telephone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend, he had expressed his viewpoint quite adamantly, underlining that sanctions between two partners are “definitively the wrong way.” He further announced that Germany will use its actual EU presidency to reinforce the subject of European “sovereignty.” In the final analysis “it is our sovereign decision, where we get our energy from.”  Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in turn stated that he fully agreed with Maas and that sanctions from the US and the EU are “not justified.” He criticized that the US “without any diplomatic context is pursuing in a “one sided way.”  In particular he expressed concern in respect to the ongoing Nord Stream II debate, pointing out that the US is taking a totally arbitrary position, as it did by  annulling the Iran nuclear treaty, the INF and the Open Skies treaty. Both foreign ministers mentioned the 50th anniversary of the Moscow Treaty and the groundbreaking importance of this treaty in the post- war history. Of symbolic significance was also the fact that German Foreign Minister Maas announced that after Moscow he would visit St Petersburg, in order to commemorate with survivors the horrendous Leningrad Blockade under the German Wehrmacht(1941) which led to the death of  one Million Russian citizens, as Maas emphasized during the press conference.He called it one of the darkest chapters in German history and emphasized that both countries have agreed on a series of humanitarian efforts in respect to the survivors and their families..

CSIS sponsored study tries to meddle in German- Russian foreign policy debate

It is however amazing to observe the “reflex like- defensive position” exhibited by the German  mainstream press. Instead of  reporting factually straight about the visit, most of them decided not to  report anything of significance.  This reflects a sad reality: namely there are only a few people in Germany trying to understand the complexity of the Russian situation (among them also Matthias Platzeck (SPD), former Minister President of the Federal State of Brandenburg who in new book published in Spring, calls for a “New Ostpolitik.” On this background is worthwhile to pay attention to a report (published end of July) from the “CSIS Europe, Russia and Eurasian program,” authored by one Dr. Jeffrey Mankoff (research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University) and Tabea Wilke.

The report is entitled: “With friends like these: Assessing Russian influence in Germany.”  According to the report, Russian influence in Germany is more exercised “through traditional political business and cultural channels” than through the kind of disinformation and disruption that have become Russian hallmarks in many other states. One of the main problems in Germany according to the author Mankoff  are the so called Russia- Understanders – “Russland- Versteher” in parts of the German elite which would be an “important avenue for ongoing Russian influence.” Among them former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the former strategic advisor of CDU Chancellor Helmuth Kohl, Professor Horst Teltschik (who published in 2019 a book: “Russian roulette. From cold war to cold peace”), as well as the chairman of the Eastern Committee of the German Industry, Oliver Hermes and influential figures in the “German- Russian forum e.V. as well as in the St. Petersburg forum. Such circles according to the report are giving broad based support to the Nord Stream II project.

Mankoff speculates at the end that after Merkel’s departure 2021 there will be either a more Russia friendly policy (with the exclusion of the Greenie party which is anti- Russia) or that some of the assumptions guiding German politics which have contributed to Germany’s “resilience” in the face of Russian influence activities, will be eroding and everything will be in flux again.

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