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Russia, Germany (…Europe): the “Big Game” of International Relations opens again

Commentary: A geoeconomically enlarged Europe could play an extraordinary role in stabilizing tensions and promoting an effective dialogue with China and America. But a series of developments could hinder the creation of such a bloc

In 1992 the Japanese American historian and political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, gained his undeserved 15 minutes of fame by publishing a pamphlet with an evocative title, The End of History and the Last Man.

The writer’s thesis was very simple: with the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent disruption of the power system that had ruled Eastern Europe from the Vistula river to the Asian steppes for 47 years, international relations – with the victory of the Western liberal democratic model – would be reduced to a sort of “routine management”, a business as usual without the shocks and tensions that had characterized the “Cold War”.

His historiographical analysis was completely wrong, as the events of the five decades following the dissolution of the Soviet empire demonstrated.

With the alleged “end of history”, we witnessed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which, in 1999, even caused the first armed conflict on the European continent after the end of World War II when NATO even sent bombers over Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to protect Kosovo’s Albanians. At the same time, we witnessed the birth of al-Qaeda; the awakening of radical Islam all over the world; wars and civil conflicts from Asia to Africa; the attack on the Twin Towers, with its bloody and destabilizing corollary of war in Iraq which, in turn gave rise to the Islamic State that has bloodied the entire Middle East and North Africa for years, thus generating emulative phenomena in Europe that have seen hundreds of innocent civilians fall under the blows of jihadist terrorism.

With all due respect to Francis Fukuyama, “history” is far from “over”. It has gained new momentum, thus leading to a current geopolitical landscape with few lights and many shadows.

Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. Presidential election will certainly have repercussions on the international political arena, after four years in which Donald Trump has progressively withdrawn from the world political scene, contenting himself with launching a programme of tariffs on China and Europe that has minimized cooperation between the Old and the New Continent, and between the latter and a China that has not even been weakened and subdued by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Joe Biden was Vice President under Barack Obama’s Presidency and has already chosen a staff of experienced politicians that served during the two previous Democratic administrations, including the new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, a former close aide to Hillary Clinton.

It was under Mrs. Clinton’s management that the U.S. foreign policy – after having deluded itself about the possibility of exporting the Western model of democracy to the Middle East and North Africa by supporting the fake “Arab Springs”, which were nothing more than attempts by the “Muslim Brotherhood” to take power – attempted to counter the unscrupulous vitality of Putin’s Russia and even fomented the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014.

Under the leadership of the then director of CIA, John Brennan, who had even set up an office in a “safe house” in the center of Kiev, the United States stirred up, financed and supported a “popular” revolt that saw crowds of Ukrainian neo-Nazis succeeding in the coup designed to get rid of a regularly elected President, Victor Yanucovyc, who was forced to leave the government palace by helicopter to avoid being lynched. What was the Ukrainian President’s fault? He had refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which would be very burdensome and would entail strong austerity measures for Ukraine. His fault was also that of being too pro-Russian.

The Ukrainian crisis has had a series of consequences that still poison the relations between Europe and Russia and between Russia and the United States.

The annexation of Crimea in response to the U.S. attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO, thus altering the military equilibria of the whole region, led to the adoption of sanctions against Russia by Europe and the United States, which still today make relations between Russia, Europe and the United States problematic and which could even worsen, with a U.S. return to Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s model.

The once “special” relations between Germany and Russia must be seen in this complicated framework. These relations are currently made more complex by a series of “incidents” which risk seriously hindering a broad strategic political project which, if carried out successfully, would extend Europe’s geoeconomic borders as far as the Urals, thus favoring the creation of an economic political bloc capable of fostering a dialogue on an equal footing not only with the United States but also with China.

This is not mere utopia.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have worked actively to pursue this idea.

To this end, the “Petersburg Forum”, a key instrument in Russian-German bilateral relations, was set up. It meets annually to discuss joint economic and scientific projects.

After China, Germany is Russia’s most important trading partner, a status that not even sanctions have managed to affect.

While Merkel has always endeavored to maintain her special relations with Russia, her good will, as well as political foresight and vision, have been put to the test by a bad affair in which the Russian institutions may be involved. On September 20, 2020, while flying between Tomsk and Moscow, Aleksej Navalnj, one of President Putin’s most popular opponents, experienced symptoms of poisoning.

In an attempt to avoid the impending scandal, the Russian authorities – immediately accused by the Western media – agreed to transfer Navalnj to the Berlin hospital La Charitè, leaving the Russian dissident in the care of German doctors.

The tests made during his hospitalization detected poisoning by Novichok, a chemical nerve compound produced only in Russian military plants.

The case has not yet been resolved, but it has caused a severe shock to Russian-German relations.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas immediately stated that, despite Russia’s “claims of innocence”, Germany was ready to push the whole of Europe to adopt new sanctions against Moscow, if the absolute non-involvement of Putin’s secret services in the attempted murder of the dissident were not proven.

The German Minister did not go so far as to threaten Germany’s withdrawal from the “North Stream 2” project, i.e. the construction of a new gas pipeline between Russia and Northern Europe across the Baltic Sea.

Despite pressure from the United States, which has always been opposed to the “North Stream 2” project, Chancellor Merkel has refused to give up the construction of the pipeline because, in her opinion, this move “would harm many German and European companies”.

Moreover, in a recent interview, Minister Maas has stressed: “the pipeline in the Baltic Sea will be completed, despite American hostility… we Europeans take our own energy policy decisions autonomously. We have never criticized the United States for having doubled oil imports from Russia in the last year… The United States is free to pursue its own energy policy and so are we”.

Important words that give us a glimpse of a realignment of the dialogue between Germany (Europe) and Russia along the lines of pragmatism and political realism.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also recently expressed optimism about “the resumption of a dialogue based on mutual respect and good neighborhood between Russia and Germany, which could contribute to an improvement in relations within and with Europe…..”.

If and when the Navalnj affair is resolved according to justice, it will be necessary to stress the urgency of a resumption of dialogue with Russia also on the European side.

The truce in Eastern Ukraine is currently holding up well, thanks to the joint efforts of the new Ukrainian government, led by President Volodymyr Zelenzky – who, unlike his predecessor actually imposed by the United States, seems to be more open to dialogue with Russia – and Russia, which has stopped supplying arms to the Donbass rebels.

As stated by Minister Maas, however, there are many open dossiers on the international scene that make “a diplomatic lockdown” between Europe and Russia impossible, especially as long as the various hotbeds of crisis – ranging from Syria to Nagorno Kharabach; from Iran to the Gulf; from the Mediterranean, which is the precise target of Turkish ambitions and designs, to the far-from-stabilized Libya – remain in place and are a source of deterioration of international relations. A Europe ideally enlarged up to the Urals could play an extraordinary role in stabilizing tensions and promoting an effective dialogue with an increasingly powerful China and with an America that – after the self-isolation imposed by Trump – may want to go back playing a central role in international relations in an unscrupulous way.

Dialogue with Russia is a mandatory step, if Germany and Europe – once out of the pandemic crisis – want to return to be “great again” although, as Betancourt said about De Gaulle, “greatness is a road leading towards the unknown”.

Giancarlo Elia Valori