“If we don’t want a war, there is no way around a policy of détente”

Interview with Gabriele Krone-Schmalz*

Current Concerns: Professor Krone-Schmalz, you were a correspondent for Germany’s ARD in Russia from 1987 to 1991. With your two books “Russland verstehen” (“Understanding Russia”) and “Eiszeit” (“Strained Relations”), as well as in numerous contributions of recent years, you currently represent a significantly different position from that of many of your colleagues in public service broadcasting (and in the mainstream German media). What made you decide to follow this path? Does your position also have something to do with the experiences you were able to gain as a correspondent in Russia?

Gabriele Krone-Schmalz: When I was a student, I dealt intensively with friend-foe-patterns and what they can do. And I believe that changing your perspective is an essential prerequisite for lighting upon what is generally called the truth. This sometimes leads you off the beaten mainstream track. Especially as a foreign correspondent you have to immerse yourself as far as possible in the respective society in order to understand it, in a comprehensive sense. How else would you be able to explain it? Because that‘s what it‘s about: informing and explaining – not moral evaluations.

“Russia is not acting in an aggressively expansive way, but from a strategic defensive position”

The current NATO states’ version of history is that after the end of the Cold War they wanted to bring freedom and democracy, prosperity and peace to the world. That states such as Russia opposed this endeavour and that Russia has become a power aggressively pursuing an imperial policy and threatening its neighbours. What is your opinion about this narrative?

Exactly, it is the narrative of one side only. The idea of freedom and democracy is not bad at all, but if the implementation lapses into missionary fanaticism and the question of whether it actually improves the living conditions of people, fades into the background, if it is mainly a matter of principle, then this is a betrayal of the idea. There is not just the alternative between an aggressive spread of democracy and a cynical tolerance of bondage and oppression. What is the situation today in the countries of the so-called Arab Spring? We don’t look at them any longer, because this policy has essentially failed resoundingly there. Russia has not denied democratic ideas since the late 1980s, when it was still the Soviet Union; it only wanted to determine its own speed in which to effect this revolutionary transformation, and expected the rest of the world to acknowledge Russian interests as well. A sober analysis of Russian politics cannot fail to see that Russia is not acting in an aggressively expansive way, but from a strategic defensive position. It is true that this kind of action can take an aggressive form, but this is another matter. But it remains to be noted that the West has been the proactive party, and that Russia is the one to react.

“When it comes to Russia, we throw every principle of the rule of law overboard”

Although there was no apparent evidence in the Skripal case, the UK government escalated the conflict with Russia. Not only the US government, but also the governments of France and Germany have joined in. A direct military confrontation with Russia is threatening in Syria. Why is the West taking its confrontation with Russia to such extremes? Is a great war being planned? Or does the West believe that Russia can be brought to its knees by incessant threatening gestures?And what then? What is to be achieved once we have managed to “bring Russia to its knees”?Who has an interest in destabilising an entire region? Has confrontation ever brought about anything constructive in terms of human rights, democracy and freedom?

A whole series of political decisions of the recent past have shocked and perplexed me. When it comes to Russia, we throw every principle of the rule of law overboard. Media indulge in reports of all kinds of suspicions, and politics persist in using escalation mechanisms.

George Friedman, former head of the private and influential US intelligence agency STRATFOR, said in February 2015 in Chicago, that there was one factor of uncertainty in the conflict with Russia, and that was Germany. How do you assess Germany’s role? Do you see a real chance that Germany will be able to free itself from its close ties to US, British and French politics and play a mediating role in this conflict? Or is a possible cooperation between Russia and Germany still considered as so formidable that everything is and will be done to prevent it?

It has become a knockout argument in many circles, that after the historical experience (keywords Rapallo and Hitler-Stalin Pact) no new German Sonderweg can be tolerated. That’s not what it’s all about. It is about engaging in something like a policy of peace in this conflict-laden, confusing world, and about balancing interests in an intelligent and humane way. In this context, the EU is often referred to, and the fact that “Europe” should speak with one voice.
I would wish that, too, but how is it to be achieved since interests diverge so fundamentally? Just to give you one example: The Russian policy in the Baltic States and Poland is not in the interest of Germany. I would have wished that the EU had been able to process constructively both the historically understandable fears of these states and the historically understandable fears of Russia. Incidentally, the quote you mentioned is no coincidence. In fact, Germany has in recent years repeatedly tried to reduce tensions and recommend moderation to hardliners who regard Russian interests as illegitimate per se. Whether the new German government will continue as before, must be shown.

“Fact is that in the 1980s, we several times escaped a nuclear catastrophe by the skin of our teeth”

You refer to the policy of détente of the 1970s as a model for a possible way out of the confrontation. Our impression is that many leaders in the US and other NATO states believe that it was not the détente policy of the 1970s, but the hard line of the 1980s that led to the West’s victory in the Cold War. In your opinion, what does it take for the policy of the hard line, the idea that it is desirable and feasible to win in the conflict with Russia, to be abandoned? What powers are geared up for a multipolar world and don’t want to stick to the idea of a unipolar world? What confidence-building measures are needed today?

Let’s be honest here: If we don’t want a war, there is no way around a policy of détente. The discussion of whether it was the détente policy of the 1970s or the hard course of the 1980s that resolved the confrontation – temporarily, we must say today – is futile. The fact is that in the 1980s, we several times escaped a nuclear catastrophe by the skin of our teeth. Do we really want to risk this again? If there is a serious political will to détente in the West, then there are two things above all, that can build confidence: on the one hand, the missile defense system in Poland should not go into operation as planned in 2018 – then Russia could refrain from the stationing of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad – and also the NATO accession prospects for Ukraine and Georgia should be rescinded. This might open the door for a major security conference, like the ones we managed to have even in the heyday of the Cold War.

“We need an informed debate and not statements of the belief

One of your special subjects is journalism and the media. What do you require from these with regard to the East-West relationship?

More sober analysis than moral condemnation and more asking questions than giving answers.  Especially in connection with such incidents as the attack on the Russian double agent Skripal and his daughter or the presumptive poison gas attack in the Syrian Duma, we far too often find only government positions instead of critical questions in the coverage. The automatical application of the good-evil scheme must be abandoned. Not every piece of information from Moscow can be filed under propaganda. We need an informed debate and not statements of the belief that we are on the “right” side.

“Everyone able to support youth exchange should do so”

Many citizens do not want this confrontation with Russia. They want to live together peacefully with their neighbours in Europe. In politics and in the media, these voices currently have little say. What can citizens do regardless?

Claim the rights of their liberal societies, speak out fearlessly, fight back, demand that media and politicians take their duties seriously and do not satisfy themselves with trying to guide citizens “onto the right track”. It is time for majorities to prevail, as is envisaged in a democracy. For this it may be necessary to get out of your comfy corner and to raise your voice. Medium to long term everyone able to support youth exchange should do so. This is like a vaccination against bigotry, and hopefully it will last until these young people themselves are in decision-making positions.

Thank you for the interview.    •

*    Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, born in 1949, studied Eastern European history, political science and Slavic studies and holds a doctorate in history and political science, works as a freelance journalist and publicist. From 1987 to 1991 she worked as Russia correspondent for the ARD broadcasting in Moscow. Since 2000 she has been a member of the Steering Committee of the Petersburg Dialogue, since 2006 member of the Board of Trustees of the German-Russian Forum. Since 2011 she has been a professor for television and journalism at the Business and Information Technology School (BiTS) Iserlohn. As one of Germany’s leading experts on Russia, she regularly appears on television.