German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Germany and Russia needed to improve badly frayed bilateral relations. He met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on October 25. It was the first visit to Russia by a German president since 2010. Steinmeier pointed out that it was “very important” to establish dialogue with Moscow, in contrast to the cooling of relations over the past years. “We live in Europe together and it’s our duty to our people to always keep looking for a bond despite existing disagreements,” he said, adding: “These relations are too important to leave them without a dialogue.” According to Steinmeier, the time is right to “find a way out of the negative spiral.”
The German president believes the contacts should be maintained despite the differences over Ukraine. The talks ranged from economic ties to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria as well as other international crises. President Putin for his part said Moscow was ready to develop ties with Germany, adding that German businesses were interested in expanding their footprint in Russia. “Despite some certain political difficulties Russian-German ties are not at a standstill,” he added.
German direct investments in Russia are growing to reach $312 million in the first quarter of 2017. It significantly exceeded the total volume of German investments in 2016, which amounted to $225 million. Over 5,500 companies with the German capital are operating in Russia.
Steinmeier has long called for increased engagement with Moscow, and has advocated the easing of EU sanctions against Russia over events in Ukraine. The German president is also behind a disarmament initiative designed to push Russia and the US into reducing their arsenals of conventional weapons. In November, 2016, he came out with a proposal to launch discussions with Russia on a new arms control agreement. The idea was backed by fifteen other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Before that he slammed NATO for «saber-rattling and war cries» and provocative military activities in the proximity of Russia’s borders.
Steinmeier is not the only politician in Germany who calls for better relations with Moscow. Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is a likely candidate for joining a ruling coalition, has called for setting the problems related to Ukraine aside to make progress in the relations with Russia. According to him, “The security and prosperity of Europe depends on its relationship with Moscow.” The President of the Socialist Party in the German parliament, Sahra Wagenknecht, supported Lindner in his demand for a rapprochement with Russia. ‘We should return to a policy of relaxation in relations with Russia in order to preserve peace and security in Europe,’ Wagenknecht said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also advocates better relations between the West and Russia. He believes that Europe must improve its relationship with Russia, and should not let this be something decided by Washington. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are calling for changing the European policy on Russia.
Speaking after the NATO-Russia Council meeting on October 26, Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s Secretary General, said, “Our dialogue is not easy, but that is exactly why our dialogue is so important.” The NATO chief described the latest session of the NATO-Russia Council as a “frank and open discussion” on Ukraine, Afghanistan, transparency, and risk reduction. It was the third time the council met this year. Despite the deterioration of relations with Russia, the West realizes the need for dialogue.
Russia and Germany have a history of special relationship. Steinmeier’s arms control initiative should not be swept under the rug. Outlines of a possible document can be worked out. The Russian-German dialogue could contribute to working out step-by-step measures to address the issues of European security and restore a climate of mutual trust and cooperation.
Russian and NATO unofficial experts could explore the outlines of future Euro-Atlantic security architecture and the ways to address the challenges on this path. They could come up with a program to gradually ease the present-day tensions. They could also discuss how the OSCE’s Vienna Document could be expanded to include a broader agenda.
With Islamic State routed, the problem of Syria’s future comes to the fore. The situation in Libya and other places may dictate the need for joint action. Russia and NATO need to cooperate in Afghanistan. Taking into consideration the desire of CEE states to improve the relations with Russia, it would be interesting to examine the possibility of a non-nuclear zone in Central (Eastern) Europe.
Russia and NATO could launch discussions on sub-regional transparency and confidence-building measures, especially in the Black Sea and the Baltic region, where tensions are running high. The talks could focus on developing new steps to prevent incidents, establishing constant channels of communication between the militaries, and on developing new rules of conduct to prevent dangerous military activity. No military exercises or stationing forces close to each other borders (no forces increase zone) can also be added to the security agenda. The very fact that the discussion process is launched could stabilize the situation in Europe.
Russia remains an indispensable part of European security. Like it or not, it will remain a key European state and thus an inevitable partner and interlocutor for NATO despite all persistent problems in the relations. There is increasing realization of this reality in the West. Steinmeier’s visit and the resumption of NATO-Russia Council’s regular meetings confirm this fact.