How will Western democracy fare in Russia?

Under the microscope | column Why the East Germans see Russia differently

Russia: important sales market for East German products

Something else also plays a role. With the German unification and the introduction of the D-Mark, the economic relations of the East German companies with Russia collapsed. Many companies lived from exporting to the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1990s, old contacts could be revived. Russia became an important, if not the only sales market for East German companies. Until the sanctions came through the Ukraine conflict. They hit the East German economy particularly hard. The intervention of the East German Prime Minister went unheard, although many jobs were threatened. This is one of the reasons why Manuela Schwesig defends the Nord Stream 2 pipeline so hard. Politically, however, this building also looks like the last bridge between Germany and Russia. Linked to this is the wish of many East Germans that tensions between the two countries be reduced.

The Chancellor's reservations - the autocrat's fear

But it is not that simple. Politics is made by people. Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with Vladimir Putin, a Russian head of state who embodies a sense of power that was demonstrated in her youth by the Soviet troops in her home town of Templin. That didn't create any trust from the start, and it probably had a deterrent effect on her.

In addition, there is political action by Putin, which over the years is more and more reminiscent of the times of the Cold War. With his military might he defends the Russian hemisphere: in the Crimea, in the Ukraine or in Syria. In terms of domestic politics, his approach has meanwhile reverted to the methods of the Soviet secret service, for which he worked as a resident in Dresden: with poison attacks, assassinations and the banishment of opponents to labor camps. As in the Navalny case. Totally unacceptable. But there is fear behind it.

With Putin it is the fear of losing personal power. That’s what happens to every dictator or autocrat. Especially when he is getting on in years. That is why hardly any of them go voluntarily. Putin will not do that either. At the same time, with all due respect for Navalny's fate and compassion, the West should still question its political goals and content. The strategy "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has often been shipwrecked in the past, especially in the successor states of the Soviet Union.

Above all, it is about Russia's fear of losing its world political sphere of influence and the trauma of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War with millions of victims. You were defenseless and unprepared at the mercy of the overpowering military machine of the Wehrmacht and were close to defeat. Russia does not want to experience this trauma again. In the GDR one could feel this fear every day for over 40 years through the presence of the Soviet troops. It was compensated for by this demonstration of military force.

Therefore, for many Russians, Gorbachev is not a hero, but a traitor to their interests. In their eyes, he abandoned this former sphere of power through German unification and the withdrawal of soldiers from Germany and Eastern Europe, without any contractually fixed security guarantees. For example, NATO's waiver of eastward expansion. For decades it has been argued whether there was such a promise by Helmut Kohl. Otherwise would Gorbachev have agreed? In any case, many East Germans doubt whether NATO maneuvers with the participation of the Bundeswehr in Latvia or Estonia, on Russia's western border, are a good idea or act more like a provocation. Saber rattling has never resolved conflict.

Political coexistence and change through rapprochement instead of sanctions

The alternative to the current confrontation would be a Cold War term: peaceful coexistence. Instead, the conflict with Russia is obviously about regime change. Nobody can really be interested in destabilizing a nuclear power, especially on the fringes of Europe, without knowing what will come next. And nobody knows. The harsh tone of the American President towards Russia at the Munich Security Conference is just as unhelpful as the constant threat of new sanctions. Both of these make the situation worse.

"At the moment Russia has had enough of us and our permanent accusations", summarizes Matthias Platzeck, spokesman for the German-Russian Forum in the "Berliner Zeitung". "Politically, we always have that forefinger raised, we know everything better, we know exactly how to do it, and the world can only be organized as we see fit."

There are certainly not a few East Germans who can understand this feeling from their own life experience. That, too, brings them closer to the Russians. It is also completely the wrong way diplomatically. Because both the US and the EU depend on Russia to resolve international conflicts. It is also important for both of them that Russia is moving closer and closer to China in geopolitical terms and is thus forging a strong alliance against the West.

Instead, what is needed is a strategy to ease the conflict. Here, too, the past offers a bond that led to success for the East Germans in the end with German unity: change through rapprochement. Invented by Willy Brandt. It was based on stable economic cooperation between the then Soviet Union and the Federal Republic. For example, with the reliable supply of natural gas for 50 years. Accompanied by a close political exchange.

In addition, we as Germans should not lose sight of the common history of our countries. East Germans are more aware of it than many compatriots in the West. 2021 will mark the 80th anniversary of the German attack on the Soviet Union. Just remembering it does not justify any misconduct in Russian politics today, said Federal President Steinmeier in the "Rheinische Post", "... but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Yes, we live in a difficult situation, but there are a past before and a future after. "