Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Skinny on Europe-Russia Relations

This past week, RT showed a few shots of the meeting in Moscow between John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin, the first American encounter with the Russian president in months, due to the situation in Ukraine.  I was struck by the Russian President’s gentle smile as he greeted Kerry, reminded of George Bush’s comment after his meeting with the then new Russian President, something like, ‘I looked into his eyes and saw his soul.  I can work with this man.”  
Recently there has been much speculation - at least in the alternative press - about Europe’s uncomfortable position between a rock and a hard place: as Kerry himself admitted, the the US has pressured the EU to enact sanctions against its important trading partner, Russia, and this, coupled with recent revelations about French and German spooks spying on each other for the benefit of the CIA appears to have had a greater detrimental effect on the Atlantic Alliance since it came into being in 1949 than all the wars in which the US has involved its reluctant partners.  
Anyone interested in digging deeper into the state of US-Europe/Europe-Russia relations would do well to listen to the half-hour long conversation between RT’s most sophisticated journalist, Oxana Boyko, and a veteran German diplomat, who currently chairs the Munich Secrutiy Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger.  It can be found on RT’s website at:

An incredibly dense political dialogue can be seen/heard today on RT between Oxana Boyko, an unusually talented journalist, and the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, a former OSCE lead negotiator for Ukraine, Wolfgang Ischinger, who is an unusually gifted diplomat. The conversation was probably recorded some days ago, however its airing on the day after John Kerry’s visit to Moscow, during which both he and President Putin appeared to want to smooth over a relationship that has been increasingly fraught over the past year and a half, is noteworthy, given speculation over whether Europe is ready to declare independence from the US. Beyond Ischinger’s call for dialogue between the warring parties in Ukraine, Boyko’s adept ques-tioning allowed the German diplomat to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
Calling for measures to foster a dialogue between all groups in Ukraine, Ischinger recognized that Russia doesn’t want to see its neighbor ‘carved up into two portions’, but affirmed that President Putin was not doing enough to avoid this happening.
When Boyko doubted the advisability of arming Kiev, even with defensive weapons, pointing out that the allies said the same thing about Syria, but weapons didn’t help restrain anyone, the German had to agree. But he added: “A defenseless Ukraine is also not a good idea, but a source of instability in Europe.  We have not reached a point where countries can get rid of their armies and live in eternal peace.” Then he asked a question that many listeners probably found astonishing, given the amount of money the US spends on defense and its almost one thousand  bases around the world: 
“Does your audience understand to what extent we in NATO, including the US, have disarmed in Europe? Germany used to have thousands of US tanks, thousands of nuclear-armed aircraft. We had several thousand heavy tanks, we are now down to 250.  Does Russia understand that we have practically totally dis-armed?”  
(Perhaps all the German arms have been sent to the Baltic countries….) Boyko countered that NATO has two parallel narratives. “There was supposed to be an agreement that no country would advance its claims at the expense of others. Russia would agree to that but what about Washington?”
Protesting that he is not an Obama spokesperson, the German diplomat claimed there was a widespread view that it was Russia that violated “what we thought were established principles of behavior, that you don’t change borders without the consent of…. ‘everybody’ (or,as Obama would put it, ‘the international community’). Ischinger, who negotiated with Lavrov for years over Kosovo, said he was “amazed, because Russia had consistently affirmed that we couldn’t change Kosovo’s borders, let be independent, because this would go against Belgrade, but now it’s only important what the people in Crimea say. To me that is extremely difficult to digest.”
Instead of pointing out that Kosovo was in fact allowed to become independent, with the consent of the international community, over Russia’s objections and over Belgrade’s head, Boyko admitted that there were inconsistencies: “But this has happened many times in the past. We can agree that right now there are no rules. You’ve said the West and Russia need to discuss what kind of system they want to live in. Putin has often talked about this, including at the Munich conference.” Then, with feigned innocence: “Wasn’t this the only way for Russia to persuade the West that things need to change, that we need to agree on rules that all will follow?”
Not to be deterred, Ischinger countered: “I find very difficult to understand what the problem really was from a Russian point of view.  I can’t believe Russia thought we intended to create any kind of threat to Russia. I have written hundreds of pages about how we want to create a partnership, a Euroatlantic community with Russia. It’s true we failed to create the kind of cooperative relationship we wanted in the nineties, however Germany was not part of Libya….” 
Here Ischinger asked Russia to differentiate between individual countries and NATO. Germany, he said, never came close to violating international accepted principles: “We only acted under UN mandate. Germans will not drop a pencil without an international mandate to act.”
But surely the elephant in the room was the Neo-con doctrine of ‘full spectrum dominance’, Brzezinski’s old plan to carve Russia up into smaller, manageable states, and the current plan to somehow provoke ‘regime change’ in Moscow, to force Russia to share its mineral wealth. (Medvedev, who has alternated with Putin as President and Prime Minister, is said to be part of the pro-Atlantic faction in Moscow, as opposed to Putin’s Eurasian faction.) But the main point is the fact that the European Union has never acted independently from Washington:
Boyko: “We already touched on the issue of trust, and you say it’s the most vital commodity in international relations.  Russia may be at fault in Ukraine, but has trust ever existed?
Ischinger: “Yes, there were big ideas, there was a vision of how we would create a win-win situation between Russia’s assets and ours.”
Boyko: “How did Moscow lose that trust?”
Ischinger: “On the Russian side, there was Kosovo, and I would agree that the results of the Libya operation were not satisfactory, they led to chaotic situations, they hadn’t thought through the steps to take after military action in order to create a more stable Libya. And Iraq was a big mistake. As the German ambassador to Washington I wrote an article saying this was wrong, it didn’t make many friends in the Bush administration. But the Russian reaction to what happened in Ukraine was an overreaction, which led to the last bit of trust disintegrating. Mistakes were made by both sides. How can we glue this thing together again?”
Boyko: “I know you are in favor of dialogue.  But NATO negotiates from a position of strength, telling us what it is going to do and doing it. Isn’t that approach also doomed to fail, isn’t it ultimately responsible for the present situation?”
There is no mention of the US-backed coup in Ukraine, nor of the presence of fascist militias without which the coup would have failed. Finding an astonishing rationale for the recent NATO maneuvers in the Baltic States, right on Russia’s border, Ischinger says:
 “There is no hope for meaningful dialogue with Russia if some countries live in real or imagined fear of Russia, so we have to try to offer some degree of reassurance to these nations who fear Russia, so we create programs of reassurance in the Baltic states and Poland. (Military maneuvers equal ‘programs of reassurance’!) But Russia should never regard this as against Russia.” (We are not the ones who fear you, it’s just those silly Balts and Poles….)
Boyko had a ready response: “Putin acquiesced to the Baltic states joining NATO but afterward they became even more fearful.  So are Russia’s fears of NATO not legitimate?”
Ischinger (inverting the issues): “I’m sure there are legitimate concerns.  But what has created the most concern on the Western side is the idea that Russia has some God given right to protect Russian citizens outside of Russia, it’s what we call the Putin doctrine.  We need to respect borders. If not, all hell breaks lose.”
As Boyko sought to protest, Ischinger reminded her that in the crisis over Ukraine, the Russian Parliament had authorized the use of force wherever necessary, to which Boyko pointed out that Russia’s desire to defend Russian speaking people in neighboring countries is a smaller ambition than that of a country that wants to defend people who defend freedom all over the world. 
Ischinger: “Syria will continue to be a problem for some time, a horrible human rights catastrophe and I’m sorry to say, (referring to R2P, or Right to Protect) we in West we are wringing our hands over intervention, so we sit back and let people kill each other.”
Never missing a beat, Boyko points out: “The US is providing weapons from across the border with Turkey.”
Here the conversation arrives at the crucial point to which it was leading up. Ischinger says that Russia and the US rely on force, but Russia has a different sort of chemistry with Berlin, allowing Boyko to ask:  “What is the role of your country in this crisis and how is it different from the US role?”
And now we know where Europe’s leader stands: “Germans and Russians have our own history, a terrible history. Germans are absolutely aware that millions of Russians lost their homes and were killed in WW II. Guilt, shame, it is a history which divides us but also brings us together; also geographic proximity, and economic relations. This is a totally different relationship from that of Russia with the big power across the Atlantic. (And he could have said the same about Germany…) For decades we have been pursuing how to build a cooperative relationship with our big neighbor to the East.  THERE CAN BE NO CONSTRUCTIVE ORDER OR PEACE IN EUROPE AGAINST RUSSIA. It has to be organized with Russia. But this requires trust.  It’s not useful to discuss past mistakes, we have to just accept them and return to the drawing board to rebuild trust. This takes time. Where can we start? Economically? Can we agree that we will not do dangerous things?”
Boyko: “Training the military is dangerous…”
Ischinger: “Not observing the Russia/Ukraine border, letting arms and men flow across border is also dangerous. 
Boyko: “The US has been doing this openly.” 
But now she poses the crucial question: “Can we discuss things between Russia and Europe without the US? Can we work things out between the two of us?”
The German’s answer is the point toward which this entire dialogue has been striving: “One strong reason why that’s not going to happen is Russia’s behavior. We in Europe are weak, we don’t spend money on our military, without the US we are weak, so Russia’s actions in and around Ukraine have made the Euro-Atlantic link stronger. I’m sure that wasn’t Russia’s intention.” Pregnant pause, followed by the diplomat’s final master stroke:
 “The Normandy group is trying to solve Ukraine in the absence of the US, but I’m not so sure that is a good idea because at the end of the day, Russia wants a relationship with the other big power, not with France or Germany, but with Washington.  So it is in Russia’s interest to have the US involved.”

The takeaway from this dialogue? Germany and Russia agree that Europeans should manage their own affairs.  But until the Russo-China tandem can make the UN and its cooperative principles the bedrock of international affairs, the US will play a major role, however detrimental both find it.

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