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Learning to Live with Multipolarity: the Scholz-Putin Meeting

It is a common misconception about chess that it is the most deceptive player who wins. In fact, it is often the player who thinks the most steps in advance that commands the flow of the game and ultimately dictates the outcome of it. As far as analogies go, this could well be applied to the meeting between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially when considering their meeting not so much as a separate game of chess, but rather the endgame of the ongoing chess game that has been the recent Ukraine-crisis.

To many conservatives, Putin is a deceptive politician who is dividing the West by making naive observers believe he has good intentions. All too often, this image is supported by a slew of cliches about Russians that seem to be taken right out of B-movies from the 80s. Of course, Putin is a former KGB agent and as such certainly well versed in all sorts of trickery, but it should be noted that the Russian soul by definition isn’t necessarily inclined to sneaky behavior, but to the contrary, it can be rather blunt in its approach, for better or worse.

When Putin met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping less than two weeks prior to his meeting with Scholz, Russia and China released a joint statement underlining their shared values. While a few sections, like the bit on the “long standing democratic traditions” of both countries, proved that they actually do have a sense of humor, the rest of the document was very straightforward with regards to their intentions: support for China’s “One-China-policy,” a common disregard for “color revolutions,” criticism against NATO expansion, and an emphasis on their willingness to engage in mutually beneficial trade.

Critics might call some of it hypocritical—rightfully so—but no matter our personal feelings on the politics of these countries, they both are world powers demanding a degree of sovereignty on the world stage that can hardly be denied, at least not based on the current constellation of powers in the world. Multipolarity is not a choice anymore, it is a reality.

In judging Russia’s interests in Ukraine, there is a danger to only look at history as far as it suits our own narratives. In doing so, the Ukrainian wish for independence from Russia harkens back to the grueling treatment of Ukrainians under Stalin in the 1930s; Ukrainian ties to the West can be justified through its former role as part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Through this historical lens, Putin’s foreign policy—depending on the mood of the day—becomes either an attempt to restore the Soviet Union or to revive imperial ideas of the 19th century. 

Forgotten is the fact that Kyiv is one of the central places of origin of the Rus, the very foundation of Russian culture. We might appreciate the complexity of the situation in a different context. If Philadelphia, for example, were to become independent from the United States and also flirt with membership in a competing military alliance, the United States probably wouldn’t just stand by and watch either, especially if it felt that treaties promising no such thing would happen were being violated.

Debates on who did what can quickly become endless. The assumption, however, that Putin pursues a sinister expansionist plan, even going as far as to assume that after more than 20 years in power he would now strive for a great conquest to cement his place in history, is not based on the tangible results of the past 20 years of foreign policy. It springs from a presumably great deception that will soon be unmasked when Putin’s armies march towards Europe.

But so far, Russia’s foreign policy with the West has been less deceptive and subtle, and almost straightforward at times. When Germany recently banned Russia Today, Russia did the same with Deutsche Welle, and there are many more examples like that. It is a very obvious game of an-eye-for-an-eye, which seems almost deliberate in its bluntness. That may be typically Russian in some respects, but is also a sign of being uninterested in the thinly veiled diplomatic jabs that have been traded over the past decade with the West. In acting that way, Putin also appears to reach out to the West to drop the pretense and—as has been often cited—meet at eye level.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is a member of the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. The last SPD chancellor was Gerhard Schröder, who is nowadays a member of the advisory board of Rosneft and one of the lobbyists responsible for the lucrative gas deals between Germany and Russia. Contrary to the hardliners of the Green Party, who are Scholz’ coalition partners, the SPD chancellor seems more interested in realpolitik.

When Scholz met U.S. President Joe Biden February 7th, just a week before visiting Moscow (covered by us here), Biden had been very outspoken when it came to the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The message was clear: “If Putin attacks, we will kill Nord Stream 2.” While Scholz was in no position to refute such a hefty statement, he still carefully picked his words so as to not close any doors prematurely, especially since Germany committed to radically switching to renewable energies (while excluding nuclear energy from the mix), during a time when the already highest energy prices in the world have soared even higher. Cheap gas is the one thing that offers a little bit of relief on the German tax payers wallets, a fact that also Vladimir Putin is well aware of, as he made clear in his press conference with Olaf Scholz.

It is rather telling that Putin started the press conference talking not about Ukraine first, but about the gas deal with Germany. After all, Germany is Russia’s second largest trade partner after China, and it became abundantly clear that Putin was interested in keeping it that way. Germany is Russia’s door to Europe and through a multitude of historical and cultural connections—and shared fate, for better or for worse—Germany has a connection to and an understanding of Russia that other Western European powers lack.

But Putin also understands the dilemma Scholz is in. The transatlantic big brother demands loyalty, and with Germany’s economy quickly becoming a shadow of its former self, even Germany’s leading position within the EU is far from settled. As we reported, French President Macron had been to Moscow only a week earlier, and while Macron demonstrated forthcoming understanding of the Russian position, Putin’s demeanor was marked by harsh criticism of NATO expansionism. 

It would go too far to call Putin’s treatment of Scholz soft by any means, but Putin’s different rapport with the two leaders was nevertheless a clear sign of who Putin would prefer to be his primary partner in the EU. By letting Scholz go “through the motions” of criticizing the imprisonment of Nawalny and the banning of Deutsche Welle, Putin allowed his German counterpart to fulfill his obligations so they could move on to what really mattered to Putin: gas trade.

The biggest gift Putin made that day to Scholz was the beginning withdrawal of troops a few hours before their meeting. And again it was blunt—which in turn was shrewd by itself. When Saskia Esken, co-leader of the SPD, celebrated the withdrawal as a sign of the successful diplomacy of Olaf Scholz, it smacked of naivety and drew a decent amount of mockery on Twitter. Putin gave the SPD the opportunity to make such a claim, but in withdrawing prior to the meeting, he made sure that everybody knew that it was only him who controlled the situation. It was a classic powerplay, firmly establishing Russia as not only the main actor, but the ONLY actor in the current crisis. And to call upon bluntness once more to drive home a point, he gave Europe a very clear choice: “Meet me as a trade partner at eye level, or fear my wrath. The choice is yours.”

The chess game ended with Putin offering Scholz a draw, allowing Scholz to move onto the next round. The German chancellor must think long and hard on how he wants to shape the cohabitation with Russia. One doesn’t have to be a slavophile Eurasianist to conclude that the time for the West to dictate to other world powers on how to organize their societies is over. We might disagree with the Chinese model (even though Justin Trudeau seems to be just fine with it), or with the way Putin and a few of his oligarch friends exploit Russia, but ultimately we are not in a position to control that anymore. 

The time has come for entire nations of the West to follow one of the most cited rules by Jordan Peterson and “clean our room” before trying to change the world. The challenge of our time lies first and foremost in preventing the unfortunately very successful models of collectivist societies, such as in China, to spill over into the West and destroy the foundations upon which our societies have been erected. That will be enough of a challenge, even without a conflict with Russia.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.

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