“We are not aggressive”

Interview with Norbert Röttgen & Vladimir Yakunin on 4 June 2018

Topics: EAST - WEST |

The German foreign affairs politician Norbert Röttgen and Putin intimus Vladimir Yakunin discuss the Russian retreat from the European peace order, different mentalities among people – and the role of the USA.

Moderated by Alexander Marguier, photos by Anja Lehman.


Mr Yakunin, not long ago the German foreign minister Heiko Maas criticized Russia of acting „increasingly hostile“. In fact the Russian-Western relations are worse than ever since the end of the Cold War. Who is responsible? 

VIY: Both sides tend to accuse the other for all the wrongs in the development. In the NYT of 8 May, Keith Gessen states clearly that he thinks it wrong to look for the reasons of the growing tensions only in Russia.

Mr Röttgen, how do you assess the Russian politics of the past years?

NR: Russian politics underwent a basic change, directed to a breach and exit from the European peace order. Instead, we see that Russia establishes an opposing model to the Western liberal order – in fact since the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU. Sure, the agreement was a challenge to Russia. But with her reaction Russia showed that she is not willing to respect the sovereignty of other nations. Putin’s decision to oppose the agreement with military means effected a change of awareness in Russia. The feeling of defeat and disparagement was replaced by an increasing sense of national pride. This widespread national pride forms Vladimir Putin’s key power base.

VIY: In fact, I do agree with you. Around the turn of the century, some 20 years ago, Russia did everything to become a member of the international community and leave the Cold War behind. The change of awareness that you mention did not come overnight. There is a history. May I recall the bombardment of Serbia, against international law, in 1999. Regarding Ukraine, let me remind you that her president Vladimir Yanukovych, toppled in 2014, was at that time president of a country in which Russia had invested 50 billion dollars and thus had strong own interests. That is without mentioning that politicians like Helmut Kohl, at the time of German reunification, assured the USSR that there will be no NATO expansion to the East. That is all part of history.

The annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine are also part of history.

VIY: Well, we know the telephone conversation between the then high-ranking US diplomat Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine in 2014. It contains, crystal-clear, the US interests in Ukraine and, besides, a derogatory assessment of the EU. No wonder Russia was concerned and alarmed. Besides, Crimea is historically part of Ukraine and only in 1954 was made part of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic.

MR: I know this narrative, it doesn’t come as a surprise. I believe it is based more on myths than on facts. Surely, the annexation of Crimea had little to do with the bombardment of Serbia 15 years earlier. Also, there was no assurance that sovereign countries like Poland would never become NATO members. That was confirmed by Kohl, Gorbachev and other witnesses. Poland applied for NATO membership upon its own initiative. It was not NATO that expanded eastward – the countries of Eastern and Central Europe strove towards the West. Truth is, the starting point for the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine was the planned Association Agreement with Ukraine. The European mistake was to underestimate how the agreement would be received by the Russians. For Putin and his government, who then were in a rather weak period, it came as a double threat. First of all, he had to acknowledge how fast the virus of freedom spread in Ukraine; the people were simply fed up with Yanukovych and his corrupt system. He had to fear that the freedom virus would spread from Kiev’s Maidan to the Red Square in Moscow. Second, Putin had to fear another loss of Russian influence among the post-Soviet republics. In fact, he had called the breakup of the USSR the biggest catastrophe in the 20th century. That is why in the end he reacted militarily to the threatening, for him, situation. And another point: had the Association Agreement led to economic growth in Ukraine it would have dangerously increased the discontent among the Russian population who lacks economic growth and no modernization.

VIY: From the point of view of the Russian liberal establishment, Putin counts among the most important liberals, both because of his economic policy and financial policy.

MR: Honestly, I would be glad if the Russian economy developed in a positive way. But Russia has no liberal market economy. Instead, also the country’s economy is in the hands of the state, the security services and the oligarchs.

VIY: I am also not fully happy with the Russian economic policy. Nevertheless, the focus, from the beginning, was on privatization, market economy, and cooperation with American financial institutions. Russia is among the top investors in US government securities. And what concerns the quoted statement by Putin about the break-up of the Soviet Union as biggest catastrophe of the 20th century, the West interpreted it completely wrong. He did not mourn the Soviet Union. His concern was the geopolitical earthquake that accompanied the Soviet Union’s demise. Again, regarding Ukraine: Probably, Russia did not correctly estimate the developments in the Ukrainian society at the time.  We thought that because of our close economic relations the same would be true for both people, being something like sister people – just think about it that Russia supported Ukraine even in the final phase of Yanukovych’s rule. At the same time, it is clear that in the case of Ukraine, Western meddling reached new dimensions; don’t forget that we are talking about a major former Soviet territory. And Russia had up to then invested highly in Ukraine; we are a large market for Ukrainian products. Nevertheless, the West was not ready to acknowledge our interests.

So what is the role of oligarchs in the Russian economy?

VIY: When I was deputy minister of transport in 2002, 46 per cent of Russian GDP was in the hands of eight families. Those were indeed oligarchic conditions, particularly as oligarchs, by definition, also use their power politically. As is well known, Mr Putin sent clear signals, that this mingling won’t be accepted by him.

Mr Yakunin, in Mr. Germany, Mr Putin’s admirer are mainly among the ranks and file of the Left Party and the rightist AfD. Isn’t that a bit outlandish?

VIY: First of all, each party represented in the Bundestag has its legitimation. By the way, I always admired how Germany since the end of WWII handled its Nazi past and distanced itself from it. But when I see that a large part of the German population wants better relations with Russia, then that is something else than admiration for Mr Putin. I believe many Germans have a very good understanding what big potential a closer economic exchange between Russia and Germany carries. For the USA it would be a nightmare – George Friedman of the US thinktank “Stratfor” made that clear enough.

Mr Röttgen, is the German public divided over Russia?

MR: I do not see it that way. Regarding Vladimir Putin, from my point of view there is a realistic assessment among the German population that under Putin Russia is willing to achieve its objectives by military means – in particular in Ukraine and Syria. That he circumvents free elections in his own country. That he suppresses liberal aspirations among Russian society. This negative assessment of Mr Putin does not at all reflect the relations we wish to have with Russia. I believe nobody here could have imagined that Russia turned her back on the European peace order and, with Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, illegally annexes parts of a neighboring country. What we really want is that Russia returns to the principles of international law and the respect for other countries’ sovereignty.

Mr Yakunin, eight years ago Mr Putin still spoke about a „harmonic economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. Are there still any chances?

VIY: Well, I am almost pathologically optimistic (laughs). Because the alternative would be global conflict. But what I accuse you of, Mr Röttgen, is your effort to divide the Russian society and its political leadership.

MR: I don’t divide anything, but I find that society and government are not congruent. In a democracy this is absolutely normal. To assume their positions should be identical is equal to an antidemocratic revelation. Society is much more diverse and also controversial than a government can be.

VIY: But elections are an expression of public opinion. And according to independent polls, the approval rating of Mr Putin is higher than 70 per cent. You cannot disregard that.

MR: I just want to remind that the only strong challenger of Mr Putin, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead in Moscow. And another challenger, Alexey Navalny, was barred from running as candidate.

VIY: Nemtsov’s murder is highly regrettable but had other motives. Fact is that any candidate opposing Mr Putin would collect hardly more than four or five per cent approval among the population.

MR: Röttgen was excluded from proving the opposite.

VIY: There was never a constructive contribution from Mr Navalny. He only judges others.

MR: I don’t judge Navalny’s policies. I state that he wasn’t allowed to run. And probably not without reason.

VIY: Maybe we can agree that the Russian society as well as its leadership had reason for concern because of what you describe as misjudgment on the Western side. I easily admit, that in the course of the transformations over the last years Russian politics committed mistakes. But I must object your assessment that Russia left the path of dialogue in favor of military means.

Maybe there are simply mental differences between Russia and the so-called West that impede constructive dialogue?

MR: There is always a different perspective of things, and certain traditions and specific experiences play a role. But on both sides we see a high degree of understanding for the other side. Our mentalities are not that much different. The simple question is: Can we again agree on common rules? For example, regarding other countries’ sovereignty? I have the impression that Mr Putin believes the respect of common rules would limit Russia’s competitiveness.

The US invasion of Iraq was also not really in line with international rules – and nevertheless, America is a Western “partner“.

MR: The invasion of Iraq by US troops was the US’s greatest foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam war; it was based on public disinformation and contradicted international rules. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the breaching of international rules and their denial.

A rather sophistic differentiation.

MR: No, because contrary to the US, Russia claims in principle not to be bound by international law.

VIY: May I at this point remind that since the end of WWII, the USA were involved in 50 attempted or conducted regime changes in foreign countries. America keeps military bases across the globe. But indeed, instead of pointing our fingers at each other all the time, we should try to come to solutions. The survival of mankind is at stake.

Mr Yakunin, you have been knowing Mr Putin for many decades. Do you think he will use his fourth term to achieve rapprochement with the West?

VIY: That I cannot judge. What I can say with certainty is that no-one in the Russian political leadership wants a further deterioration of the relations.

MR: Based on the current Russian foreign policy, I doubt that. Unfortunately, the destabilization of other countries, societies and institutions has become everyday fare of Russian politics. I think progress will come only if we identify solutions step by step, from Ukraine to Syria.

VIY: Maybe. But I must contradict you regarding the alleged Russian attempts to destabilize other countries. Regime change has never been part of the tradition of Russian foreign policy. What we urgently need is a return to diplomacy. To a diplomacy not reminding of street fights.

What, from your point of view, is the West’s biggest misunderstanding of Russia 

VIY: The assumption that Russia is an aggressive state which would rather tomorrow invade Riga or Tallinn.

Mr. Röttgen, did not the West, in the past, show a bit too much of a smart-alecky attitude towards Russia, sort of: At last become like us –which in the end effected the opposite? 

MR: I do not remember an example over the past years, that a Western government politician demanded of Russia to become a liberal democracy of Western cut.

VIY: All the more in the years before.

Four years ago, the former US president Obama called Russia a “regional power”. Was that justified?

MR: Russia is more than a regional power. Obama’s statement wasn’t particularly intelligent.

VIY: Obama was wrong, if only because „power“ in itself includes not only economical or military components, but culture and history as well. If only for that reason, Russia is more than a mere “regional power”.