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Elena Alekseenkova

Ph.D. in Political Science, Senior Research Fellow, Head of the Center for Italian Studies, Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Associate Professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, RIAC Expert

German-Russian International Affairs Dialogue (GRID) is a joint initiative of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and Körber Foundation (Körber Stiftung). The project is aimed at discussing and analyzing the current state of Russian-German relations and the role both countries play in the global arena. The project is based on the discussion within the joint German-Russian working group, that meets twice a year in Berlin and Moscow and confidentially discusses the current international affairs and issues of interest for Russia and Germany. The group comprises think-tanks and business representatives, as well as the former state officials.

German-Russian International Affairs Dialogue (GRID) is a joint initiative of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and Körber Foundation (Körber Stiftung). The project is aimed at discussing and analyzing the current state of Russian-German relations and the role both countries play in the global arena.

The project is based on the discussion within the joint German-Russian working group, that meets twice a year in Berlin and Moscow and confidentially discusses the current international affairs and issues of interest for Russia and Germany. The group comprises think-tanks and business representatives, as well as the former state officials.

The following conference reports reflect the outcomes of working group discussions, that took place in 2015 in Berlin (June, 19-20) and Moscow (December, 4-5). The conference reports present the common statements, as well as the divergent positions of the participants.

German-Russian International Affairs Dialogue. Berlin, June, 19-20. Conference Report

Issued by Vladimir Morozov

Executive Summary

  • The current crisis in Russia-West relations is a crisis of mutual trust. The situation can only be resolved by maintaining dialogue and cooperation
  • The Minsk II agreements remain the only viable solution to the crisis in Ukraine. If Minsk II fails, there will be no Minsk III
  • The new European security system needs to be Russia-inclusive. A number of Russian participants expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the OSCE and its ability to contribute to European security
  • Russia and the EU should come up with a positive agenda that addresses the issues of concern to both actors

Russia and Germany in a changing world order

The participants agreed that the current deterioration of Russian-German and Russian-West relations was caused by a lack of mutual trust and the inability to predict policy responses. Whereas several Russian participants argued that there was no trust between Russia and the collective West and that is why Russia still considers NATO a threat, one German participant replied that trust existed after the reunification of Germany and the end of the bipolar confrontation.

Many participants argued that the root cause of the current lack of bilateral trust was the disillusion with the value-based approach on both sides. The Russian population became disillusioned with democracy and rule of law, because on the one hand in Russia, the democratic discourse employed by the elites of 1990s did not lead to economic prosperity within the general population and on other hand, it resulted in a significant loss of its political clout in international relations. One German participant agreed that the West has an exaggerated value-based approach to the current and past situation in international relations and that it significantly underestimated political, geopolitical and cultural conditions in relations with Russia.

Several participants stated that the third challenge which has led to the current crisis in German-Russian relations was the lack of transparency and misunderstanding of foreign policy imperatives of each other. Whereas the core interest for Russia is internal and external security, the German foreign policy priority is maintaining cohesion among the EU states and keeping them on the track of ever closer integration.

One Russian participant stated that transparency has always been a problem for Russian policy; however another Russian expert claimed that dealing with Brussels requires a very strong commitment. He continued by providing the example of Poland, which managed to create a very effective political machinery that ensures good relations with the EU. On the other hand, Russia never had such high stakes in relations with the EU, which is why it never tried to become the main focus of the EU foreign policy.

The Crisis in Ukraine

The participants agreed that the Agreement signed in February 2015 in Minsk (Minsk II) is crucial for the peace settlement in Ukraine. Both German and Russian speakers stressed that even if the Agreement is not fully implemented by December 2015, it still remains the only viable solution to the crisis. The participants were convinced, that even in case the warring parties cannot fully deliver on the agreement, all sides should at least stick to its spirit, because a failure in Minsk II implementation will most likely result in a further escalation of the dramatic conflict, and in this case there will be no Minsk III agreement.

Both German and Russian participants agreed that the abovementioned lack of mutual trust and misunderstanding of the each side's foreign policy imperatives contributed much to the events in Ukraine. According to German and some Russian participants, Russia sees its neighborhood as a sphere of its interests and therefore believes that the Western approach towards the post-Soviet countries in general, and the Ukraine signing of the EU-association agreement in particular represents a threat to its security and economic interests. Consequently several Russian speakers emphasized, that according to Russian public opinion, such a policy could have been used as a pretext for starting a new Cold War, with an ultimate goal of regime change in Russia. On the contrary, the German side believed that these movements had nothing to do with Russian internal and external policies, and the whole process of the Ukraine EU-association is a part of EU efforts to design a policy which provides it with stable and prosperous neighbors.

One German participant criticized the EU approach towards signing the association agreement with the Ukraine in the run up to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in 2013. According to him, the EU has depoliticized the process to a large extent, concentrating mostly on technical issues and bureaucratic issues, disregarding the possible consequences for EU-Russian relations. This point was supported by a Russian participant, who mentioned the example of successful trilateral talks between the EU, Russia and Finland in the wake of the Finland's EU accession in 1995. According to him, this was a good experience for EU-Russia cooperation with regard to their common neighborhood, which mistakenly was not employed during the Ukrainian association process. He also pointed out the Chinese approach to relations with Russia. Although there is a widespread opinion that Chinese policy represents a threat to Russian interests, especially in Central Asia, China takes a highly adept approach, in contrast to the EU. It is open to multilateral actions, the Chinese authorities recognize the importance of Russian interests in the region, initiating bilateral consultations on concrete projects, and ultimately, the Chinese distinguish between economic, security and political cooperation. He concluded by recommending the EU take a more flexible approach to Russia, which may even include some symbolic concessions, that won’t cost the EU much, but will clearly demonstrate its positive and constructive intentions to Russia.

In general, the participants agreed that the crisis in the Ukraine clearly indicated that both sides had not managed to forecast neither the possibility of the crisis, nor each side's policy responses. The Europeans did not expect Russia to intervene into Ukrainian affairs, whereas the Russian side did not expect the EU, and Germany especially to take a hard line in ensuring that Russia would be punished for its actions. One Russian participant stated that assisting Ukraine to become a secure state as well as a number of small deals in support of the Minsk agreements could be a good start for restoring EU-Russia relations. However in his opinion Western countries should take a more balanced view on these issues and not blame Russia exclusively for the current crisis.

European Security

The majority of Russian participants agreed that the OSCE was largely ineffective in addressing the modern security challenges and crises in Europe. They claimed that it is vital to start thinking about a new security architecture, which might include reforming and strengthening the OSCE, because it is impossible to maintain the old security patterns in Europe. One German participant agreed that the first and the third OSCE pillars seriously eroded over the last 20 years; however, according to them the OSCE as an institute remains vital for European security.

One Russian participant claimed that as a result of the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), certain concerns about compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and finally with NATO moving eastwards and the West’s support of regime change in the post-Soviet space, European security has degraded significantly since 1991. According to him, new inclusive agreements should be discussed, in part because not all of the new armaments are covered by the arms-control regimes.

Several German participants claimed that besides the crisis in the Ukraine, Russia is not interested in resolving the frozen conflicts in Europe. In their view, Russia, obsessed by the idea of external security, sees these conflicts as an opportunity for exercising leverage, whereas the EU is generally interested in settling these conflicts. However, one of the Russian participants replied that Russia is not interested in maintaining the frozen conflicts, because they have their own logic and the process of conflict resolution does not depend on decisions by Russia.

Getting Russian-German relations back on track & Opportunities for international cooperation

The participants agreed, that despite the current tensions in Russian-German and Russian-EU relations there is no alternative to cooperation. Despite the Russian efforts to move eastwards and establish a long-term partnership with China and the Southeast Asian countries, these efforts and partnership still have many limitations. If Russia wished to modernize it still has no alternative to rebuilding trust and cooperation with the EU. The German participants also stated that despite the Western criticism of Russian domestic issues, the EU will still have to cooperate with Russia, even if it is not a liberal democracy in eyes of the West. However, Russia needs to have more a predictable and active foreign policy in addressing the issues of common EU and Russian interest.

The participants agreed that there is a chance that the trust between Russia and Germany and Russia and the EU can be rebuilt. However the German and Russian participants expressed different views on the process of trust-(re)building. The Russian participant focused on the perspectives for Russian-German bilateral relations, while the German participants stated that the German foreign policy priority is maintaining EU cohesion and that is why we need Russia-EU trust-building. They emphasized that Germany places a lot of priority on its relations with its Eastern-European neighbors, which is why rebuilding trust between Germany and Russia should involve (apart from settling the conflict in the Ukraine) (re)building trust between Russia and Eastern Europe. According to them, Russia needs to take a more active approach in its relations with these countries, encouraging them to address certain interests of bilateral and international issues.

Many participants agreed that Russia and Germany should distinguish between the quick-fixes and long-term trust-building solutions. They claimed that in the first period, it is necessary to concentrate on some concrete matters which may evolve into a new positive agenda. One speakers also claimed that there is institutional fatigue in the EU and Russia, which is why it is necessary to put forward regimes, rather than institutions.

Several German experts argued that without resolving the Ukrainian conflict, it will be impossible to think about rebuilding trust and switching to a positive agenda between Russian and Germany, and Russia and the EU. This opinion was countered by a Russian speaker, who claimed that Russia and Europe need to stabilize relations (at least negative stability for the time-being), as well as to isolate the conflicts we have right now from the areas where we can cooperate.

The participants stated, that besides the successful EU, US, and Russian talks on the Iran nuclear program, there is still space for cooperation. Among the top priority issues agreed to by the participants were resolving the conflict in Syria, fighting IS and international terrorism, and combatting drug-trafficking and resolving the problem of refugees and migrant adaptation. Several participants agreed that there was potential for further economic cooperation, but nevertheless the resolution of the crises in the Ukraine and trust-building remains the top-priority for bilateral relations.

German-Russian International Affairs Dialogue. Moscow, December, 4-5. Conference Report

Issued by Elena Alekseenkova

Executive Summary:

  1. EU-Russia relations are unlikely to return to where they were before the events in Crimea. Nevertheless, both Russia and Europe need to establish a new modus vivendi that will enable them to discuss common interests and common threats.
  2. The Russian demand for freedom in defending its interests in the international arena entails a lack of predictability and transparency for Europe. Under these conditions, both sides need new instruments for trust-building, as well as a common interpretation of international norms and rules.
  3. The OSCE remains the only viable instrument for preventing and de-escalating regional conflicts in Europe. However, we need to agree on the interpretation and implementation of OSCE principles, such as territorial integrity, the right to self-determination, etc.
  4. The EU could serve as a model for the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), including consultations on technical regulation, customs, tariffs and transportation issues. However, the future of cooperation depends on the possibility of the EEU demonstrating real economic and integration success.
  5. The participants stated that the main threat to the Central Asian region lies not in competition between, but in the lack of attention from great powers. Therefore, cooperation between Russia, China and the EU is needed to prevent the region from social and political destabilization.
  6. Russia and the EU need consistent and compatible strategies in the Middle East. Stabilizing the region without external leverage is highly unlikely.

Overview: moving further

Relations between Russia and the European Union have been worsening in the last half year. The only success that participants have agreed on is the de-escalation and a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Both sides stressed that EU-Russia relations will not in any way be able to return to where they were before the events in Crimea. Despite the fact that the Minsk agreements will hardly be fully implemented and Crimea is not likely to be acknowledged by Europe, both sides have to find a new kind of new modus vivendi that could allow for a discussion of common interests and dealing with common threats. The problem of mutual distrust was acknowledged as a key problem and without solving it, there will not be any way to move further. The Russian proposal was to start working on this with an understanding but not with a creation of mechanisms, because instruments have already existed in the past, but did not prevent Russia and Europe from entering into deep crisis. The Russian participants proposed in the future to focus the European-Russian debates not on values, but on common pragmatic interests and understanding of each counterpart’s interests. These common interests could concentrate on economic and/or security issues. It’s important to save economic ties that are in the interest of both sides.

One Russian participant pointed out that it was deemed important to discuss Russian and European visions of the future of Europe, the Atlantic space, the Eurasian space and other regions, because this vision is the foundation of both sides’ strategies. Besides there is a strong need for discussing national interests and self-perceptions in the international arena.

One of the main preconditions for such a discussion, as mentioned by the Russian side, is Europe’s readiness to acknowledge the very possibility of Russia having its own interests and the right to defend them within the framework of international law. Russian interests and self-perception in the world are not clear to German participants. But the Russian demand for freedom in defending its own interests is perceived in Europe as a wish not to be bound or somehow restricted in the international arena as well as in its domestic politics. But freedom for one means less of freedom for others. In this sense, it becomes crucial for Europe to have instruments to deal with unpredictability and a lack of transparency by Russia.

From Russian perspective there were many institutions in the 1990-s that were created to provide transparency and predictability, but nowadays when they are mostly needed, they are cancelled by the West (such as the Russia-NATO Council). Besides during the period of their operation, these institutions were used to impose Western norms. Russia was meant to adapt to already functioning rules created without its participation, instead of helping to create new rules together. The German position is that democracy and rule of law implemented inside the country are also very important for providing transparency. They are better for business, better for increasing predictability in international behavior. On the contrary, the level of emotions that exists in EU-Russia relations mostly harms predictability. Another obstacle for predictability is whether Russian foreign policy is really a kind of substitute for a lack of domestic reforms, as one Russian participant remarked.

A Russian speaker stressed the difference of interpretations as one of the main sources of distrust. He remarked that we could start elaborating new principles by discussing how we understand territorial integrity, sovereignty, the line between supporting the human rights and interfering into internal affairs, etc. Russia also has a long list of grievances and accusations against the EU for violating international law and interfering in the domestic politics of other states.

The Future of the OSCE and German Presidency

The participants agreed that there would not be any agreement on the issue of Crimea in the near future. From the Russian perspective, even if the Minsk II agreement is not fully implemented (and this depends not only on Russia), this must not prevent all sides from further discussions on the future of Ukraine. The same concerns the frozen conflicts in Karabakh or Transnistria: it is quite clear that they will not be solved in a year.

Several participants agreed that the main role of the OSCE in the nearest future may be de-conflicting and a prevention of conflicts from escalating. Since the NATO-Russian Council is largely defunct, the OSCE remains the only viable instrument we have at our disposal. A German participant stressed that in a situation when there are questions about how much value Russia really still attaches to the OSCE, whether it’s ready for any binding agreements or new architecture or not, the only thing that we can try to reach – is to use OSCE as an instrument for preventing “silly things from happening accidentally”, as it what happened with the Russian plane being attacked by Turkey. But even technical cooperation is under threat, according to one German participant, because we cannot even agree on such issues as defining who the terrorists are, and who the rebels are.

According to the Russian view, we have agreed on the principles of the OSCE and they are good enough, but the main problem is our interpretation and implementation of these principles, such as territorial integrity, the right to self-determination, etc. The main goal is to overcome these differences and disagreements. But if we start discussions on these issues, they will not be finished in a year, so we have to tackle some concrete problems that will build a success story in Russia-West relations. We may try to go beyond the Minsk II agreements and organize a kind of mechanism parallel to the Normandy group to discuss the further settlement of Ukraine, as what’s being done for Syria.

Several Russian participants contended that the EU used the third pillar of OSCE for supporting the opposition and NGOs in Russia and neighboring countries. This is perceived in Russia as targeted interference in Russia’s internal affairs with the aim of regime change and as a violation of the Charter of Paris. German participants argued that “soft power” is about the attractiveness of the way of life and social model, so it cannot be imposed but only followed by society itself as a result of free choice. And if Russia’s own model is attractive, there should be no fears about that. Russian participants countered this by saying that US and EU officials on Maidan square were not concerned with the attractiveness of social model. A German speaker stressed that such kind of support is emotional: Europeans support those people who want to approach European standards of living and human rights protection and this support is natural and it shouldn’t provoke fear in any country. Another German participant supposed that Europeans may underestimate the real Russian “soft power” and attractiveness in post-Soviet countries.

Russia’s support of the National Front, according to German speakers, could be interpreted as interference especially if it is supported financially. And here the question arises whether this means that the Russian government identifies itself with the goals of the National Front, including those that contradict the unity of the EU. Notwithstanding, some German participants argued that Russian support for the National Front undermined the credibility of Russia’s position towards Europe.

From the Russian perspective, there should be at least a clear distinction between support for people’s movements and open support for concrete political leaders or groups of people who are committing coup d’etat and violating constitutional norms.

The Eurasian Economic Union and the EU

The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), as it was underlined by Russian participants, is aimed at economic integration and has no political ambitions at the moment. This is the main difference between the EU and the EEU. This also means that the EEU may become an instrument and a form of dialogue on economic issues. It may serve as a depoliticized instrument for communication between the EU and EEU member states, which can be very helpful in the current situation, when the political dialogue has largely deteriorated.

One Russian participant stressed that the EEU was said to be still in a process of institutional development, and its economic benefits should not be taken for granted. The future of the integration and social attractiveness of the EEU will depend on the possibility of demonstrating real economic success. The EU could in several aspects serve as a model for the institution, e.g. some technical decisions could be taken from the EU experience. In this sense, some types of expert and official consultations could be very useful for the EEU. In addition, some areas of cooperation between the EU and EEU could be clearly identified: technical regulation, standardization, customs, tariffs etc. Transportation issues are also very important and should be coordinated, especially in the context of the Chinese proposal for a “Silk Road Economic Belt”.

Several German participants questioned the balance of power inside the EEU and the role of Russia in decision-making process. But Russian participants stressed that in comparison with the EU in EEU, all decisions are made as a result of consensus. However, despite the political differences between Russia and the EU, the German participants believed that technical cooperation between the two institutions was certainly possible.

Russia and Europe in Central Asia

The Russian participants mentioned two types of threats originating from Central Asia: external and internal. The threats of the first type are connected to the potential “spillover” of terrorism and cross-border crime from Central Asia to Russia. And “spillovers” may occur from Afghanistan and Middle East into Central Asia. The second type of threats stem from the possible political and social destabilization inside Central Asian countries, because of elite changes and a lack of institutional sustainability, social imbalance and economic underperformance.

According to Russian participants, the danger to the region may come not from the competition between great powers but rather from the lack of attention from the great powers. An instant explosion of the region may occur, and that will produce instability, new failed states, the disintegration of the social entities, and the radical Islamization of the population.

A German speaker agreed that over the last 20 years, no one has managed to provide a model of sustainable development for this region. There are some Chinese, US, and Russian efforts in this direction, but it’s not clear what are the EU’s ambitions. German participants emphasized the low level of European interest in the region and explained that this had been the case at least since the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But at the same time the withdrawal was followed by a rapid deterioration of the situation. The common fears for Russia and the EU concerning the region are the spread of terrorism, a growing number of ISIS fighters coming from the Central Asia, drug trafficking, and cross border crime. Despite this, the EU is ready to play only an assistive role in the region in the near future, because it has other foreign policy priorities and threats and Central Asia is perceived as an area of Russian and Chinese responsibility.

The Russian group confirmed that Russia has the potential for providing security in the region. At the same time the ability to provide serious economic support is being reduced due to the economic crisis in Russia. China, with Russia guaranteeing security, can implement large transportation and infrastructure projects that may help create jobs and improve the quality of life for the Central Asian people. The EU at the same time can help to provide technical and institutional decisions (training, education, and technical decisions), coordination of transportation routes. Another Russian participant called for the joint creation of a secure transport corridor to Europe by a “North-South route”, which would combine the interests of the Central Asian countries, the EU, Russia, and China and will be beneficial to all of them.

One Russian participant also proposed working together on the generation that will come into power soon and those who are a part of so-called “Soviet and post-Soviet intelligencia”, who have Soviet or Western education. These human resources are very important to keep Central Asia on the track of modernization. Nevertheless there were doubts from the German side that such cooperation with Europe will be welcomed by the local authorities.

Russia and Europe in the Middle East

Fighting terrorism and containing the “spillover” of the Syrian war into Turkey and other countries of the region were mentioned by both sides as the top priorities for the EU and Russia.

To fulfill the first task, it’s absolutely necessary to combine aerial bombing with a consistent and comprehensive anti-terrorist ideology, developed not only for Europeans to prevent them from joining ISIS, but also and most importantly for the Arab world. German participants stressed that the creation of a coalition with Russia was crucial to prevent incidents such as the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkey in the future.

Another important step should be taken in the direction of establishing a peace settlement in Syria. The Vienna negotiations are a first success, but they are not enough unless the parties agree on what Syria and the whole Arab world will look like in future. One German participant supposed leaving for the Arabs the future of the Arab world, but a Russian participant questioned whether the Arab states would be capable of establishing peace in the region and asked how can the non-interference of Turkey, Iran or other actors could be guaranteed. The participants agreed that any kind of NATO for the Arab states or regional security architecture albeit very much desirable is not realistic in the next 10 years. Attempts by the EU to stabilize the region through regional trade relations have failed and this demonstrated that the region is hardly able to organize itself from the inside without external involvement.

A German participant stressed that the Russian operation as it is stands today contradicts European interests, because it provokes new flows of refugees into the EU.

The Assad regime and Assad’s future in Syria provoked some disagreements between participants. The Russian position is that Assad is the only person capable of guarantying territorial integrity and statehood in Syria. A German participant opposed this by saying that Assad was among the mains reasons behind the civil war and that the refugee flows started under Assad and before IS came to power in some parts of Syria.

The German thesis that in supporting Assad, the Russians increased the risk of pushing Sunnis into the arms of IS, was met by the counterargument that the 30-40% of Syrian army which is fighting against ISIS are Sunnis. In addition, it’s absolutely wrong to say that Russia has taken the side of the Shia in Shia-Sunni conflict, because Moscow has very good relations for example with Egypt which is mostly Sunni.

On the issue of cooperation between Russia and the EU, participants agreed that we have to avoid short-termism in our approaches towards the region. We have to build consistent and compatible strategies albeit having different interests.

Participants confirmed that one of the most difficult but at the same time the most needed step is to agree on who is enemy and who is friend in the region. The EU and Russia agree that for them the main enemy is IS, but this is not the same for many regional actors. So, we have to create a wide dialogue inside the region, with Gulf countries and others in combating IS and involving them into discussion in constructive and destructive forces in the region. It is important to have a solid and united bases together in the UN Security Council and this will provide potential allies in the region with the sense of belonging in the process and participation in a solution.

A German participant supposed that the incident with the Russian plane will help the EU to get Turkey more involved and they should use this leverage. But a Russian participant argued that for the EU, Turkey is not necessarily a part of the solution but a part of problem as well, because Erdoghan does not control the Syria-Turkey border and supporting the Turkmen living in Syria may be a first step towards splitting Syria into parts. This is not a positive solution for the Syrian problem.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
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     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
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