Author: Alexander Rahr
Twenty years ago, in his speech to the German Bundestag, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an offer to Germany, Europe and the West that they did not accept On September 25, it will be the 20th anniversary of the appearance in front of the German Bundestag of Vladimir Putin, who has just risen to the position of President. In today’s comparison it was a completely different time. Two weeks earlier, the world had seen the terrible Islamic terrorist attack on the United States. Putin immediately proposed an international coalition to the Americans to fight international terrorism. In the Bundestag he repeated his offer: Instead of expanding NATO ever further to the Russian borders, the West should work together with Russia against terrorism. Gerhard Schröder ruled in Germany at that time. At this point he had already made friend with Putin. The Federal Chancellor organized this first appearance by a Russian President in front of a German parliament. The times stood for detente. Putin received thunderous applause from all MPs when he declared that the Cold War was over. Due to a long common cultural history, Germany should become Russia’s loyal lawyer in the West. Schröder and other Western politicians seriously considered offering Russia some kind of association with NATO and the EU.
A completely different time As a special gesture to his host country, Putin gave his speech in German. It is worthwhile to look back at the wording of his statements in retrospect. The Russian President presented himself in the Reichstag as a staunch liberal. About the end of communism, he said: “Under the influence of the development laws of the information society, the totalitarian Stalinist ideology could no longer do justice to the ideas of democracy and freedom. The spirit of these ideas seized the vast majority of Russian citizens. It was precisely the political decision of the Russian people that enabled the former leadership of the USSR to take the decisions that ultimately led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. This decision in particular expanded the limits of European humanism several times, so that we can claim that no one can ever lead Russia back into the past. „
Ten years later, the same Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. He accused the West of deliberately causing the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to eliminate Russia as a competitor. In today’s Russia, no one tosses any more to the fact that the peoples of the Soviet Union have won their freedom. Putin sees the West as an opponent who is persecuting the overthrow of the regime in Russia, as in Ukraine. What did Putin want from the West? He said in the Reichstag: „I think that Europe will only consolidate its reputation as a powerful and independent center of world politics in the long term if it combines its own possibilities with Russian human, territorial and natural resources as well as with the economic, cultural and defense potential of Russia.“
In fairness it has to be said that Putin still stands for this thinking. Unlike Western politicians, he is calling for a “common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok” even after 20 years. In the present West, on the other hand, another concept is gaining ground: the consolidation of a common transatlantic area from Vancouver to Donetsk, i.e. the idea of an American Europe with Ukraine, but without Russia, which is to be pushed to Asia – towards China. In his speech, Putin called for a policy of détente: “One of the achievements of the past decade has been the unprecedentedly low concentration of armed forces and weapons in Central Europe and the Baltic region. Russia is a friendly European country. For our country, which has gone through a century of war disasters, stable peace on the continent is the main goal. „
Thunderous applause And 20 years later? There is another cold war between NATO and Russia. Poland and the Balts feel threatened after the Russian-Georgian war, the occupation of Crimea and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. For its part, despite promises to the contrary, NATO has extended its military presence to Russia’s western border. The threatening backdrop between NATO and Russia is frightening. Massive military maneuvers are taking place on both sides, there is no sign of détente, instead of disarmament talks there is armament everywhere, war in cyberspace. Not taken at its word Putin’s appearance in front of the Bundestag has left many German politicians with skepticism. Putin seemed to sense this when he warned: “We’re talking about a partnership. In reality, we still haven’t learned to trust each other. Despite the many sweet speeches, we continue to secretly resist. Sometimes we demand loyalty to NATO, sometimes we argue about the expediency of its expansion. „
In retrospect, the following question should be decisive: If NATO’s eastward expansion is the mother of all conflicts with Russia – why was the West driven by such exuberant zeal 20 years ago,to include all former Eastern Bloc states that showed themselves irreconcilable towards Moscow in the defense alliance such a lightning speed? Shouldn’t responsible politicians in the West have taken Putin at his word and – parallel to NATO enlargement – should have entered into a security partnership with Moscow? Then today’s European security architecture would not be in an imbalance.
Ultimately, Putin’s speech had no impact on relations between Russia and the West. Misunderstandings, mistrust, displeasure in the West over a lack of Russian will to democracy or German senior teachers let the latent conflicts steadily escalate. While Putin insisted that Russia fought against Islamic terror in the Chechen war, which threatened the West just as much as Russia, the West accused him of genocide against the Chechens. When Putin set out to take shares in strategic energy companies and TV media out of the overpowering oligarchs, who in the 1990s had obtained stakes in strategic energy companies and TV media through crooked deals, and to establish a state vertical in national politics, the West accused him of dictatorship. The control of the opposition, numerous unsolved murders of well-known opponents of the Kremlin and the restriction of minority rights in Russia led to the unilateral termination of the bilateral modernization partnership by Germany in the years that followed.
Putin’s evolution is a reaction There are quite a few voices in Germany who claim that Putin tried to dupe and mislead the Germans with his Reichstag speech. Other voices rightly say that today’s confrontation could have been avoided if Germany and the European Union had at least responded to some of Putin’s ideas, i.e. had taken him at his word. Others claim that Putin 2001 and Putin 2021 are two completely different politicians. At first, Putin may have been a Westerner. But today he has become a declared opponent of the West, for whom national interests are more important than democracy and human rights. Even if Western experts find the statement absurd: Putin’s evolution is due to the mistakes of the West in dealing with Russia.
With the departure of Schröder, Jaques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi from the political stage, Putin lost his most important comrades-in-arms for the realization of his pro-European course after the end of his first legislative period. Merkel changed Germany’s Russia policy to the extent that she sympathized with the views of the new EU and NATO member states that were critical of Russia. She also made human rights and liberal values a priority in her dealings with Russia. In the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and in the Navalny case, German-Russian relations almost broke. Nevertheless, like no other contemporary Western politician, Merkel understood that a strategic dialogue with Moscow was essential for European peace policy. Putin lost important allies Perhaps the Chancellor remembers Putin’s speech from time to time. She fully supported the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 projects and thus saved the 50-year-old European-Russian natural gas alliance – against relentless opposition from the USA and Central and Eastern Europe. When the USA wanted to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO in 2008, Merkel used her veto – so as not to further irritate Russia with a third eastward expansion of NATO.
Unlike Merkel, the United States perceived Russia as a regional power that could no longer be taken seriously. It is time to look at the past quarter century in a historical retrospective. After the end of the USSR, the USA was the only world power left. It corresponded to the historical logic that the world order of the 21st century arose on the norms and interests of the leading power USA. Western Europe and Central Eastern Europe united. In practice, the old empire of Charlemagne, the age-old dream of European unity, became true. But Russia was forgotten. From a Western perspective, the emergence of China and Russia as rivals to the West was unpleasant.
China gradually submitted the Asian continent in terms of economic policy, and Putin began to build a different security model in the post-Soviet space in his imperial tradition. Since neither the US nor the EU showed any willingness to share their global design aspirations with the emerging powers, and Russia and China did not renounce their global ambitions, the clash of spheres of interest was only a matter of time. In this respect, the 2001 Putin speech in the Bundestag left a bitter aftertaste and the feeling of a lost historical opportunity for a pan-European peace order.