The World from Berlin Godfather Russia

Hardly a week goes by these days without yet another conflict between the West and Russia hitting the headlines. Now, Moscow is refusing to cooperate with London in the Litvinenko case -- and has kicked out four British diplomats. German commentators wonder on Friday how the West should react.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn't shied away from angering the West recently.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn't shied away from angering the West recently.

The list of disputes between Moscow and the West seems to keep getting longer and longer: Kosovo, the missile shield, the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, Gazprom, Polish meat.

This week, though, it is the spat over Russia's refusal to extradite the main suspect in the murder of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko that is dominating headlines. Britain on Monday booted out four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow's refusal to cooperate in the London investigation of Andrei Lugovoi, who is thought to have played a decisive role in the deadly poisoning of Litvinenko in November with polonium 210. In retaliation, Russia expelled four British diplomats on Thursday.

"Four British Embassy staff in Moscow are now persona non grata and they should leave the territory of the Russian Federation within 10 days," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told reporters on Thursday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin immediately tried to downplay the row, calling it a "mini-crisis" and emphasizing that both sides have an interest in cooperation. But London began looking for international support, and wasn't long in finding it. Most in the West would like to see the Russians do more to help solve the spectacular murder case. German commentators on Friday likewise joined the chorus.

The center-left paper Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday writes:

"After the superficial yet spectacular exchange of bile, it is time to return to the clinical facts of the Litvinenko case and British-Russian relations. The Litvinenko case is simple: There is evidence of a link to the Russian secret service milieu. Russia doesn’t seem prepared to seriously follow these leads. Even if the suspected culprit cannot be extradited (due to Russian constitutional concerns), one could prosecute him -- in the Russian constitutional state."

"As for politics, the two sides have made it clear that they understand the ground rules of diplomatic escalation. After an appropriate amount of time it will be time for de-escalation. But it is unlikely that Russians will show much dedication to dialogue prior to next year's elections. Moscow has a lot to sort out with Great Britain and its other Western neighbors. But first it has to figure out what its own role in Europe is."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Hardly a month goes by without new conflicts between the West and Russia. There is a large number of individual disputes -- all of them unresolved -- ranging from concerns over energy supplies, through a re-located Soviet monument in Estonia, up to the Litvinenko murder. And almost all of them have the potential for escalation. The bad news is that hardliners on both sides have long been charting the course of events. Moderate EU governments like Germany's are crushed between the two fronts. … There are two reasons for this: On the one hand Russia really is provoking the West. … On the other hand, European Union solidarity means that each small bilateral problem immediately becomes a large problem between Moscow and the whole bloc."

"All EU partners call on the EU for support in their feuds -- but the inevitability with which they receive it is dangerous. If Germany were to refuse its support, Eastern Europe would immediately hurl the attention grabbing accusation -- wrong though it may be -- that there is a Berlin-Moscow axis…. It is precisely the Europeans who have to strive for de-escalation. They have the most to gain in terms of economic and security benefits. They will also bear the brunt of the damage, if de-escalation fails."

Conservative daily Die Welt chooses to look at Russia on Friday through the lens of the Kosovo problem:

"It is impossible to see how long Russia will continue to ignore the inevitability (of an independent Kosovo) and what consequences this will have. But the Kosovo question is only one of many conflicts where the confrontation with Russia continues to escalate. The West cannot have any interest in seeing the threatening climate between itself and Moscow … get any worse. But at the same time, it can no longer afford to be debilitated by Russia's policy of denial in the Kosovo question."

"As in many other political issues around the globe, it cannot be expected that Moscow will show a willingness to compromise with the West. Russia's refusal to allow Kosovo to be separated from the Serb state, though, has a greater symbolic meaning. Its role as Serbia's protector is the only remaining position that allows Moscow to leverage a voice in European affairs. By supporting Serbia's uncompromising position when it comes to Kosovo, Moscow hinders Belgrade's approach to the European Union and NATO. A Europeanization of Serbia would be the beginning of the end of Russia's special position as Godfather to its traditional ally."

-- Charles Hawley, 12:30 p.m. CET


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