By Ralf Beste, Uwe Klussmann and Gabor Steingart
German Chancellor Angela Merkel loves the Russians. When she goes on vacation, she likes to have one with her, preferably a big thick novel by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. She also loves Russian, and back in the former East Germany, Merkel learned the language so well that she won a Russian contest. One of her favorite words is “terpeniye,” which she translates as “the ability to suffer.”
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev at a military parade in Moscow in May.
It was a clear warning to Russia, and one that fit perfectly into the tense atmosphere of last week. It was a week that seemed more diplomatically charged than any in a long time. Moscow has the world on tenterhooks.
The list of geopolitical provocations is long. Russia decided to recognize the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Not long later, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov lashed out at each other. Mistrust was the dominant mood. Did the Americans help spark the war in Georgia? Did Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili lie to the world about the sequence of events during the war? Is he perhaps even a war criminal? Will Russia further extend its power over its neighbors?
These are the kinds of questions that the world has been grappling with, and nobody has any idea how to defuse the tense atmosphere. Nobody has a solution to the problems.
One thing is certain: Russia is spoiling for a fight and the Russians are standing shoulder to shoulder. On the other side stands a group of countries, most of which stood side-by-side during the Cold War under the label “the West."
“When I want to call Europe, what number do I dial?” Henry Kissinger once asked while he was serving as US Secretary of State. Today, the same question could even more appropriately be asked of the West. Its phone is not in Washington, and certainly not in Brussels, where on Monday this week the heads of state and government in the EU are meeting to discuss the Georgian crisis. A show of unwavering unity is not expected to emerge from this meeting, but there is some good news: the German-French diplomatic machine is up and running again. The crisis has welded the governments of both countries together. All the irritations of the recent past have been forgotten and replaced by harmony between Paris and Berlin.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, closely coordinated the preparations for the special summit with Merkel: phone calls at all levels, no effort spared to find a common position, lavish praise on all sides.
Meanwhile, various ministries in Berlin have started to doubt the credibility of the most problematic friend of the West. Saakashvili, contrary to his own version of events, apparently ordered the attack on South Ossetia before the Russian tanks entered the province from the north via the Roki Tunnel.
'Carelessly Playing with Fire'
This was reported by military observers working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who were in Georgia at the time. Information from tapped phone conversations involving Georgian political leaders may have also made its way into the reports, which have been leaked from OSCE headquarters in Vienna. One source who is personally familiar with the reports summarized the findings as follows: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”
Just last week, the Georgian president told Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper: “We respected the cease-fire. It wasn’t until the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia that we deployed our artillery.” The OSCE reports also indicate that Saakashvili attacked the civilian population while they were asleep in their beds. That could be tantamount to a war crime. “Our dialogue with Georgia has to become more critical again,” says a top Western diplomat.
Germany would rather not act as an intermediary between the West and Russia, primarily because the Germans are in the Western camp, but Merkel and Steinmeier also want to maintain their good connections with Moscow in order to have an influence on the Russians.
But that could prove to be difficult. Although the chancellor phoned Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week to voice her criticism of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, she did not know if she was speaking with the man who really pulls the strings.
Russia’s strongman these days is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who Merkel knows well. However, she is not allowed to talk with him about foreign policy issues because in Russia it is the president who is officially responsible for this area. Diplomacy can be extremely complicated.
No Position to Lead
Merkel faces her next difficult phone call this week. After the EU summit, she is due to call US President George W. Bush to pitch the European line on Russia, assuming there will be one. During the Cold War this would have been a call to the leading Western power. But these days the US is in no position to play a leading role.
Last weekend, Democratic delegates in Denver nominated Barack Obama by acclamation as the first ever African-American presidential candidate. Hundreds of supporters in the hall cried tears of joy -- American presidential campaigns are seldom marked by such euphoria. But the world outside the Pepsi Center looked very different. The same Democrats who minutes earlier had been waving their flags now stood outside with a worried expression on their faces. Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright didn’t even try to be optimistic. Trouble is brewing around the world for the US, they said.
Then the diplomats started listing America’s woes. They said that the country’s dependency on foreign oil is dramatic. Every year America pays $600 billion (400 billion) to oil producing countries. On top of that, there is China’s economic rise, two bogged-down foreign wars, and now Russia has made its return to the international stage, loudly and aggressively, like a throwback to the days of the Soviet Union. “The Russians have crossed the red line,” says Albright. All in all, said Holbrooke, this adds up to the worst foreign-policy position to be inherited by an incoming president since the Civil War.
It is not, of course, a situation that US Vice President Dick Cheney will have to concern himself with. He is due to retire soon, but Cheney is personally responsible for much of the political inheritance that goes to the next president. This Tuesday, Cheney is scheduled to travel to Georgia to show his solidarity with this frontline country. Russia’s aggression must not go unanswered, he said shortly before his departure. Observers in Washington suspect that he may have helped provoke the conflict that he now claims to be solving. One of his most experienced advisors, Joseph R. Wood, was in Tbilisi shortly before the Georgian army launched its military operation.
This was only confirmed by Cheney’s office last week. Government sources say that after the conflict erupted, Cheney urged the White House to respond by sending arms to Georgia. The president reportedly rejected the proposal, perhaps after a bit of arm-twisting. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are determined not to send the military to yet another country in the five remaining months of the Bush administration.
Rumors are currently circulating in the US that Cheney may have sparked the crisis in Georgia as a favor to the Republican presidential candidate. There is a wealth of evidence to support such a theory. McCain’s foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann was a lobbyist for the Georgian government until last May. McCain is a close friend of Saakashvili. If the OSCE allegations concerning Georgia’s war plans are substantiated, it could fuel debate on the issue. In the meantime, an election campaign conducted in the shadow of an international crisis offers McCain a golden opportunity. In the hour of peril, experience is likely to garner more votes than hope. Putin has triggered what McCain urgently needs: a sense of anxiety.
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