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After Navalny, outrage from German diplomat

Ukrainischer Schriftsteller Yuri Andrukhovych
Yuri Andrukhovych
September 4, 2020

The poisoning attack on the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has spurred German politics to take action — although there were many previous occasions that could have triggered a similar response, Yuri Andrukhovych writes.

Deutschland München Sicherheitskonferenz MSC Wolfgang Ischinger
Wolfgang Ischinger speaks on the first day of this year's Munich Security Conference (Feb. 14)Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer

The Wolfgang Ischinger interview published a week ago by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine could almost be labeled "revolutionary." The respected diplomat and lon-time chairperson of the Munich Security Conference has obviously reached a conclusion, even mooting "the termination of the idea of a strategic partnership with Russia." This Copernican transition was triggered by the poisoning of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

No, it was not Russia's annexation of Crimea, not the large-scale invasion of the Donbass region, not the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 (which killed all 298 people on board the passenger jet), and not the insidious mass shooting of hundreds of unarmed people near Ilovaisk. The events — or rather the war crimes — of 2014 did not upset Wolfgang Ischinger; despite all of them, the idea of a strategic partnership between Germany and Russia remained on the agenda. And, now that Navalny is in a coma, all of a sudden the world has been turned upside down.

The human being inside the diplomat

It would be unfair not to mention that, during the interview, Ischinger refers to the bloody year 2014 as well as to other excesses of violence bearing Russia's signature, such as the poison attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughterin the UK, the killing of a Georgian man in Berlin's Kleiner Tiergarten park and the cyberattack on Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. One would love to think that all of those incidents contributed to his — as far as I am concerned, hesitant — conclusion, which was finally reached as a result of the poisoning of Putin's "fiercest opponent" by invisible perpetrators.

Symbolbild zum MH17 Bericht
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane Image: Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

Ischinger is outraged, and his outrage is of such a caliber that it simply spurs the diplomat's mask to fall, and the human being to emerge from behind it. Ischinger is one of Germany's most distinguished and experienced representatives of this type. And this human being no longer needs proof, noticing the most important thing here: "Moscow ridicules the victim." And that's the truth, albeit a rather bitter one, and the most distinct proof at the same time. But is Navalny the only victim ridiculed by Moscow? Is this kind of derision — in addition to being the most distinct proof — perhaps some kind of trademark, some kind of murderer's thumbprint as well?

Outrage, however, is not the best prerequisite for thorough analysis, and so Ischinger, too, regains his composure, resorting, for a while, to the well-known proposition of actual powerlessness vis-a-vis Russia. For instance, he repeats a diplomatic statement regarding new sanctions against Russia's ruling elite: "There is no reason to believe that this would make a lasting impression in Moscow."

Halting Nord Stream 2?

Though no longer ruling out Germany's sudden withdrawal from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, he simultaneously hits the brakes on the idea, causing screaming tires: "To what extent would we harm ourselves, as well as German companies?" And, with his next statements, he buries all hopes for sanctions: "Sanctions are a remedy which governments usually resort to when they're running out of other ideas." This is followed by utter hopelessness: "No matter if we're talking about Syria, Libya, Ukraine or Iran — against Putin's will, we will not make any progress on crucial issues."

Portrait des Autors Juri Andruchowytsch
Yuri AndrukhovychImage: picture-alliance/

From here on, it would seem, there's no point in reading further — apparently, the initial revolutionary aspect was just a fleeting emotion which the professional diplomat handled predictably well. However, when Ischinger is asked about the situation in Belarus he once again seems to undergo a strange metamorphosis, which makes him grow in my esteem. He seems to succeed in loosening himself again from the hypnotic effect of "Putin's will." "Russia occasionally reminds me of Mr. Tur Tur, the 'seeming giant' from Michael Ende's children's book Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver," he says. "Seen from a distance, Putin seems omnipotent: He controls Syria, he interferes in Belarus. But, the more you approach the giant, the smaller he becomes."

Soft power without hard power

At this point, I'm full of admiration for Ischinger, and I reflect accordingly: We in Ukraine are closest to Putin, sharing a direct border with Russia. Perhaps that's why, in our view, he's not a giant but only a dwarf.

This is just a trifle, as the head of the Munich Security Conference reaches his initial zeal with his next statement: "We are the champions of soft power, but soft power without hard power is like a soccer team without goalkeeper." "Without forwards" would be more suitable, I reflect, but I read on: "We must be able to defend our interests, we must become less susceptible to blackmail vis-a-vis men like Vladimir Putin. This doesn't mean we should offensively use military power, but we must be able to deter effectively."

Ukraine Kämpfe in Ilowajsk
August 2014: In Ilovaisk, several hundred Ukrainian soldiers were lured into an ambush and killedImage: O. Antipow

Deterring the aggressor as opposed to appeasement or adulation — that's a very promising approach. It is undeniably a step forward compared with the still prevailing guidelines of German foreign policy, which meant that for decades harsh words were avoided at any cost, in particular with respect to Russia.

Business as usual

The conclusion reached by Ischinger within the framework of just a single interview might be preliminary. With God's help, Navalny will recover. The Kremlin's involvement in the attack, however, will perhaps remain in the dark, and at some point the official version will be that the incident was no attack at all. The current conflict will soften again, and everyone will return to business as usual — and return to the "idea of a strategic partnership," once discarded by the veteran diplomat in his excitement. It's possible, even highly possible.

But let us bookmark this interview – just in case, because it could be of unexpected use.

Yuri Andrukhovych is an Ukrainian writer, poet, essayist and translator. Today, he is considered one of the major cultural and intellectual voices in his country. Andrukhovych's works are internationally translated and published.