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Nr. 95, 07.07.2018  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

Almost like during the Cold War

Around 25 years ago, Russia joining the EU did not seem completely impossible. Today the relationship between the two sides is more similar to that during the Cold War period. The political scientist Dr Sven Singhofen fears that it will remain so for quite a while.


Long-gone are the times when Russia and the European Union (EU) officially strived to create a strategic partnership. In 2005, these efforts were formalised into an agreement on »Four Common Spaces«, covering the areas of business, science and culture as well as internal and external security. Even then, dark clouds were gathering over the supposed East-West spring under Vladimir Putin, who had succeeded Boris Yeltsin as prime minister in 1999. »The dispute in 2006 over allegedly unsafe Polish meat, and particularly the war in Georgia in 2008, resulted in a significant mood swing,« said Dr Sven Singhofen from Kiel University, who has studied the relationship of Russia with its western neighbours for many years.

From the political scientist’s perspective, the situation has become even tenser since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014: »We were all surprised by it, the West was initially paralysed and didn’t know what to make of the situation.« What followed were economic sanctions and the freezing of high-level summits, such as the EU-Russia summits or the G8 meeting. According to Singhofen’s analysis, Russia in particular aims to destabilise the West by deliberate disinformation or even by hacking attacks. In Russia itself, and whenever possible in neighbouring countries, the West is portrayed as the aggressor, just waiting to consume Russia. »To some extent, this is really reminiscent of the Cold War,« said the social scientist from Kiel.

Although the original Cold War, among other things, had a stronger ideological basis, nevertheless even if the present is not an exact replica of the Cold War, the situation must be taken seriously in any case, according to Singhofen: »Russia is internally creating a fortress mentality, in which its leader Putin appears great and indispensable,« he warned. At the same time, the West shows vulnerabilities, which are specifically targeted by the neighbours to the east. »Russia attempted to interfere in the U.S. presidential election campaign, and to support the election of Trump, as we know,« emphasised Singhofen. And referred to the calculus behind it: a president with the slogan 'America first' also creates geopolitical gaps – just look at Syria – in which Russia intervenes without hesitation.

However, Singhofen is also critical of the behaviour of the EU. On the one hand, it has managed to maintain the sanctions against Russia. On the other hand, the thriving nationalism and populism in countries such as Hungary and Poland also plays into the hands of Russia, and creates the opportunity to exploit or instrumentalise these social and political groups. »If individual countries can be prised from the sanctions front in this way, then Putin's plan will have worked,« warned the political scientist. And also: »If the former German Chancellor attends the re-inauguration of Vladimir Putin, and applauds the ceremony, this also helps Putin, because in the eyes of all Russians, this gives the authoritarian regime legitimacy. Because an ex-Chancellor is not just anybody.«

However, how will things develop in this difficult neighbourhood? In any case, a strong reaction is required on the part of Europe, believes Dr Singhofen. Concessions are immediately seen by Russia as proof that the West is weak, and not willing or not able to counter Russia in some way. The aggressive foreign policy of Russia would then have paid off. A soft approach would thus make the actual problem bigger, not smaller.

However, there are currently trends towards a new policy of détente in the EU and in Germany. This is understandable, because from his point of view too, Russia is also »a very important neighbour for Europe.« In fact, the scientist thinks that Russia has an obligation to act, because it has made no constructive contributions to a better relationship with the West for a long time. Singhofen: »Cooperation is not an individual event, both sides must be involved.«

On the other hand, there is still a common economic basis. As an exporter of raw materials and importer of industrial products, Russia depends heavily on Europe. In addition, the long-overdue modernisation of the Russian economy, which is noticeably suffering under the current sanctions, is hardly imaginable without proper contacts with the EU. Consequently, the economy is still »the Achilles' heel« of the Russian system for Singhofen. If the economic squeeze becomes too tight, there could possibly be another abrupt change in Russian politics, and a new thaw in relations. However, Singhofen noted: »So far, since 2014, Putin's Russia has been surprisingly willing to forego precisely this modernisation and increased prosperity.« Apparently, the stability of the system based on majority approval of Putin's foreign policy course, as well as short-term gains for the elite, have a higher priority.

Martin Geist
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