Relations between Germany and Russia are in a state of severe crisis. At latest since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, but also even before, the relationship was under stress. The new federal government will have to face the challenge of finding ways to deal with the root causes of the crisis. The intuitive response in this situation would be to take steps for improving bilateral relations and to find a way out of the current impasse. However, the root of the problem reaches deeper than the bilateral level.
The new German foreign minister has already sketched out initial contours of his Russia policy: German policy towards the East should not include Russia alone, but also the Eastern European countries, and those should receive more attention than it was the case in the past. For nostalgics of a German-Russian special relationship, who give preference to conciliation with Russia over relations with the Eastern neighbours, this represents a wrong prioritisation.
However, this position simply expresses recognition of a change that has taken place a while ago: the times for a special relationship between Germany and Russia, with Russia policy being treated as a merely bilateral affair, are over. An improvement of the German-Russian relationship without taking into account the European and global context is nowadays neither possible nor desirable.
After the end of the Cold War relations between Germany and Russia could thrive in a biotope of more or less well-ordered international relations. The years 2000s allowed for far-reaching initiatives — from “strategic” to “modernization partnerships”. Difficulties in relations with Russia could be outsourced either to the US or to Brussels. Although even then relations between Germany and Russia were not isolated from the European and international context, they had never been so intensely part of global politics and subject to its troubles since the end of the Cold War as they are nowadays.
In recent years the foreign policy agendas of both Germany and Russia have significantly widened: Russia has turned away from Europe as the main reference point of its foreign policy and has become a global player. The geographic area of Russian foreign policy — previously limited to Russia’s immediate neighbourhood — has expanded to the Middle East, Asia, Latin-America and Africa. German Russia policy, focused in the past on Russia itself and domestic policy, now has to take into consideration Russia’s extended foreign policy and to develop a stance towards Russian foreign policy in other parts of the world.
At the same time German foreign policy has committed itself to taking on more international responsibility. Germany’s leadership role in dealing with numerous crises on the European continent has tightened the links between Germany and its neighbours. However, this means that Germany now also has more responsibility in dealing with the fears and concerns of its neighbours, in particular of its Eastern neighbours, for instance with regard to energy as well as security policy. Against this backdrop, the basis for a Russia policy defined by bilateral relations — be it in trade, energy or diplomacy — is no longer given.
Theoretically the extended foreign political agendas of Germany and Russia offer two options: they open new room either for cooperation or for conflict. To date, the result is sobering. Russia has defined its new global role mainly in opposition to the West — both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. A policy of “compartmentalization” — i.e. to separate areas of agreement from those of disagreement — has reached its limits for instance in Syria. The new volatile and confusing strategic context in which both Germany and Russia operate is wider, bigger and fraught with far more intricacies and challenges.
In this new strategic context, Germany’s Russia policy has to take on responsibility beyond its immediate neighbourhood — as in Ukraine — for international conflicts that involve Russia. This does not mean that relations between Germany and Russia fall pray, for instance, to difficulties in the US-Russian relationship. Yet, staying out of the game cannot be an option for a German foreign policy that aims at taking on more responsibility. How a responsible international Russia policy might look like is demonstrated right now by France’s president: a clear stance towards Russia in Syria and in questions of domestic meddling while at the same time continuing dialogue and without sacrificing own interests.
The starting point should be a strong common European policy towards Russia. The road to Moscow does not lead through Berlin alone, but also through Brussels. The guidelines for this are provided by the five principles for a European policy towards Russia drafted by Federica Mogherini and agreed upon by all EU foreign ministers in March 2016: Firstly, full implementation of the Minsk agreement; secondly, closer relations with Russia’s neighbours; thirdly, strengthening European resilience against interference; fourthly, selective engagement with Russia for instance in combatting terrorism; fifthly, strengthening people-to-people contacts. These five guidelines have not lost any of their relevance today. However, their implementation requires new energy and political investment.
Implementing the Minsk agreement would not only require revitalization of the Normandy negotiations but also considerations regarding widening the format and including European representatives. Equally important are better information about and a clear stance towards Russian interference and disinformation. A small working group within the European External Action Service dealing with strategic communication is alone not sufficient to ensure European resilience. Strengthening relations with Russia’s neighbours is a permanent task, just as much as maintaining relations with Russia’s civil society. Here, the EU still has an ace up its sleeve with potential visa facilitations.
First published in our partner RIAC
Is Israel Taking Advantage of a Longtime Strategic Partner for Russia?
In February, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin. In what can only be described as a bravado attempt to flaunt the strength of the ties between the two countries, Netanyahu pointed out that, “tourism is at an all-time high, with 400,000 Russians visiting Israel every year and about 200,000 Israelis visiting Moscow every year,” adding that, “(he has) the honor to contribute somewhat to this statistic.” The first part of that statement is accurate; yet, the latter part is far from the truth. Russo-Israeli relations had been improving for decades before Netanyahu entered the Israeli political scene.
Primakov’s Mission: Laying the Foundations for Russo-Israeli Relations
The “founder” of improving Russo-Israeli relations, Yevgeny Primakov, made a point (almost a mission) of maintaining some type of relationship between the two countries. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War all the way up to the latter years of Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, Moscow officially considered Israel a “pariah state.” However, in the 1970s, during the “Brezhnev Years,” Primakov, a Jewish-born Soviet, was a key member of Soviet delegations that held several rounds of secret talks with the Israelis (usually in hotel rooms from Vienna to Tel Aviv) despite Moscow breaking off diplomatic relations with Israel.
Following Brezhnev’s death, Primakov continued his “mission” by maintaining correspondence with his Israeli counterparts while serving in various capacities within the Soviet establishment in order to preserve communications between the two countries. When Gorbachev began his perestroika and glasnost policy, relations between the Soviet Union and Israel slowly began to improve. Gorbachev’s policies allowed Soviet Jewish “refuseniks” to immigrate to Israel, which eventually led to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel in October of 1991—two months before the breakup of the Soviet Union. In December of that same year, Gorbachev announced the breakup of the Soviet Union but relations between the newly formed Russian Federation and Israel continued.
The 1990s were a tough decade for the newly formed Russia. The breakup of the Soviet Union saw the end of a social, cultural, economic, and political lineage that lasted for roughly seventy years dissolve overnight, thereby sending the citizens into dearth and poverty at unimaginable levels. As a result, Russia was a very weak state and did not have much leverage in the international arena. It did not help that the Yeltsin government implemented an American-backed “shock therapy” economic policy that de-modernized the country several decades and left the vast majority of the state in calamitous conditions.
Under the Yeltsin presidency, Russia was destabilized to a high degree (some would argue that it was worse than the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s), crushing their economy. Russians often term the “Yeltsin years” or the decade following the breakup of the Soviet Union as smutnoe vremya (time of troubles), or smutnoe for short, in reference to political crises caused by tumultuous transition periods. The term was most notably used following the demise of the Rurik dynasty, which eventually saw the establishment of the Romanov dynasty. It was also used, to a lesser extent, during the years of the Russian Revolution—the transition from the Russian Empire to Soviet Russia.
Similar to the “Brezhnev years” of stagnation in the 1970s, Israel proved to be a sanctuary for many Russian Jews during this chaotic period. Russian Jews (and other Jewish citizens from former Soviet satellite states) were no exception to this smutnoe of the 1990s, and as a result, Soviet and Russian Jews chose to immigrate to Israel in large numbers.
Despite the tough economic times in Russia, the Russian political elite, which included the then-Russian Foreign Minister (and eventual Prime Minister) Yevgeny Primakov, did its best to preserve its relations with Israel, while maintaining its longstanding foreign policy principle of a two-state solution regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was consistent with its overall foreign policy of stability in the region. In the 1990s, Russia (similar to the Gorbachev era of the Soviet Union) maintained a balanced approach when it came to the Middle East, ensuring its national interests were preserved.
The Putin Era: Advancing Interactions, Strategic Engagement, and Navigating the Palestinian Question
Relations between Israel and Russia significantly improved under Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin. Throughout his nineteen years in office, since being elected in 2000, President (and Prime Minister) Putin has often received many Israeli Prime Ministers along with other Israeli officials. Putin and others have also visited Israel on many occasions. Both Israeli and Russian officials often cite the size of the Jewish community in Russia and the Russian diaspora in Israel as proof of warming relations. In fact, today the Russian Jewry often claim that the community has it better under the current leader than at any other point in Russian history. And, there is a reason for that. The extent of anti-Semitism in Russia is minimal in comparison to the past. This increased acceptance is reinforced by President Putin. The Kremlin often speaks kindly of the Jewish community in Russia, and Putin has even taken it a step further by stating that Israel and Russia have common histories – namely that the two despise fascism and Nazism of any kind. In addition, the Russian Jewry now has the freedom to practice its religion with no fear of retribution today and can travel to Israel freely—a right greatly curtailed in the Soviet Union.
Despite being political rivals, President Putin, like others, sought Primakov’s advice when it came to the Middle East. Being an Arabist and an expert on the Middle East, Primakov felt (and wrote extensively) that Russia’s main challenge in the 21st century was to fight international terrorism—something that the new President agreed with (and still agrees with to this day). The President has long sought better relations with the Zionist entity as a result of his belief that one of Russia’s main national interests in the region is reducing international terrorism. President Putin believes, for better or worse, that Israel can be a strategic partner in fighting international terrorism. However, President Putin and the entire policy class also believe in a two-state solution along the 1967 borders (in reference to the land Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War) to allow for a future Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. Furthermore, the Russian policy class believes that state sovereignty must be respected. On the former, Israel has made little to no effort and, on the latter, Israel has consistently overstepped its bounds with regards to state sovereignty, often pushing hard enough to destabilize the region.
A policy reversal by the Israelis on the Palestinian question – that is to disengage from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as fully withdrawing from Gaza – seems highly unlikely. Moreover, it also seems unlikely that Israel will cease its illegal excursions in other countries, such as what it is doing in the Syrian arena. This begs some fundamental questions: is Israel’s belligerence putting its citizens in harm’s way and, more importantly, is it risking losing Russia as a national security partner, with its fifty years of unofficial relations and twenty-plus years of official relations? If this is the case, then Israel will be putting itself in a very dangerous conundrum.
The United States, Russia, & Israel: Is it a Triangle?
It is true that Israel, for decades, has relied on the United States for military aid and moral support in the international community in times of war. However, since the fallout of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the United States has been slowly (but surely) leaving the scene. American citizens do not want their country to be extensively engaged in the Middle East or elsewhere. They would rather the exorbitant amount of money spent on these commitments abroad be invested in improving lives of American citizens through domestic programs, like healthcare, education, and increased job security. The direct lineage between the elections of candidates Barack Obama and Donald Trump (not John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Hillary Clinton) proves this to be the case. We are seeing further evidence of this as politicians vie for control of the Democratic Party. Voices within the party are justifiably asking questions out loud that have been asked behind closed doors for years. Questions like: why is it that a foreign country receives so much financial support from the United States when many of its own citizens still struggle to survive? As a result, support for Israel in the American political scene is waning, despite the Israeli lobby’s claim. Today, only a certain portion of the Republican Party blindly supports Israel wholeheartedly. At some point, those voices will grow quieter and quieter or, at the very least, become less influential.
When America leaves the scene and becomes less influential on the international stage, Israel will be left alone. Yet, Israel can move eastward in pursuit of securing its national interests, creating a new alliance with Russia, a country that is more invested in the region today. This can be beneficial to Israel’s national security but, for that to happen, Israel will need to change its course on both the Palestinian question and its excursions in the region. The decision is a “no-brainer” given that the current course is creating an outcome where Israeli citizens are endangered from rockets as well as stabbings, shootings, and car-ramming attacks.
Russia, who seems to be invested in the region for the long haul, has been a willing partner thus far. Most recently this was evident when Russia –– in coordination with its military and the Syrians –– cooperated with Israel to help return the body of the fallen Israeli soldier, Zachary Baumel, who was killed in the 1982 “Lebanon War.” However, the Israeli establishment cannot take its Russian counterparts for granted forever. While the vast majority of the Russian policy class and President Putin still seem to want better relations with Israel and are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, this is not guaranteed going forward. The policy class is not homogenous and some within it can override the Russian President when they deem Russia’s national interests are being jeopardized, as we saw when Russia finally decided to deliver its S300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria. Thus, if Israel continues its confrontational activity in the region and prolongs its actions towards the Palestinians, Russia has cards at its disposal that will be unfavorable to Israel—leaving Israel isolated and weaker.
The ball is in Israel’s court. It must decide if it wants better relations with Russia or not. For the moment, the Russian policy class desires this; there is no doubt. However, at some point, Russian patience might run out. With the United States slowly leaving the scene, Israel would be wise to move closer to Russia. However, for that to happen, it needs to seriously consider changing its policy towards the Palestinians and cease its military excursions in the region. Israel should not test Russia’s resolve like it has done in the past, because the consequences for the Zionist entity could prove to be existentially dire.
First published in our partner RIAC
Russian- Arab Cooperation Forum
On April 16, Moscow hosted the 5th Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum to review comprehensively its strategic goals and achievements, challenges and layout plans for the future. The Fifth Ministerial Session of the Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum, for the first time, attracted 14 ministers from the League of Arab States (LAS), and representatives from north Africa (Maghreb) and from the Arab world. It was also attended by the three foreign office representatives of the Council of the Arab League (Iraq, Sudan and Somalia), as well as Tunisia (as current Arab League Summit chair) and the Arab League Secretary General.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed, in an opening remarks at a news conference, to continue joint work in the interest of a Libyan settlement, supported the UN Secretary-General Special Representative in Libya Ghassan Salame’s efforts to implement the road map he developed to normalise the situation in Libya.
“We have a common goal which is to help the Libyans overcome their current differences and reach a stable agreement on national reconciliation. To this end, Russia is working with all the political forces of Libya, without exception,” he said.
“We discussed various situations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq. We supported the decisions adopted at the recent Arab League summit in Tunisia, the documents that capture the commitment to increase the role of the League in the region’s affairs. We strongly welcome such decisions,” the Minister added.
Lavrov further referred to the 12th session of the Russian-Arab Business Council and the 4th Arabia-Expo International Exhibition as significant events that enormously contributed to creating additional opportunities in the interest of promoting business cooperation between Russian and Arab organisations.
Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a message of greetings to the participants and guests of the 12th session of the Russian-Arab Business Council and the 4th Arabia-EXPO International Exhibition, held from April 8 to 10.
The message reads, in part:“Over the years of its work, the Russian-Arab Business Council has fully proved its relevance and effectiveness and contributed to promoting direct dialogue and practical interaction between the business communities of Russia and the countries of the Middle East and North Africa.
The council’s energetic efforts serve to expand and diversify trade, to increase mutual investment and implement promising joint projects in the manufacturing industry and agriculture, energy and high technologies, transport and infrastructure.
Large-scale Arabia-EXPO exhibitions are an essential area of the council’s activities. They introduce the latest economic, scientific and technological achievements of the Arab states to the Russian people and offer an opportunity for entrepreneurs to exchange business proposals and innovative ideas.
I hope the current session of the council will be substantive and will make it possible to outline new forms and mechanisms for equitable cooperation, as well as to strengthen friendship and mutual understanding between our nations.”
The Russian-Arab Cooperation Forum was officially launched in 2009 with the signing of a memorandum between the Russian Federation and the Arab League. Since then it has proved its importance as a mechanism of a regular exchange of opinion and coordination of positions on major regional and international issues.
An in-depth exchange of views were held during the meeting on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, particular attention was paid to coordinating practical steps to further enhance the whole range of relations between Russia and Arab countries, primarily trade and economic relations, investment, culture, education and people-to-people ties. At the end of the Forum, a joint declaration adopted as well as an action plan to implement the principles, objectives and tasks of Russian-Arab cooperation for 2019-2021.
The Results of the Azerbaijan- Russia Industrial Cooperation Forum
On April 4, the Azerbaijan-Russia Industrial Cooperation Forum was held in Baku with the participation of representatives of relevant government agencies and entrepreneurs. Speaking at the forum, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Economy Shahin Mustafayev noted that the political will and joint efforts of the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia laid a solid foundation for expanding economic cooperation between two countries. The relations between Azerbaijan and Russia, which are developing in all areas, are at a strategic level.
Within the framework of the forum, three Russian companies – Rostselmash, Transmashholding and Service Invest – signed the cooperation agreements with Azerbaijani partners. State Duma Deputy Dmitry Savelyev, commenting on the results of the event, noted that Russia and Azerbaijan had obviously moved from the initial steps in building economic partnership to a normal working process.
The result is visible to the naked eye: last year’s trade turnover amounted to $ 2.5 billion, exceeding the figure for 2017 by 19%. It shows the great interest of companies in joint projects.
According to the parliamentarian the countries have long-term successful experience in opening joint ventures in the industrial sector, and not only in the oil and gas sector. Industrial cooperation is developing at full speed.
The real examples of mutual investment were the SOCAR Polymer project, the construction of a pharmaceutical enterprise in the Pirallahi industrial park, and the cooperation of the Ganja car plant with the Russian enterprises KamAZ and Ural. A service center that would make maintenance and repair of Mi helicopters in Azerbaijan is supposed to be opened.
Moreover, at this stage of cooperation we can talk about readiness for cooperation in the international arena. The Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia and the Russian Export Center (REC) are launching the Unified Export Support System. Regional hubs will be formed in 19 countries (including China, Turkey, Germany, Vietnam, Uzbekistan and Singapore).
Moreover, the creation of joint assembly plants considers promising point of economic growth. Such a joint project will expand the market for engineering represented by Middle East and Southeast Asia countries. An important role in this regard should be played by agreements at the level of state corporations.
“This year, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree establishing the Azercelli company. This company will be engaged in the development of the non-oil sector, the production of defense and import-substituting industrial products. In cooperation with Rostec that is among the ten largest industrial corporations in the world in terms of revenues Azercelli can begin its expansion into the huge markets in Africa and the Middle East.”
The long-term friendly relations of two states, based on good-neighborliness and taking into account the national interests of a partner, the Russian parliamentarian considers the main trump card in the joint entry into international markets. “If there is a conflict of interests in some areas of activity, then in order to pass events like the Russian-Azerbaijani forum of industrial cooperation, where both parties can always sit at the negotiating table and find mutually acceptable solutions, as was done throughout the history of the relations.
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