Bul­letin from Abroad

It took a while for Ger­many’s con­cil­ia­tory at­ti­tude to Rus­sia to break.

New Zealand Listener - - CON­TENTS - Cathrin Schaer is ed­i­tor-in-chief of Iraqi news web­site Niqash.org, based in Ber­lin. CATHRIN SCHAER

Cathrin Schaer in Ber­lin

The con­spir­acy the­o­ries have been around for a while now: there was no for­eign in­flu­ence in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, and if there was, Rus­sia had noth­ing to do with it; nor did the Rus­sians have any­thing to do with the shoot­ing down of that Malaysia Air­lines plane over Ukraine.

Western na­tions want regime change in Syria and the Rus­sian mil­i­tary is only pro­tect­ing Syr­ian civil­ians against evil ji­hadis, who are all cun­ningly dis­guised to look like first re­spon­ders in a war zone (bet you didn’t know all those bleed­ing Syr­ian kids were ac­tors).

On it goes: Rus­sian ath­letes have never used per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs – that’s just an un­fair slur put about by those who are jeal­ous of all those gold medals. Oh, and Rus­sia had no in­volve­ment in the poi­son­ing of ex-spy Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia in Sal­is­bury. In fact, Bri­tish spies prob­a­bly did it.

Keep­ing track of the so­cial­me­dia traf­fic has been in­fu­ri­at­ing, ex­haust­ing, de­press­ing and, fi­nally, bor­ing. If you know any­thing about the in­ci­dents dis­cussed – and you don’t need to know much – you’re al­ready aware that this is just dis­in­for­ma­tion.

It is not about de­nial, any­way: these are shots fired in an in­for­ma­tion war in which ra­tio­nal­ity is im­pos­si­ble and whatabout-ism rou­tine. You are soon driven back to emo­tion-based ar­gu­ment.

In Ger­many, the folk who like those con­spir­acy the­o­ries are de­scribed in a typ­i­cally con­cise Ger­man way: they’re called “Rus­s­land­ver­ste­her” – lit­er­ally “Rus­sia-un­der­standers”. There are plenty of them, and they turn up in the darn­d­est places – here’s look­ing at you, Win­ston Peters.

When Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin sent masked sol­diers over the bor­der into Crimea in 2014, one par­tic­u­larly lib­eral col­league in Ber­lin ar­gued that the Rus­sians were only re­spond­ing to Nato’s ter­ri­to­rial ag­gres­sions. “They felt sur­rounded,” she gushed em­pa­thet­i­cally. “They felt trapped.”

These guys were cross­ing an in­ter­na­tional bor­der, with guns, to, er, start a civil war. Is that a rea­son­able re­ac­tion to “feel­ing trapped”? And why was it okay for Rus­sians to do this, when it was never okay for any other coun­try?

There are plenty of rea­sons that Ger­many has so many Rus­s­land­ver­ste­her: Putin said when he vis­ited Ber­lin in 2011 that “be­tween Rus­sia and Amer­ica lie oceans; be­tween Rus­sia and Ger­many lies a great his­tory.”

Ger­many and Rus­sia do have a ge­o­graph­i­cal prox­im­ity. They are also linked by the joint-ven­ture nat­u­ral gas pipeline Nord Stream, which is be­ing dou­bled in ca­pac­ity.

The ac­ri­mony of the Cold War era has not en­tirely dis­si­pated. Since 1969, Ger­man So­cial Democrats have worked hard on rap­proche­ment with the Soviet Union and then Rus­sia, em­pha­sis­ing po­lit­i­cal change through trade even as their US al­lies were tak­ing a harder line against the com­mie men­ace.

This is why the re­cent Euro­pean push­back against Rus­sia over the Skri­pal case was a small but wel­come sur­prise. After all, no­body ex­pelled any­body after the Malaysia Air­lines in­ci­dent and the Dutch rel­a­tives of those who died are still an­noyed about that. For years, Rus­sian war­planes have dropped bombs on civil­ians in Syria with im­punity. Yet at the time of writ­ing, al­most 30 coun­tries had ex­pelled over 130 Rus­sian diplo­mats.

The UK Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, be­lea­guered by Brexit, did a fine job of rallying the troops on this one. Maybe ev­ery­body had had enough of the con­spir­acy the­o­ries.

Euro­pean politi­cians have taken a while to get to this point and the Ger­mans, with their contin­gent of high-rank­ing Rus­s­land­ver­ste­her, their peren­ni­ally con­cil­ia­tory for­eign pol­icy and their dense web of eco­nomic ties to Rus­sia, may have a bit of an ex­cuse for wait­ing this long to tell four Rus­sian diplo­mats to sod off. New Zealand doesn’t.

“Rus­sia-un­der­standers” turn up in the darn­d­est places – here’s look­ing at you, Win­ston Peters.

“Stand back. I’m a voyeur.”

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