Cheney and Genscher: Two Different Views on Russia

20060526-cheney-vilnius.jpg - Vice President Dick Cheney delivers a speech during a conference earlier this month in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Photo: Shawn Thew / AFP-Getty Images)

Vice President Richard "Dick" Cheney is often associated with that "other" Richard: Nixon. Like "Tricky Dick," his fellow-Republican who resigned as president in 1974 because of the Watergate Affair, Cheney has always had an aura of corruption, intrigue and obscure practices. Both also share a hatred for disloyal White House staff members with a gnawing conscience and a deep-rooted paranoia, but unlike Cheney, Nixon was sometimes caught with a smile on his face and had a sincere pugnacity in propagating and defending his policy.

Yet far away from Washington, where the "liberal" media are unceasingly criticizing the chaos in Iraq and are revealing (tapping) scandal after scandal, Cheney's star has risen. On May 4, Cheney gave an address at the "Common Vision for Common Neighborhood" conference in Vilnius, attended by representatives from the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet satellite states, including eight heads of state. Much to their satisfaction, Cheney lashed out fiercely at Russia.

"No legitimate interest is served when oil and gas become tools of intimidation and blackmail," he said, referring to the Russian-Ukrainian "Gas War" of early January.

He added a clear warning against the increasing authoritarian tendencies in Russia:

"The government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people … In Russia today, reform opponents are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade."

It is hard to resist the temptation of making cynical remarks about Cheney's own devotion to democratic values and his meeting with Kazakhstan despot Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, one day after the Vilnius conference (President George W. Bush himself hosted Ilham H. Aliyev, the dictator of oil-rich Azerbaijan, on April 28). However, fathoming Cheney's motives and the possible consequences of his speech are far more important. First, it indicates that the United States is taking a more critical stand toward Russia. Anger about Russia's soloist escapades in the Middle East, geopolitical rivalry in the Caspian region (Cheney and Nazerbayev reached a principle-agreement on a new pipeline across the Caspian Sea that will cut out the Kremlin), and intensified ties with America's looming rival China have all roused considerable irritation in Washington.

But launching verbal attacks on the Kremlin implies that Washington has a practical advantage. The agreement on the construction of the 1,200-kilometer North European Gas Pipeline (N.E.G.P.), signed under the approving gazes of President Vladimir V. Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in Berlin on Sept. 8, 2005, ignited a massive commotion in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. For historical reasons, they dislike the idea of being bypassed by two great powers.

"Poland has a particular sensitivity to corridors and deals above our head. That was the Locarno tradition, that was the Molotov-Ribbentrop tradition. That was the 20th century. We don't want any repetition of that," Polish Defense Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in Brussels on April 30.

The pipeline deal and the Russian-Ukrainian dispute have made the Baltic States and Poland painfully aware of the fact that former colonizer Russia, with whom they have been at odds for 15 years now, won't hesitate to employ the export of natural resources as an instrument for exerting political pressure. It seems that Moscow has finally found an appropriate way to neutralize the effects of changing conditions in its "front garden" after the Rose and Orange Revolutions, and to punish the advocates of rapprochement for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to the European Union and NATO.

This hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Cheney's action proves that the American government isn't reluctant to mold the slumbering fear for Russia in the Baltic Region. The final aim: isolating those European states that are less willing to support the political agenda of the United States and thwarting the development of a full-fledged rival in the E.U.'s Foreign and Defense Policy.

Russia made no efforts to conceal its annoyance with Cheney's pinpricks. In his annual State of the Union address (May 9), Putin compared the United States to a "wolf that eats without listening," while the muzzled Russian press even spoke of a "new Cold War." However, there is little reason for Moscow to be worried. The United States may have succeeded in implementing a policy of Divida et Empera in Europe, exploiting internal E.U. quarrels and gathering a group of devoted disciples around them, but so has Russia practically. During the 2002-03 Iraq Crisis (and after), Putin thankfully used Schröder as a pawn. He encouraged the tactless chancellor to dissociate himself from Germany's Brückefunktion, the traditional threefold balancing-act between the United States and France, the United States and Russia, and Russia and Eastern Europe. Schröder's reward for his services is the notorious gas-pipeline in the Baltic Sea.

Although Schröder left the political stage in October, he is still serving his second fatherland Russia. His successor, Angela Merkel, has gradually maneuvered Germany back into its familiar position, behaving like a charming, female reincarnation of Otto von Bismarck, the master of 19th-century Realpolitik. Inspired by Bismarck, Merkel prefers to present herself as an ehrliche Maklerin ("honest broker") and has intensified ties with the United States, Britain and some smaller European countries like the Netherlands and Austria, without alienating Schröder's friends Putin and French President Jacques Chirac. Only the relationship with Poland remains tense, but bearing in mind the xenophobic whims of the Kaczynski family, one should forgive Merkel for that.

Being a former citizen of Erich Honecker's German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), Merkel will probably never be caught with any personal affection for Putin, but her policy of cautious balancing automatically rules out any support for the hardening American approach toward Russia. Apart from the nature of Merkel's neo-Bismarckian diplomacy, something else will keep Germany from inaugurating a cold war with Russia: vital economic interests. These haven't lost importance since Schröder's inglorious departure.

Twenty German top managers accompanied Merkel when she departed for a summit with Putin in the Siberian town of Tomsk, April 26-27. The result: an impressive harvest of lucrative business contracts — chemical giant BASF reached an agreement with Gazprom on exploiting the Yuschno Russkoje gas field, while Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and RZD (Russian railways) will join forces in building a logistic center. The ruthless treatment of Ukraine by Russia has made Germany aware of the risk of dependence on the supply of gas from the East, but Merkel won't be able (and willing) to stop the current trend of German-Russian energy interweaving.

In a column in the daily Der Tagesspiegel (May 11), former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher praised Merkel's pragmatism, but also stressed the need for a more structural fundament under the German/European-Russian relationship, a strategic partnership.

"Stability in Europe can only be given shape with and not against Russia," the authoritative éminent grise wrote. (Éminent grise is French for "a powerful unofficial advisor.")

In Genscher's opinion, successful détente with the Soviet Union, as he conducted in the 1970's, demonstrates that dialogue and cooperation with Russia should be the premise, not confrontation.

Genscher's view is not unique, but faultlessly fits into the long German tradition of maintaining close ties with Russia. After the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer directly focused on Westbindung, the deep and irreversible integration of the fragile, young (West) German democracy in NATO and the successive European Communities. The Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.) and liberal Free Democratic Party (F.D.P.), Genscher's party, would increasingly criticize Adenauer and his Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U./C.S.U.) for deliberately ignoring the communist East.

According to S.P.D.-intellectual Egon Bahr, a prominent advisor of later Foreign Minister and Chancellor Willy Brandt, building up a solid relationship with Moscow was the only means to demolish the Iron Curtain and to guarantee better living conditions for die Menschen ("the people") in neo-Stalinist East Germany. When the S.P.D. and F.D.P. ruled West Germany from 1969 to 1982, with Brandt and Helmut Schmidt as Chancellors, the Ostpolitik, as hatched by Bahr, was put into practice. A sense of guilt for the horrors that were committed by the Nazis in the Soviet Union gave it an impulse as well. But the Moscow-friendly policy entailed strong distrust in the Nixon White House. His national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, feared that West Germany would drift to neutrality.

Genscher remained in office under the conservative, Atlanticist Kohl governments (1982-1998) and warranted the continuation of the Ostpolitik. During the process of German reunification, Genscher showed himself susceptible to the wishes of the Soviets and even contemplated a German membership of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact and a neutral status for the former G.D.R. — Chancellor Kohl displayed more reliability to Western allies. Under the Red Green Coalition of Schröder and Joschka Fisher, the pro-Russian reflex got a fresh impulse, this time fostered by growing anti-Americanism in German society. It appeared that history was repeating itself. Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resumed the "Germany-bashing" of their Republican predecessors Nixon and Kissinger, when Schröder started his campaign against the War on Iraq. (Rumsfeld served as an assistant to Nixon and as his ambassador to NATO in Brussels.)

The approaches toward Russia as articulated by Cheney and Genscher symbolize two fundamentally different visions and traditions. They could be summarized as "hard" and "soft." The Baltic States and Poland feel attracted to the first approach. Germany — Chancellor Merkel conducts a policy of pragmatic nuance but will never provoke the Kremlin — France and Italy (and possibly Spain) to the second approach. Britain, Holland and most Scandinavian and Eastern European countries are somewhere in-between. Yet, as long as the United States and the European Union and the European countries themselves won't be able to formulate a unanimous and vigorous policy towards Russia, President Putin will feel no serious pressure to stop the further dismantling of Russian democracy and to behave as a reliable partner in world politics.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jeroen Bult.