On 10 September 2019, together with the Foundation West-Eastern Encounters Berlin, the DOC Research Institute organised a conference on rebuilding confidence and trust in relations between Russia and the West. The occasion of the event was the 25th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Western Group of Forces (WGF) of the Soviet Army from Eastern Germany. The event was hosted by the Permanent Representation of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Berlin.
With the withdrawal of the WGF in 1994, the engagement of Soviet troops in Germany came to an end. During the Cold War, the WGF was the westernmost and largest concentration of Soviet troops outside the borders of the Soviet Union. In military-logistical terms, the operation was unprecedented in history: Between 1990 and 1994, roughly 330,000 military personnel, more than 200,000 civil support staff and family members, as well as military equipment and over 600,000 tons of munitions were relocated from Eastern Germany to the territory of the former Soviet Union. In order for the operation to run smoothly, close cooperation between the Russian and German sides was indispensable. The operation embodies a unique historical example of an exercise in building trust and confidence.
The aim of the conference was both to remember and acknowledge that cooperation on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the withdrawal of the WGF, as well as to explore the lessons that we can draw from the historical experience and its relevance for current efforts to rebuild confidence and trust and to strengthen cooperation and dialogue towards common peace and security in Europe.
The first panel of the symposium heard accounts from historical witnesses who witnessed the presence of the Soviet troops in Eastern Germany after World War Two, or who were involved into the process of their withdrawal.
During the second panel, former and current members of the German government and parliament, as well as German and Russian experts, explored the meaning of the cooperation between both sides for today’s attempts to build peace and security in Europe. After an assessment of the current state of play, potential scenarios for the further development of German-Russian relations were explored.
The conference was opened by Ilka Lochner, Permanent Representative of the Plenipotentary at the Land of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; Thomas Kralinski, Delegate to the Federal State of Brandenburg; Jelena Hoffmann, Chairperson of the Executive Board of the Foundation West-Eastern Encounters in Berlin; Sergey Nechaev, Russian diplomat and, since 2018, ambassador of the Russian Federation in the Federal Republic of Germany; and Martin Hoffman, CEO German-Russian Forum.
The panels, moderated by Dr. Vladislav Belov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe (RAS), and Prof. Hans J. Giessmann, Executive Director at the Berghof Foundation, heard presentations from: Prof. Dr. h.c. Horst Teltschik, foreign affairs consultant to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the chairman of the Munich Security Conference from 1999 to 2008; Dr. Ernst-Jörg von Studnitz, Chairman of the German-Russian Forum; Gerhard W. Back, Former German General Air Force, Commander-in-Chief of Allied Joint Force; Anton V. Terentiev, Colonel General, Chiefs of the Russian Veterans Association of Western Group of Forces (WGF); Dr. Gernot Erler, German politician (SPD), Member of the Bundestag, the German parliament, from 1987 to 2017; Prof. Dr. Peter W. Schulze, professor at the University of Göttingen and co-founder of the DOC Research Institute; Dr. Helmut Domke, Member of the German-Russian St. Petersburg Dialogue; Professor Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe (RAS); Dr. Gundula Herwig, special counsellor for German-Russian thematic years of the German Federal Foreign Office, and Head of unit ‘Contaminated military sites and conversion in the Ministry of Environment’, 1991-1996; Bernhard Mroß, Interpreter in the German liaison-commando to the WGF; Ulrich Brandenburg, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Russia and in Portugal; Dr. Vasily Fedortsev, Head of the Baltic Regional Information and Analytical Center, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Kaliningrad; Dr. Martin Kummer, member of the Board of the Foundation West – Eastern Encounters Berlin; Dr. André Hahn, Member of Parliament, German-Russian Parliament Group; Dr. Volker Treier, Head of Foreign Trade, Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK e.V.).
The presence of the past: Historical lessons as a guide for contemporary politics
‘Knowing the past is key for understanding the presence and shaping the future’, was the guiding idea of the conference. Historical experience can provide valuable lessons and guidance for future decisions. One major lesson from the process of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany, which took place in a peaceful and cooperative manner, is that even in politically difficult times when relations between actors are strained, fruitful cooperation towards a common goal is possible. Yet, as the accounts of historical witnesses during the conference showed, mutual trust is a helpful – if not necessary – condition. Channels of communication must be kept open at all times in order to prevent confrontation and escalation. With an insightful account of her daily work, Gundula Herwig gave an example of how political will and trust allowed for close cooperation between the Soviet/Russian troops and the unit in the German Ministry of Environment that oversaw the contamination and conversion of military sites during the withdrawal of the Soviet troops.
The argument that trust is a fragile thing, which is difficult to build, easy to break, and once shattered, takes a long time to rebuild, was repeated continuously during the conference. Today, mutual trust between the Russian and German side that once allowed for close cooperation is in tatters. Diminished trust has been one major factor that has contributed to the deterioration of Russia-West relations in recent years and that makes moving forward so difficult.
Risks and uncertainties are the defining features of the contemporary international environment. The list of dangerous developments that might escalate if they are not managed properly is long: one of many is an almost unstoppable global process of rearmament. This has replaced arms control and disarmament – the pillar of European security during the Cold War – and risks spiralling out of control. Decisions of one side are followed by counter-measures of the other. Relations between Russia and the West remain at an all-time low, oscillating between stagnation and new waves of confrontation. Mediated by a sense of alienation and mistrust, both sides have become increasingly disillusioned with each other. Existing mechanisms of cooperation have proved ineffective, and current efforts to revive cooperation – especially at the highest diplomatic levels – are widely lacking. Breaking the deadlock is aggravated by the fact that both sides remain fundamentally conflicted over key issues, including the root causes of the crisis and methods of dealing with the contentious issues of the moment.
Fixing broken trust: The need for a fresh momentum
The need for fresh momentum and new impulses for rebuilding mutual trust in German-Russian relations was highlighted by Thomas Kralinski, Delegate to the Federal State of Brandenburg. Jelena Hoffmann, Chairperson of the Executive Board of the Foundation West-Eastern Encounters in Berlin, emphasised the importance of holding similar events to the conference, not least because they contribute to dialogue and can potentially positively affect currently strained East-West relations. In view of how quickly relations between Russia and Germany, or the West in general, have deteriorated over recent years, efforts towards improving understanding among nations are now more imminent than ever, Jelena Hoffmann said.
The importance of reconciliatory work on both sides and trust-building efforts at the social level were supported by Martin Hoffman, CEO of the German-Russian Forum. ‘Urban diplomacy’, which includes efforts such as establishing and strengthening partnerships between the populations of German and Russian cities – so-called town twinning – was named as a key factor in establishing understanding and peace between both countries.
In a historical throwback, Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Germany Sergey Nechayev pointed to the peaceful atmosphere in which Soviet troops left Germany in 1994. “They came as liberators to Germany, contributed to stability and balance in the region, and left in a peaceful manner upon the consent of both sides”, Nechayev said. Ambassador Nechayev recalled that back at the beginning of the 1990s, the objective on both sides was to build a cooperative and indivisible security system in Europe, which rested on the idea that the security of each state was inextricably linked with the security of every other state. History proved otherwise, and the dream of a common Europe in which all societies flourish has not been fulfilled. Nevertheless, despite the lost trust and currently strained relations, Germany remains an important partner for Russia, Nechayev stressed. Regardless of the difficult circumstances that suggest a dim future, dialogue between both sides must be continued, as it is a means of building bridges, bringing people and nations together, and enabling trust-building and confidence-building among political elites.
Referring to the peaceful atmosphere in which the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian troops took place, Horst Teltschik, foreign affairs consultant to the German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the chairman of the Munich Security Conference from 1999 to 2008, pointed to other historical events which ran in parallel at that time in a similar atmosphere of confidence and trust: the democratic liberalisation processes in Europe, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, disarmament on a large scale – all of these developments were peaceful and possible thanks to mutual trust, non-interference, and respect for the other side’s security interests. Today, these processes might seem a natural course of events, in reality however, they were a result of political will and a determination not to interfere into the other’s affairs, Teltschik recalled.
The way forward: Possibilities, scenarios, and hopes
What are the prospects for a normalisation in Russia-West relations? The speakers agreed that it takes a long time to rebuild broken trust and that trust is the foundation for long-lasting rapprochement. As Peter Schulze, professor at the University of Göttingen and co-founder of the DOC Research Institute, pointed out, one major problem that hinders that process is that on both sides, negative narratives exist that are aggravated by the media. Conflicting narratives tend to inflame the political debate, making it difficult to engage in pragmatic cooperation.
Horst Teltschik pointed to a lack of political will as responsible for the increasing alienation and stagnation in relations between Russia and the West, but at the same time as indispensable for approaching each other and seeking cooperation. He urged Germany and France to take the initiative to revive cooperation between Russia and the West, before Russia drifts away from Europe, while moving closer to other partners including China.
Peter Schulze agreed that the next move in repairing EU-Russia relations lies with EU states. Referring to examples of initiatives taken in the past two decades by the Russian side, such as Medvedev’s proposal from 2007 of a new European security architecture, Schulze said, “We shall not expect that Russia will again reach out to the West. The ball is now in Europe’s court”. For Schulze, the mistakes that have been made in EU-Russia relations and opportunities that were missed or not sufficiently used are numerous. Something that could have prevented the crisis we find ourselves in today is the concept of four Common Spaces. This could have replaced the Partnership and Cooperation between the EU member states and Russia that expired in 2007, but was regrettably never seriously discussed and implemented, Schulze said.
For Peter Schulze, with regard to the current state of play, the prospects for change in Germany and the EU’s approach towards Russia are dim. In his view, the reason for this paralysis is the fact that both Berlin and Brussels are yielding to the pressure of certain EU states that insist on a hard line towards Moscow. Schulze left no doubt that Germany should no longer accept that states with an uncompromising attitude towards Russia determine the direction of EU policy towards Russia. Germany must find a balance between backing an EU policy towards Russia and further estrangement from Russia, he said.
As Vasily Fedortsev, Head of the Baltic Regional Information and Analytical Center, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Kaliningrad, pointed out, only if relations between Russia and its neighbours – most notably Poland and the Baltic states – show some kind of constructive change, will those countries ease the pressure on Berlin and Brussels to enact a harsh policy towards Russia. Above all, a minimal dialogue and partial stabilisation between Moscow and Warsaw is required. Without some kind of consensus between Russia and Poland on several critical security issues, a normalisation of relations between Moscow and Berlin, as well as Moscow and Brussels, will not be possible. As long as states that remain estranged with Russia continue to perceive Russia as an imminent threat, they will persist in pushing for stronger militarisation of Europe.
Vasily Fedortsev further noted that normalising Russia-West relations is impeded by the fact that conflicts between other international actors, most notably the United States and China, directly affect the relationship between Russia and Western partners. It is impossible to resolve the problems that plague European security in an isolated way, without addressing other factors that determine international security.
On a more optimistic note, Alexey Gromyko, Director of the Institute of Europe (RAS), noted that several recent developments promote hopes that the current stalemate in Russian-Western relations may come to an end soon. These include the recent meeting between Putin and Macron before the G7 summit in Biarritz, and the indication from the US that Russia should re-join the G8, which may suggest that further marginalisation of Russia is not intended.
As Gernot Erler, a German politician from the Social Democratic Party and a member of the German parliament from 1987 to 2017, pointed out, one fundamental problem that makes achieving progress and improving the situation difficult is the divergent and mutually exclusive narratives of the West on the one hand and Russia on the other. The different interpretations of the underlying reasons for current developments and the disputes over fundamental security issues are a major symptom of the progressing alienation between both sides. This alienation process, which has gradually progressed since the end of the Cold War, reached its peak with the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, which threatens to further escalate the situation. For Erler, resolving the Ukraine crisis would solve several disputed issues between Russia and the West. Without a political resolution to the Ukraine conflict, rebuilding trust and normalising relations will remain a futile task. Gernot Erler expressed hope that things could change with the recent victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, resolving the fundamental problems of European security that beset Russia-West relations requires a consensus among both sides at the highest political levels. In this sense, setting up a conference comparable to the CSCE in Helsinki in 1975 as a new framework for addressing these issues might be the only way to break the current deadlock. At the same time, Gernot Erler urged both sides to take unilateral steps regardless of the decisions and measures taken by the other side. This could enable trust-building and could encourage the other side to do the same, he emphasised.
For Schulze, the only rational way forward is a pragmatic and moderate policy guided by interests rather than morality. Schulze insisted that real long-lasting peace and security in Europe, which would serve all actors, can only be achieved if it is built with Russia, not against it.
As was emphasised by several participants during the opening of the conference, Martin Kummer, member of the Board of the Foundation West – Eastern Encounters, insisted that as civil society will increasingly play an important role, political elites both in Germany and Russia will no longer be able govern and take decisions without taking into account their societies’ interests and demands.
Understanding history is key for drawing conclusions that shape the present for the better. The speakers at the conference agreed that an important lesson we can learn from the withdrawal of Soviet/Russian troops from Eastern Germany, which began in the early 1990s, is that even in difficult circumstances cooperation is possible. One major factor that facilitates dialogue is mutual trust and confidence, the existence of which played a key role in cooperation between Russia and the West during the whole period of the Cold War.
Rebuilding trust is indispensable for breaking the deadlock and moving forward towards restoring Russia-West relations and building common European security. Respecting and recognising each other’s interests, as well as intensifying relations between societies, is a primary step in this arduous task. In order to achieve a lasting rapprochement, pragmatic efforts are needed, not only on the highest political levels, but also at the social level, including a cultural and academic exchange between both sides. The speakers were under no illusions that problems that have intensified over two decades cannot be resolved overnight. Yet, as was repeated throughout the conference, engaging in dialogue and undertaking efforts towards changing the current situation are not only a means, but ends in themselves, as they contribute to understanding the other side and developing trust in the long term.
 The strategy of Four Common Spaces included a Common Economic Space; a Common Space of Freedom, Security and Justice; a Common Space of External Security; and a Common Space of Research and Education.
To get weekly updates from Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute subscribe to our Newsletter.
You may also be interested in:
Peter Mousaferiadis: Leveraging diversity for business success
Populism and epochal change: Surface phenomena versus deep structures
Pascale Thumerelle and Patricia Piriou: The importance of investing in culture
Workshop on ‘Defusing the Ukraine crisis: Elaborating on elements of a possible resolution; Potential steps and constraints’