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Friday, April 18, 2014

Germany's Distorted View of Russia, Seen Through German Eyes

...specifically, those of Christian Neef, who says it's time Germans stopped romanticizing Russia, in a recent--and perceptive--DER SPIEGEL article, excerpted below.


There's little in the current debate in Germany over Russia's Ukraine policies to suggest much in the way of expertise. People claim the new government in Kiev is fascist and has fallen into the hands of right-wing extremists and anti-Semitic forces. The far-left Left Party's claims are sheer nonsense. When were the party's intellectual leaders -- Gregor Gysi and Sahra Wagenknecht -- last in Kiev? If we're going to discuss developments in Ukraine, then we should also talk about right-wing extremists in Russia and the anti-Semitism that is tolerated there.

It's also nonsense to claim that Crimea is "ancestral Russian territory". As of 1441, Crimea belonged to the realm of the Tatary, a state that at one point stretched from today's Romania across the Caspian Sea to an area a short distance from Moscow. It wasn't until the 1700s that Potemkin used cunning and force to conquer the Tatars for Catherine the Great.

The Germans' romantic image of the Russians is to be blamed for Berlin's misguided policies toward the country and for the fact that the Kremlin is no longer inclined to take us seriously. The oft cited line is that we should be more inclusive of Russia rather than keep it at arm's length. That's what happened in 1996 when, in the midst of a war in Chechnya that had been launched by Moscow, Russia applied for membership in the Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog. The appeasers prevailed with the argument that it was a way of preventing Moscow from entering into further acts of military force. The second Chechen war began three years later.

Force has remained a tried and true element of Russian policy since 1991. The kind of political compromise that is standard in the West is seen as a sign of weakness. And that thinking isn't just isolated to the Kremlin -- it's the mentality shared by most of Russian society. That's why you don't even find dissent against Crimea's annexation among Putin's opponents. This is fueled by a major Russian superiority complex. First the Russians spoke disparagingly of people in the Caucasus, calling them "our blacks." Despite the fact that they are in great demand in the labor market, the Tajiks and Uzbeks have never been much liked either. The Jews are the constant subject of discussion in Russia. Now the Russians are going on about the Ukrainians -- about their "Khokhol," a play on the hairstyles of Dnieper Cossacks during the medieval period, but also used today as a pejorative term in Russia for ethnic Ukrainians. The idea being that the Ukrainians are somehow a backward people.

And that takes us back to Wolfgang Schäuble. Many found the comparison he made last week of the occupation of Crimea with the Nazi occupation of the ethnic German Sudetenland in the former Czechoslovakia offensive. Of course it is absurd to compare Putin with Hitler. But astoundingly similar arguments were made in both the speech given by Hitler on Sept. 26, 1938 in Berlin and in Putin's appearance at the Kremlin on March 18 -- at least in the vocabulary about providing protection to compatriots located outside the country. Why should we keep quiet about that? And why should we keep quiet about the fact that the coverage on Russian television leading up to the annexation of Crimea, with all its lies and agitation, was reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels?

Germany is currently scratching its head over the best way to deal with Russia in the future. If we don't finally take a sober look at Russia, one that is erased of all romanticizing and historical baggage that distorts our view of Putin's world, then we will never succeed in finding a reasonable strategy.