Vladimir Putin, the President of Russian Federation visits the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2016. (shutterstock/photocosmos1)
Why Ostpolitik with Russia runs along East-West Euro divide

France and Germany are disenchanted with U.S. sanctions, but Poland and the Baltic states are far from ready for rapprochement.

One of the most moving and courageous acts that took place during the four decade long cold war between the Soviet Union and the West took place on December 7, 1970 when, in an overdue but necessary act of contrition for the barbarous crimes committed by Nazi Germany, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt traveled to Warsaw and knelt before a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Brandt’s “eastern policy” or, Ostpolitik, was based on the idea of “change through rapprochement” with the communist states to the east: East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. His attempt to initiate a thaw in the Cold War was anticipated by the policies pursued by French president Charles de Gaulle, who pursued a normalization of relations with both China and the USSR. It was from de Gaulle, after all, whom U.S. president Richard Nixon borrowed the term detente to characterize his own policy towards the communist powers.

And today, developments in both France and Germany suggest their desire to return to a policy of Ostpolitik. On June 23, The Financial Times reported that “German chancellor Angela Merkel hopes that the European Union will consider inviting the Russian President to participate in a summit with EU leaders, an initiative supported by French President Emmanuel Macron.”

Encouragingly, the overture was welcomed in Moscow, where Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin supports “creating mechanisms for dialogue and contacts between Brussels and Moscow.” Yet the Franco-German proposal was quickly rebuffed at a meeting of the European Council on Friday. Led by Poland and the Baltic States, the Council rejected Merkel and Macron’s call for a Russia-EU summit and instead issued a series of demands, some of them utterly unrealistic, that Russia must meet before any summit take place.

Merkel expressed her frustration at the outcome, noting, correctly, that “even during the cold war…we always had channels of communication.”

The effort by the French and German leaders came only days after Merkel and German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier marked the 80th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union at the opening of an exhibition in Berlin titled  “Dimensions of a crime. Soviet prisoners of war in World War II.” In his remarks, Steinmeier, acknowledged that “only those who learn to understand the traces of the past in the present will be equipped to help shape a future which avoids wars, rejects tyranny and makes possible peaceful co-existence in freedom.”

Armin Laschet, who has been tapped by the CDU as its nominee to succeed Merkel this September, signaled that, if elected, he would attempt to defuse the two front cold war with China and Russia so favored by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Laschet has said that the West should try to “establish a sensible relationship” with Russia. In an interview with the German media outlet DW, Laschet observed that, “When things get difficult, you have to talk more, not less.” 

For some years this line of thinking has been a cornerstone of Macron’s foreign policy which, like de Gaulle’s, is aimed at an assertion of European “strategic autonomy.” In a speech to the NATO, U.S. government, and defense industry-funded Atlantic Council this past February, Macron made it clear that he does not share the Council’s predilection for cold war saber-rattling. Instead, he laid out a mature, sensible vision, no doubt lost on his hosts, of how one might begin to undertake great power diplomacy on the continent. 

Said Macron:

…I think you have to deal with your history and your geography. Russia is part of Europe from a geographical and historical point of view. And I think this is very important, whatever happens, to include Russia on this part of the horizon, big part of the world. And clearly, the history of President Putin and a lot of leaders, is completely a European one. They have common values, history, literature, culture, mindset. And we have to take that into consideration.

Second, we have our geography. It’s impossible to have peace and stability in Europe, especially at our borders today, if you are not in a situation to negotiate with Russia. And for different reasons, largely due to the Russian [aggression] and the NATO expansion, we created a situation where we pushed our borders to the maximum place at the east, but we didn’t manage to decrease [potential for conflict] and threat at this border.

In the end, a revival of Ostpolitik can be attributed to France and Germany’s disenchantment with America’s heavy handed sanctions policy, which earlier in the year targeted the Nord Steam 2 pipeline; its reckless disregard for European security in arming quasi-fascist elements supported by Kiev in the war in eastern Ukraine; and the realization among western European leaders that the American policy, begun under the Obama administration, of isolating Russia, has made the region more, not less, dangerous. 

French and German political figures such as Steinmeier, Laschet, Merkel, and Macron, seem to understand (as American foreign policy proxies in the UK, Poland, and Baltic States do not) that there cannot be a happy future for Europe so long as ties are frayed with its giant and restive neighbor to the east.

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