German 'Ostpolitik' runs out of road in face of latest Russian aggression

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

As anybody who has spent time probing marine life above or below the sea knows when there is blood in the water surely the sharks will follow. That is an apt analogy to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin's latest threats to invade Ukraine if his unacceptable demands to dictate the future of the NATO alliance in Europe are not met.

As the western world embarks on a new year with many political divisions tearing the fabric of society and turning friends into foes, vulnerability abounds. Whether it be pandemic related feuds over vaccines, media freedom, independent judiciaries, immigration disputes, LGBTQ rights, skyrocketing energy prices, a fossil-fuel free future or the ultimate navel-gazing exercise otherwise known as Brexit, it is little wonder we wake up in 2022 staring at thousands of tanks and more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed on the Ukraine border - again.

As the Biden Administration, NATO allies and European Union member states embark on a series of negotiations in the coming weeks with hopes of preventing the second full-scale Russian European invasion in the past seven years some EU countries need to be reminded about some simple lessons history has repeatedly taught us about dealing with Russia.

The first is one any seasoned diplomat who has worked in Moscow can attest: approach any negotiation with Putin and his cabal of hardline military experts with a multidimensional chessboard overview. Because Putin, a KGB agent, martial arts expert, master of devious manipulation and, like most Russians a chess aficionado, plots every move with three or four more in mind.

The second is a general lesson learned from four decades of dealing with the Soviets during the Cold War and reinforced by Putin's two decades in power: come to the table from a position of strength. Because without significant leverage Russian aggression will prevail. As recently as Jan. 1 Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, whose country has lived with Russian aggression on a daily basis for more than a century, warned that removing the threat of a western alliance military response will empower Putin.

Unfortunately that lesson is one some politicians across the European political spectrum and have either not grasped, ignored or have forgotten. In the case of Germany its WW II sins have always compromised its ability to assert power on the world stage, especially vis a vis the former Soviet Union and Russia. A mercantile economy built on exports has further weakened German global geopolitical sway.

While those historical and economic factors help explain the German "Ostpolitik'' rapprochement with Russia that dates back to former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's tenure in the late 60s and 70s, latter day proponents have perpetuated the policy on naive assumptions.

One of those is current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. During his two stints as foreign minister in the coalition government headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel he frustrated many of his fellow EU ministers by braking economic sanctions against Russia after the Crimean invasion. He insisted efforts to "turn the screw'' on Russia would "destabilize'' Europe's nefarious neighbour to the east.

Then there is the case of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a fellow Social Democrat who Steinmeier advised. Schroeder has taken the infamous "Ostpolitik'' to a treacherous level. For the past decade after leaving office he has served as executive for the Russian-state owned gas monopoly Gazprom helping Putin checkmate Ukraine with the construction of the $10 billion Nordstream II gas pipeline.

Clearly the "Ostpolitik'' of Schroeder and to a lesser degree that of Steinmeier has run out of road in Germany. Less than a month into office Olof Scholz, the first Social Democrat German chancellor since Schroeder, is between a rock and a hard place.

If he backs the Norstream II pipeline, the Russians will "turn the screw'' on Ukraine by diverting gas away from Ukraine, and deny it desperately needed financial revenue. If Scholz blocks Norstream II, Putin will continue to restrict gas exports for all of Europe and perpetuate skyrocketing fuel costs that are hammering European businesses and financially draining its governments and citizens. And in the meantime Putin quite possibly could invade Ukraine.

For the German Green Party, Scholz's governing coalition partner, the current no-win Russian dilemma has its own historical irony. Forged from the anti-nuclear protests of the early 1980s, including opposition to the presence of U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles, the German Green Party has been the leading voice against both nuclear arms and nuclear energy. The latter will be phased out later this year in Germany and will thus deprive the country of a much needed chessboard piece.

In Italy the country has had its own version of "Ostpolitik'' that extends across the political spectrum. Former European Commission President Romano Prodi has been a consistent Russian appeaser for more than a decade by insisting "the only option'' is to talk with Putin – a position he continues to espouse years after the Crimean invasion.

Fellow Italian Federica Mogherini, a political neophyte with little foreign policy experience who was appointed in 2014 as the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, quickly set off alarm bells in the Baltic and Eastern Europe by pursuing the Prodi approach in response to the Crimea takeover.

And then there is the infamous Silvio Berlusconi, who is currently waging an intense campaign to become the next Italian president for the next seven years. Before Putin found a fawning figure in former U.S. President Donald Trump, the 84-year-old Italian – the country's seminal media oligarch was a dutiful Putin courtier during his chequered decade-long tenure as Italian prime minister.

Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right Italian populist political party Lega, who is jockeying to become the next Italian prime minister when elections must be held in the next year, has also been willing Putin supplicant. Among other things he and his party are under investigation for receiving political funding from Russia.

Even Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank and current Italian prime minister, has either recently tried to downplay the Russia threat or been resigned to the position that there is not much that can be done to stop a possible invasion.

"Do we have missiles, ships, cannons, armies?'' Draghi said at a December press conference in reference to the EU's military capabilities. "At the moment we don't and at the moment NATO has different strategic priorities.'' He also said "it would not be the right moment'' to boycott Russian gas exports.

Draghi's comments were likely welcomed in other EU countries with their own brand of Ostpolitik. These include Greece and Cyprus with their orthodox Christian and commercial links to Russia. The same for Hungary and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU leader who is most subservient to Putin.

But in other European capitols, Draghi's mindset and that of the Ostpolitik proponents are cause for major concern because of the failure to learn from the past and take a hardline in the face of the latest Russian threat. It was no coincidence that Finland, including support from the nation's Green Party, and Sweden have in recent days been outspokenly asserting their right to join NATO.

Viewed from across the Atlantic Ocean the contrasting EU member state viewpoints towards Russia are familiar. After all they are not much different that those that hamstrung the EU in previous European conflicts involving Russia, including in Bosnia, Georgia and Crimea – among others.

While Europe might not be able to find consensus on how to effectively confront Russia on the military and economic front, it should at least be able take the offensive when it comes to messaging by rejecting Putin's preposterous claims that EU or NATO expansion is a threat to Russian national security.

It should do that by prefacing every comment, statement and press release with a reminder: the Soviet Union – the same one Putin openly aspires to revitalize - was responsible for an Iron Curtain that for more than 40 years denied democratic and economic freedoms to millions of Europeans and the legacy of that divide that has left deep scars and lasting memories.

By Joe Kirwin

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