The G20 summit, which began on Thursday in Saint Petersburg, has been dominated by the issue of Syria. One of the key dynamics in the Syrian crisis is the refusal of Russia to endorse any military intervention in the country. Wolfgang Seibel writes on the position of Germany, which has traditionally attempted to bridge the diplomatic gap between Russia and the West. He assesses Germany’s options for influencing Russian foreign policy, noting that the two countries have an entirely different worldview when it comes to international affairs. He argues that the best strategy for the German government would be to adopt Russia’s own tactics and use ‘tit for tat’ diplomatic measures to help bring about an agreement on the crisis.

Are German foreign policymakers in a position to influence Russian key-players when it comes to the Syrian crisis? This is virtually impossible to predict, but one can identify the prerequisites. In a nutshell, German foreign policy must not share Russia’s counterfactual worldview, but it should adapt to Russia’s tactical dispositions.

Defying myths and counterfactual narratives

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, Credit: Kremlin.ru (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, Credit: Kremlin.ru (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

German foreign policy, regardless of the actual composition of the federal government, continues to uphold the Cold War principle of détente, aiming at the integration of Russia into existing or future systems of collective security. Vladimir Putin, in contrast, cultivates a worldview of “us” against “them”. He took the opportunity of the bi-annual meeting of Russian ambassadors in Moscow in July 2012 to advise his diplomats to be on alert everywhere and at every moment for situations in which Russia’s role could be strengthened at the expense of, as he put it, the “historical West”.

Russia thus strictly prioritises relative gains in positional strength over actual problem solving in international affairs. Consequently, Russian diplomacy is constantly forging bargaining chips out of crisis hot spots such as Iran’s nuclear programme, North Korea’s nuclear threat, the status of Kosovo, the fate of the people of Darfur, the UN intervention in Libya, and the Syrian crisis.

German foreign policymakers have to insist vis-à-vis their Russian counterparts that this is not the Cold War. They should maintain the notion of strategic partnership and specify what it entails: a definition of common strategic challenges and frank and candid communication. They should also detail to their Russian counterparts that the Germans have a history in political myth building and that they can confirm that it serves no purpose other than creating frictions and uncontrolled risk-taking in international relations. German diplomacy should also maintain that building foreign policy strategy on counterfactual narratives is particularly risky when combined with domestic political repression. This inflames emotions, but hinders open deliberation over the advantages and disadvantages of foreign policy options.

When it comes to Syria, German diplomacy must not leave any doubt that it acts in the awareness of Germany’s own history of state-sponsored crimes and that therefore any German government is strongly committed to the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. The core of Responsibility to Protect is that a state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity does not entail a ‘licence to kill’. German foreign policymakers have to make it crystal clear to their Russian counterparts that, under the auspices of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 and Responsibility to Protect, the poison gas attack near Damascus marks a watershed moment. The US government’s assertion that the Syrian government is responsible for that attack, resulting in the death of 1,429 people including 426 children, is meanwhile confirmed by both the French and the German intelligence services.

This implies that the time has now come where prioritising geopolitical interests over cooperative problem solving will have the gravest consequences, the least of which is the damage done to Russia’s credibility as an international partner. A much more serious implication is that to deny the obvious (i.e. the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the mass murder), and to refrain from decisive action in response to it, would give carte blanche to Bashar al-Assad to continue to massacre his own people. This would clearly signal that the international community is unable to enforce its own norms and principles even when countless human lives are at stake.

Moreover, German foreign policymakers should reject the Russian narrative, according to which NATO has undermined the observance of the Responsibility to Protect when it overstepped the United Nations Security Council mandate of March 2011 (UNSC Res 1973) stipulating a no-fly zone over Libya. The core of that narrative is that NATO allegedly replaced the mere protection of civilians with the goal of regime change. It is well known, however, that the Russian political elite was profoundly split over Russia’s abstention vote in the UN Security Council that made the mandate possible, and that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, under heavy fire from the even more hawkish hawks in the Kremlin, assured, at a very early stage, that “the case of Syria will not be handled according to the Libyan script”. In reality, the Libyan script was written by Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose non-compliance with UNSC Resolution 1973 made regime change inevitable as long as the resolution’s enforcement was taken seriously.

Finally, on the basis of the indisputable applicability of the Responsibility to Protect principle, and the foreseeable consequences of a collective non-response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, German diplomacy should press forward the case for a UN Security Council decision that opens the gate for constructive Russian diplomacy. This diplomacy would have the potential to be face-saving and problem solving at the same time. Germany should not refrain from appealing to Russia’s pride and geopolitical role, but it should make it clear that living up to the standards of geopolitical responsibility means demonstrating Russia’s capability to bring peace to Syria.

German foreign policymakers should also keep asking their Russian counterparts what exactly was meant when foreign minister Lavrov said, back in December 2012, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would commit “political suicide” if it used chemical weapons. German diplomacy should point to the open window of opportunity in the current situation where not regime change, but a decisive change of course in Syria can still avert military action in response to the poison gas attack of August 21, 2013.

It is in accordance with Russia’s own ambitions and pretensions that it accomplishes that change of course in a credible and enduring way. While it seems to be of secondary importance at the operational level whether this entails Bashar al-Assad´s removal from power – and, say, a lavish exile in Russia instead of facing trial before the International Criminal Court – it would be unrealistic to expect pacification of the country with a man responsible for a war against his own people remaining head of state.

Substantial cooperation: The virtue of ‘tit for tat’

German diplomacy must not confuse style and substance in German-Russian relations when it comes to high level international crisis management. Substantial cooperation is based on credible commitments, and credible commitment is reached through action rather than through rhetoric. German and Western foreign policymakers alike are well advised to adopt Russia’s preference for ‘tit for tat’ tactics in an attempt to achieve explicit and implicit package deals. This is in line with Robert Axelrod’s well-known theorem that responding to obstructive behaviour with cooperative offers tends to reduce, rather than increase the chance for enduring cooperation. By contrast, ‘tit for tat’ means to respond in kind, and that is what German diplomacy should pursue as the dominant course of action in relations with Russia. The clearer that course, the stronger the bonds of a ‘strategic partnership’ will be.

Germany may stimulate Russia’s readiness to prioritise cooperative problem solving over geopolitical positional strength through a number of other sensitive issues. A renewed ‘Partnership and Co-operation Agreement’ between the EU and Russia is in the making, but negotiations are currently at an impasse. Meetings of German and Russian high level representatives to foster scientific and technological cooperation are being held on a regular basis, but German students and scholars are appalled by recent Russian legislation discriminating against gays and lesbians. Similarly, German-Russian partnerships in economic and scientific modernisation are broad-based, but they are put into jeopardy by Russian legislation stigmatising non-governmental organisations receiving financial support from abroad as “foreign agents”.

Russia is in possession of twice as many tactical nuclear weapons as the other nuclear powers put together, but so far Germany has not made this an issue in its own efforts to achieve the reduction or even total removal of those weapons. The same holds for Russia’s use of its oil and gas supplies to neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine and Moldova, as a means to obstruct closer economic and political links between these countries and the EU. And while Germany has refrained so far from travel bans affecting persons responsible for the detention, abuse and death of Russian attorney Sergej Magnitskij or other persons involved in gross human rights violations in Russia, it could reconsider its policy in accordance with the claims of Human Rights activists and the German Green Party. This, like all of the other topics mentioned, can be handled in a more or less constructive way. German diplomacy should leave no doubt that it is Russia who has to make the choice.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Hertie School of Governance’s Expert Blog.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Wolfgang Seibel – University of Konstanz
Wolfgang Seibel is a Professor of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz, and an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.

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