Dear Mr. Harald Kindermann,
Dear Ambassador Vygaudas Usackas,
Much esteemed Igor Ivanov,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am happy to be here this morning and to share some thoughts with you on where we stand in EU-Russia relations today, and, even more importantly, on how we could proceed in the future.
„EU-Russia: in search of a new modus operandi“ – the title of this conference highlights the fact that we have to seriously reassess previous assumptions about our relations.
During my career this is not the first time. I remember my first post as a young diplomat in the Soviet Union when a self-appointed State Committee for Extraordinary Situations ousted President Mikhail Gorbachev. Not long after that Russia rose from the debris of the Soviet Union. Then, when I was Head of Policy Planning in the German Foreign Office we conceptualized the “Modernization Partnership”, first between Germany and Russia, later between the EU and Russia. And then I remember the long hours one year ago which I spent with Grigory Karassin, Yuri Ushakov and Vyacheslav Surkov drafting what is known today as the Minsk Protocol. Every time a “search of a new modus operandi”.
And indeed, since the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine in early 2014, there has been a fundamental shift in the way Berlin and other European capitals look at Moscow and its policies, and vice versa.
For a long time, we worked conceptually and practically on building a Common Space shared by all countries of Europe, including Russia. What we witness today, however, is Russian exceptionalism, a Russia insisting on being different from Europe. A Russia promoting an integration project of its own, which is set in explicit contrast to policies of the European Union.
For more than two decades, we worked within the framework of a European security order based on the rules and principles enshrined in the Charter of Paris signed in 1990. Trust and predictabilicy prevailed. Today, however, we are confronted with a Russia that is attempting to use the unpredictability of its foreign policy actions to assert sovereignty as well as to demonstrate and project strength.
For many years, we worked on a Modernization Partnership, interlocking our national projects if not our destinies, to which Germany always attached great importance. Now we are witnessing not only a deep economic crisis in Russia, emanating from structural reform deficits and a low oil price, from the effects of Western sanctions and a chronic lack of investment. We are also witnessing a Russian policy of import substitution, which exacerbates some of these trends and is explicitly targeted at reducing interdependence.
For a long time, we both built stronger links between the EU and Russia in the spheres of culture, science and civil society. Today however, we see the Russian authorities deliberately restricting the space available for interaction between our societies. We observe intimidation and pressure both on Russian civil society and on almost all its foreign partners.
It has become a commonplace that in this overall situation there can be “no business as usual”. As far as I can see, this conclusion is widely accepted, not only within the European Union, but - maybe for different reasons - also in Russia. Now what does this mean in practical terms?
On 14 March, the EU Foreign Affairs Council endorsed five “Guiding Principles” for our policy towards Russia, and I am confident that you are familiar with them. They include 1) full implementation of the Minsk agreements as a key element for any substantial change in our relations, 2) strengthening the relations with our Eastern Partners and other neighbours, 3) strengthening internal European Union resilience, 4) selective engagement with Russia in areas of mutual interest, as well as 5) our willingness to engage and invest in people-to-people contacts.
I know that these principles have not been received with great enthusiasm in Moscow. Russian government officials point to Kiew not implementing the provisions of the Minsk agreement. They warn against forcing the Countries of Central Asia to choose between integration projects, as the countries of the Eastern Partnership allegedly were forced to. They point out that it is not Russian propaganda that the European Union has to build resilience against, because in their reading it is Western policies for regime change that are the genuine “hybrid warfare”. Selective engagement is criticized as cherry picking, and as far as people-to-people contacts are concerned, Russian officials and experts accuse the European Union of targeting only a small segment of Russian civil society.
What I could do now is work myself through these arguments – and rest assured that I would have a lot to say on each of them.
But what I want to do instead is talk about ways to deal with the fundamental gaps in perception that exist nowadays between Russia and the European Union. How do we interact with one another? That is the question that interests me here.
In a very thoughtful recent piece on “How not to talk with Russia” Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council argues that putting our fundamental differences on the table might be a better starting point for eventually finding common ground. His piece was essentially an answer to an earlier memo of the European Council on Foreign Relations expert Kadri Liik, which made the same point. The authors, both of whom I welcome in today’s audience, agree that in a situation marked by lost illusions, deep mistrust and fundamentally opposed narratives on both sides, talking about shared interests may be perceived as hypocritical and misleading.
A dialogue that also focuses on differences rather than on commonalities could be beneficial, indeed. Exploring openly and seriously the diverging narratives on the international order and the Russian-European relationship could help us understand the nature and the extent of our differences. They would not be removed, but they might potentially become less dangerous. Such a dialogue could reduce the risk of misinterpretations and wrong decisions leading to unintended consequences – be it at the military, the diplomatic or the political level. Let’s face it: We continue to be surprised by one another’s actions. Both of us haven’t been very successful in reading the other side well in recent years. And yet we somehow assume that our own signals will be read correctly by our counterparts. We should not take this for granted.
Of course, merely talking about differences is not enough. For one thing, there has to be a concrete format to conduct such a dialogue. It should be led on different levels, from experts to political leaders. And it should be held over a longer period. To build real understanding and ultimately a degree of trust – and this is what such a dialogue is intended to achieve – you need time. You also need the right set of interlocutors, with a sufficient credibility on the other side and the ability to gain traction at home.
Moreover, talking about differences should not be reduced to an exchange of mutual accusations about the past. We shouldn’t blame each other for phenomena we are not responsible for or try to externalize internal problems. The upheaval in the societies of the Middle East and North Africa is not a product of a Western regime change agenda. By the same token, Russia may support populist parties in Europe, but the root causes for the strength that these movements are gaining lie elsewhere.
Most importantly, a dialogue on what separates us now should not prevent us from also looking for common approaches towards future challenges.
What this would amount to in the end is a policy of „compartmentalized cooperation“ where it is possible – for the time being – to work together for mutual benefit in certain areas, while remaining fully aware that important differences remain. Differences which cannot be resolved, at least not in the short term, but which are openly discussed. This is not cherry picking, but rather a practical way to deal with the realities of our political situation today. I am afraid the coexistence of cooperation and confrontation is something that both sides will have to get used to. We will have to be prepared to be partners and adversaries at the same time. For Germany and the EU I would add: We are prepared, even though this modus operandi is not of our own choosing!
That will be also a delicate balancing act at a time when foreign and domestic politics are ever more intertwined and when nuances and ambivalence are ever more difficult to communicate.
Possible fields for cooperation will be discussed in different sections of this conference. For example with respect to further de-escalation of the situation in Eastern Ukraine and joint work on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Or take the close co-operation and coordination between the OSCE CiO FM Steinmeier and FM Lavrov over the last days on Nargorno-Karabakh.
Important opportunities for cooperation exist in current efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, be it in fighting the so-called “Islamic State”, also targeting its financial sources, in protecting civilians and providing physical security, in using the weight of the United Nations and its bodies, in supporting economic development or reconstructing liberated areas.
Other fields might be identified as well. Either thematically such as the fight against organized crime, be it in human trafficking or in cyberspace. Or regionally: What comes to mind immediately is the Iranian nuclear dossier, where we reached a historic agreement last year, but where the monitoring of this agreement’s implementation will take years to come. Other regions of cooperation could be the Arctic or the Baltic Sea Council. Or take Central Asia. I don’t see any competition of integration models between Russia and the EU in this area. What I have in mind are common projects, involving not only Russia and the European Union, but potentially also China whose New Silk Road project is likely to have a lasting impact on the Eurasian space. We will host a major OSCE Conference on the topic of connectivity in this space in Berlin mid-May.
However, I do not want to draw too rosy a picture. Multiple risks remain. One is a renewed escalation in Eastern Ukraine. The question we have to answer here is how to retain the successes of the Minsk Process and reach a sustainable solution.
Another clear risk is that in the run-up to or after the NATO summit in Warsaw there is a new escalation on the diplomatic or military front. The measures announced by NATO and its members so far have been moderate and clearly remain within the framework of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. My hope is that this assessment is shared in Moscow and that NATO’s reassurance measures - prompted by Russia’s actions in Ukraine as well as its recent snap exercises - will not be answered by escalatory moves such as moving additional troops and equipment closer to the border or pulling out of existing arms control regimes. Some here argue that Moscow has already decided and is only waiting for the NATO summit as a pretext. But this would only lead to calls from member states within NATO to counter an increased threat perception by additional measures.
And, to be frank, one of our main concerns is the lack of predictability which I’ve already mentioned. It breeds a lack of trust. Explanations for this have been offered by the Russian side, for example that Russia was only reacting to unforeseen events in a world that was becoming less and less predictable. Another argument is that the West either has too little expertise on Russia or that it doesn’t listen well enough to statements and speeches of the President of the Russian Federation.
However, I can assure you that we read the announcements of the Russian leadership very carefully. For example, in the case of the annexation of Crimea, we first heard about local self-defense forces. Then they became little “green men”. Later, the Russian President himself commented that these had been Russian Spetsnaz-Forces. Or take Syria, where were told that Russia was sending military advisors, while it was combat troops that were being deployed. And instead of focusing on the “Islamic State”, as proclaimed, Russia spent 80% of its operations to target other groups.
Even for experienced Russia watchers, it is not always easy to discern which statements are meant in earnest and which are merely rhetorical. It is striking that Russian experts tell us that we could have seen the Georgia war of 2008 coming after Putin’s Munich speech in 2007. On the other hand, the very same experts and diplomats try to assure us that the current rhetoric including nuclear threats coming from the Kremlin should not be overestimated and be taken with a grain of salt. So how can we know when we need to care and when not? And is this not part of the agenda forced upon us?
I remain convinced that despite the gulf that divides us and precisely in order to limit the risks inherent in reading each other the wrong way we need to talk more and more constructively, including about our differences. Thus, I have not only come to explain our own point of view, but also to listen and to better understand.
I look forward to the keynote speech of Igor Ivanov and wish us all a successful conference today!