During the recent NATO foreign ministers meeting (April 2) in Brussels, followed by an informal EU Foreign ministers meeting in Athens (April 5), it became evident that while several Eastern European nations, in particular Poland and the Baltic states, called for a full NATO presence on their territory as well as further expansion of NATO towards the East, there have been more “moderate” tones such as for example the ones expressed by German Foreign Minister F.W.Steinmeier in Athens who again reiterated what he has been saying many times: the only way to find a reasonable solution in the escalating Ukraine crisis is “direct dialogue with Russia”. While stating that the annexing of Crimea represents an unacceptable break of international law, on the other hand Steinmeier made clear that “we can’t cast this conflict aside, but we also will need Russia, if we want to stabilize the Ukraine. Russia has a lot to contribute because the question of economic stabilization is essentially depending on the question how Russia will shape its energy policies towards the Ukraine”.
Steinmeier is one among many, in particular economic representatives who is receiving harsh criticism from the side of the German Press. He as well as leading economic representatives is labeled as so-called “Realpolitiker” and ridiculed as “Russian understanders” (“Russlandversteher”).
German Industry representative calls for common European economic space
During the second “east forum” organized by the Ostausschuss der deutschen Wirtschaft (Committee of the German Industry on Eastern European Economic Relations) in Berlin April 10 the chairman of the Commission Dr. Eckhard Cordes in front of 300 guests from 20 countries, including ministers from Ukraine and Russia, qualified the present European East- West economic cooperation as a project that aims to create “a common European economic space from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. According to Cordes in Germany alone 1,5 Mio workplaces depend on trade with central and Eastern Europe, while thousands of medium sized firms in the last years have settled in Hungary, Poland or Rumania. In Russia German firms have 20 billion Euros in terms of direct investment, compared to 4.5 billion Euros in Ukraine.
Cordes clearly warned not to politically escalate the present crisis and emphasized that it is not only one side which is to blame: “Mutual sanction threats, the deployment of soldiers, the change of internationally recognized borders and the closing of discussion forums”, as Cordes warned ,“bring us into a situation which we thought we had overcome since a long time”. Cordes made clear that “confrontation instead of cooperation” can’t be an alternative and that whoever weakens out economic relations should know that he also weakens peace in Europe. The only viable solution is dialogue, i.e. sit down around a negotiation table and solve the crisis. According to Cordes countries like Armenia, Georgia, Moldavia and Ukraine can’t decide between two economic spaces. They should function like a “bridge” which itself only functions if the EU and Russia have a stable relation. If the standards between the EU and the Customs Union (Russia, Belarus, Kasachstan) were standardized this would be beneficial for all.
In the public debate of the east forum German Foreign Minister Steinmeier reiterated with the government line according to which the annexing of the Crimea is against international law and that therefore improvement of economic relations alone will not be a sufficient answer.
Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: “Putin’s action is understandable”
Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in a one page interview in the German Weekly “Die Zeit” (27.03. 2014) also warned of an “overreaction” by the West and condemned the policy of sanctions as “nonsensical” Being asked about Putin’s violation of international law on the Crimean Peninsula, Schmidt replied that in fact “the international law has been broken several times in the last years, exemplified by the intervention into the Libyan civil war, which was not in agreement with international law. The West by far overstretched the UN Security Council Mandate.” Schmidt underlined that Putin’s action was “understandable” and that the danger of the present situation results from the fact that the West is “terribly agitated which in turn creates a terrible agitation in the Russian public opinion and policy.”
Schmidt qualified sanctions as “a lot of nonsense especially the attempt to forbid top Russian representatives to travel freely”, when their presence may be actually most needed at international conferences. “Economic sanctions would hurt the Wests and Russia.”
The proposal to make Germany and other countries in Europe less dependent on Russian energy is not a very “clever idea”, according to Schmidt. “If you look at the actual situation and think it through till the end of the 21. century, you will realize that Russia will remain an important partner. This historically goes back to the period of Peter the Great and Katharine II. During the second world war Russia stood at the side of the West”, Schmidt said, “while Germany stood on the wrong side. This Germans forget today…There is no hatred among the Russian people against the Germans. There is admiration for the German economy and in Germany there is no hatred toward Russia.”
Schmidt stated that Putin’s actions are not an expression of megalomania. “If you were in Putin’s situation you would have probably reacted the same way towards the Crimea as he did”, Schmidt said. Concerning the danger of a potential new Cold War emerging in Europe, Schmidt stated that this would of course very much depend “whether the McCain’s as well as other agitators succeed.” He made adamantly clear that “the German people do not want Cold War. It may be the case that the political elites distance themselves more rapidly from the peaceful thinking of their peoples.” He also pointed out that for historical reasons the public opinion in Poland and the Baltic Republics is much more hostile to Russia than the public opinion in the West. Lastly he underlined that the idea to exclude Russia from the G8 does not mean anything because the G20 is by far more important.
What former Chancellor Schmidt and Dr. Eckhard Cordes from the east forum express is corresponding to the psychological reality expressed by the majority of the German population. They both point to a dilemma which must be taken seriously: the political elites as well as most of the leading media are rapidly drifting away from the base and ignore the people’s “perception”. A good indicator is to read the daily readers’ letters in the leading German press, which is different from the line given by the mainstream media. It is also reflected in public polls, like a recent FORSA (renowned polling institute in Berlin) poll which was conducted among the German population, concerning the question of economic sanctions against Russia. Two third of the population (63%) was strictly against it, while 53% was also against Ukraine joining the EU (according to the sample taken).