2015 Schlangenbad Dialogue: the East-West Confrontation in Microcosm

After listening patiently to the inevitable snide remarks about Kremlin positions, I followed the American folk wisdom for getting the attention of a mule: you first whack him with a 2 by 4 beam.  The beam at my disposal was the remark: “Gentlemen if we continue in this tone with the Russians, we will all be dead.”





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2015 Schlangenbad Dialogue:  the East-West Confrontation in Microcosm

                                               by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


One of the key annual events in bilateral German-Russian strategic brainstorming is the traditional Schlangenbader Gespräch, best translated as “the Schlangenbad Dialogue,” held over the course of three intensely filled days of panel discussions, free-seating shared meals and ending in a half day’s cultural excursion. The venue is a Taunus hills resort town 40 km from Frankfurt. The organizer is the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the think tank of Germany’s second largest political party, the Social Democrats (SPD), which has an international footprint via its offices abroad, including Moscow, Washington and Brussels.

The theme for this year was inescapable and thought provoking:  “The End of the European Home:  What Comes Next?”  There was every reason to expect big things. The punctuation emphasized the passing of an era, the abandonment of the dream of the days immediately following the end of the original Cold War in 1989. The placement of the question mark over the future put the participants on notice that they should think outside the box. Der Spiegel sent a correspondent.  Reporters from two other mainstream German dailies also sent reporters, at least to day one.

The conference came at the end of April and was the 18th edition since the founding of the Dialogue. Some 15 Russians and 65 Germans were in attendance.  A majority of them have participated year after year. Some have been in it from the very beginning. A small number, perhaps 10%, myself included, were newcomers.

The continuity of invitations is an important contributing factor to the atmosphere of the event.  The same attendees from both German and Russian sides have met together both in good times and in bad times and they come to the conference with a store of good will.  In addition, the warm hospitality of the organizers and the delightful surroundings in the midst of prime German wine country create an atmosphere of relaxation that is propitious to reflection. The proof in this instance was that the highest ranking Russian government official, a deputy minister of foreign affairs, came with his wife and stayed for the entire duration. Moreover, there were no walk-outs, no shows of discourtesy or personal rancor even when two of the “dissidents” in the Russian delegation made programmatic statements from the floor which were meant to deal body blows to the ‘Putin regime.’

As I have just said, journalists were admitted. In that sense my essay today is in line with the policies of the organizers that the Dialogue is not a closed shop.  But it is held under Chatham House rules, meaning that no direct attribution of remarks made is allowed, rules which I intend to honor in full.

That said, the sad reality of the 2015 Schlangenbad Dialogue is that the prepared speeches and even the spontaneous remarks of participants in Q&A hardly strayed from what the same speakers say to the general public and to journalists for attribution.  This is not a reproach to the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. It is merely a frank acknowledgement that in present circumstances of the New Cold War and diametrically contradictory narratives of the Ukraine crisis in the mainstream media on both sides, we have an ideational if not ideological divide between Russia and the West so great that a gathering like the Schlangenbad Dialogue becomes a microcosm of the world outside its doors whatever its hosts may have hoped for.

Of course, private side discussions always leave more room to step back from hardened positions. As I discovered in the corridors, at the dinner table, in shared taxi rides with other participants, there are ways to break the ice, to go beyond frozen conflict and grandstanding rhetoric and to begin more constructive discussions. Uncovering that secret will be the main point of this essay.

During the first plenary session, one of the participants asked why the two delegations are so unbalanced in numbers if the objective is full and equal dialogue. The answer to that one was easy enough: the consideration of distance to travel and expense. However, a deeper question was not asked:  why there was much more diversity of positions in the small Russian contingent than in the large German group? As regards the Russians, the reason surely lies with the invitation policy of our hosts. As regards the Germans, it may be a sign of the times, as I explain further on.

Apart from the deputy minister and one or two officials, the Russians were mostly academics, think tank administrators representing ‘civil society.’  As such, they were positioned along a continuum from Kremlin loyalists to Opposition.  At the far end there were two certified “dissidents,” both of whom were carrying visiting cards with self-descriptions as “publicists,” by which is meant “political observers” or “commentators.”  One was a professor who attracted media attention a year ago when he was fired from his post at the prestigious Moscow university specializing in international relations that has trained generations of Russian diplomats. He was let go for publishing an article likening his country’s ‘annexation’ of Crimea (officially considered a “reunification’’ with Russia)  with Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland. He demonstrated in the plenary sessions that his views of the regime have not mellowed in his forced retirement.  The other “dissident” was a former Duma deputy and leader of the systemic Liberal Opposition alongside Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov.  Though silent for most of the conference, in the last day he weighed in against the regime in no uncertain terms.

The academics on the Russian side performed well in Schlangenbad.  They were entertaining, at times sparkling in the panel devoted to conceptualizing the coming post-Cold War period architecture of international relations in terms of the 19th century Concert of Powers.  The middle level Russian functionaries were informative and constructive in their presentations to a panel devoted to the present and future role of the OSCE in peacekeeping in Donbas and facilitating the implementation of the Minsk-2 accords.  The problem was with the highest ranking members of the delegation, who should have been the main beneficiaries of exposure to diverse opinions from their compatriots and German interlocutors.

There is no need nor would it be in keeping with the ground rules for me to go into the specifics of what the Russian deputy foreign minister said in the keynote speech which opened the conference or in his remarks during Q&A in plenary sessions.  But the specific words do not count. Generally his arguments and approach to defending his country’s foreign policy with respect to Ukraine  did not differ from what I have heard from another Russian deputy foreign minister speaking to an EU-Russian conference in Brussels in December or from the Russian ambassador to NATO during a debate  with Elmar Brok, chair of the European Parliament committee on foreign relations, held in Brussels in April under the aegis of another German think tank, this one serving the Bavarian wing of Merkel’s party.

As individuals, the top Russian diplomats I have encountered are well educated, sophisticated in dress and demeanor and have good communication skills, meaning fluency in one or more foreign languages. But the script they are being given from headquarters on Smolenskaya Square in Moscow exposes them and their government to derision, as also occurred in Schlangenbad. The blame lies in the chain of command rising through Sergei Lavrov  to President Putin, who clearly does not trust his diplomats to argue the Russian case with their own innate skills and in keeping with the circumstances before them. It is symptomatic of this problem that Moscow sent to Schlangenbad a deputy minister of foreign affairs whose background in the ministry meant that he knows virtually nothing about Germany by his own admission.  This was not a mistake; it ensured he could only deliver the message he had been given at a very high level event in German-Russian relations.

The official Kremlin script denies there is a Cold War going on, since there is, we are told, no ideological divide.  No divide, the officials say, because Russia adopted Western values back in the early 1990s.  Similarly the concept of a European Home stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok remains valid; we must just fix the plumbing, repair the tears in the roof, do some redecorating, and everything will be fine.  Russia has a very different interpretation from the West on what happened in Kiev on 22 February. The secession of Crimea through a referendum and its decision to join the Russian Federation came about as a result of the refusal of the local population of Russian speakers to accept the authority of the illegitimate regime installed in Kiev by the Maidan and its Western backers.  The process of reunification with Russia conformed to international law and to the guiding principles of the United Nations which stress the right of all peoples to self-determination. The civil war which broke out in Donetsk and Lugansk similarly was a Ukrainian matter reflecting the demand of the Donbas population for autonomy in a federalized constitution as their response to the nationalists now in control of the capital.  Russia did not send troops or materiel into the Donbas.  There is no reason for us not to be friends.

This policy line evoked in Schlangenbad the same derision as it did at the Munich Security Conference in February and as I have seen arise elsewhere.  The Russian official line takes the dishonest legalistic arguments over Russia’s alleged violations of international norms put forward by its detractors in the West and responds in kind with dishonest bluster.

The problem is not that the Russian position over Ukraine is indefensible.  It is that the defenses being invoked are the wrong ones.

I firmly believe the truth is always or nearly always the best line of argumentation.  America incited a coup d’etat in Kiev to effectively take control of the country in pursuit of its geopolitical interests in compromising Russian national security and diminishing its threat to American hegemony.  Russia intervened in Ukraine firstly and foremost to ensure that its key naval installations in Sevastopol would not fall victim to the regime change in Ukraine and come under NATO control.  Secondly, Russia was concerned at the possibility of Ukraine being put on a path to NATO accession, thereby giving an increasingly hostile state on its border with potentially strong military chapter 5 protection. In these issues, Ukraine and its Western backers were crossing red lines of existential security concerns which Russia had declared repeatedly going back a decade or more.

Instead of pussy-footing about its own interpretation of international law and kindly intentions, Moscow’s diplomats would do much better stating that the country will take all measures necessary to safeguard its national security. Full stop. That kind of forceful statement of intent would wipe the smiles off the faces of  Western interlocutors and focus minds on what can be done to find compromises and move on.

By insisting too heatedly there is no proof behind Western accusations it has troops in Donbas, Russian diplomacy is willfully ignoring the greater truth that rankles. It is undeniable that from the beginning it has inspired and given moral encouragement to the separatist movement in Donbas.

 In fact, Moscow has acted in this matter as a mirror image of the policy made in Kiev, whereby war is a calculated instrument of identity politics.  From the first days when the Maidan regime came to power, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was spoiling for a war with Russia for the sake of building a Ukrainian nation.   The concept is very simple: nationhood through battle and shared hardship.


Putin understood this perfectly and did not oblige.  Indeed Russia had the capability of sweeping across Ukraine if it had so desired.  The time to strike would have been just after securing Crimea militarily, just to move on down the coast and across into the Ukrainian heartland. But Putin made no preparations for such a campaign. He had no field hospitals ready, no supplies in place, none of the prerequisites to support such an invasion force.  Indeed the whole time that the West was shouting about Russian forces concentrated on the border, Putin did not ready the logistics to support an invading army.  There were no clusters of helicopters ready to direct fire.

As the Kremlin freely acknowledged at the start of the conflict, their own intelligence made plain to the Russians that Donbas, not to mention areas further to the west in Ukraine, had no majorities in favor of seceding from Ukraine and uniting with Russia.  Had he made a move to take these areas, he would have occupied territories where a resistance movement could break out, all the while earning drastic punishment from the West.


Instead he paid Kiev back with in its own coin. He encouraged the separatists in Donbas to fight for their own freedom without Russian participation.  They did so, Kiev responded with its vicious anti-terrorist campaign which created a real independence movement in Donbas and brought the majority of the population out against Kiev. The result was the creation of a civil war with Russian encouragement that served the purpose of building nationhood in Donbas while fracturing the identity politics of Kiev.   


I was told that in past editions of the Schlagenbad Dialogue there were differences of views among the German participants. In that case, the spirit of the times, the New Cold War, has been all the more an enforcer of conformism on the German side than one might have supposed, because there did not appear to be much daylight between the positions defended in the plenary sessions by German academics, Bundestag deputies, present/retired ambassadors and foreign ministry staff. Bringing Germans from different career lines together did not broaden their horizons, at least on the subject of Russia.

A couple of times synchronous applause (rapping on the table, German style) broke out among German participants around the hall in support of harsh words about Russian policy from one or another speaker. This kind of emotional display suggests confidence there is a general consensus. What this intellectual consensus is we shall now examine in detail.

In the broad audience I identified a number of mental blocks on the German side preventing them from conceptualizing the East-West conflict in ways that can lead to resolution.  They come from a Political Correctness that none of us can afford under present crisis conditions.

First there is denial among Germans that they have a foreign policy.  Whereas in the last century Germany hid behind France, its partner “locomotive” of the European Economic Community, then European Union, today it hides behind Brussels and collective decisions of the 28 member states. The problem with this is that it is a carefully constructed fiction. The European Union Institutions – Parliament, Council and Commission – are all controlled from Berlin which engineered the appointment/election of all the top officials over the past year.

Second there is what I call the “bunny rabbit” self-image, the pretended innocence of Germany as a country that virtually disarmed after the Cold War ended and is now facing a belligerent Russia which can overrun the Baltics and possibly Poland at its choosing. There is professed amazement that Russia could see a threat in themselves or in NATO given the paltry forces and materiel at German disposal.  However, this is disingenuous.  Behind Germany stands the United States which has considerably more military might than Russia.

Lastly, in the spirit of virtuous innocence, my German colleagues insisted that they, unlike the Americans, never practiced regime change and so reject Russian ire over the coup d’etat of 22 February in Kiev. But Germans were undeniably active in supporting the Maidan from its first emergence in the weeks following President Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. It was not just the American Victoria Nuland who was out on the square giving encouragement to protesters.  German Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time Guido Westerwelle was also on the square intervening in Ukrainian internal affairs, as were some German Bundestag members, all to the detriment of the existing legally elected president of Ukraine.

Listening to my fellow participants during the plenary sessions and in quiet conversation over meals, I was left in no doubt that the great majority of the Germans present fully believe in the new secular religion that also holds sway in the European Institutions in Brussels. I call it a religion because it is based on articles of faith. None of the postulates can be proven though they are accepted as ultimate truth by all believers.

The first article of this modern day catechism is that authoritarian regimes cannot live in peace with democratic nations.  This overarching principle is used to explain Kremlin behavior and the logic of the present confrontation over Ukraine.  Authoritarian regimes do not enjoy the support of their people. For that reason they must divert attention to bogus foreign threats, by creating enemies and seeking to isolate their people from the outside world. Hence Vladimir Putin after the mass street demonstrations in December 2011 protesting the falsified Duma elections had to invent the American threat to hold onto power, and this policy led ultimately to the showdown over Ukraine.

Another key article of faith which I heard repeatedly from my German colleagues in Schlangenbad is that foreign policy must be built on universal values of democracy and protection of human rights plus rule of law.  Russia is deemed to be failing in these fundamental areas of governance and so deserves heightened attention; it is not a country with which one can do business as usual.

The combined effect of both the foregoing postulates is democracy promotion and a moral obligation to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states for the sake of just values.  A host of problems arise from this of which the believers around me seemed not to have a clue.

It is both ironic and tragic that such views should prevail precisely in Germany.  Political science texts commonly make reference to the Westphalia system of nation states and to balance of power considerations guiding international politics.  It is more common to ignore on what basis this system came into being, which was precisely the resolution of the terribly destructive Thirty Years War fought on German lands over the issue of furthering universal values, represented at the time by the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church. In essence international relations have now been pushed back to the ways of 1618 before the lessons enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia were made to prevail for reasons of self-preservation.

Universal values allow of no compromises, they deny the art of diplomacy and work through Diktat. In our modern day, when used as a cudgel against a nuclear power like Russia, they are a formula for Armageddon.


And it was precisely this insight that guided my conversations at Schlangenbad with my otherwise stiff-necked interlocutors.  After listening patiently to the inevitable snide remarks about Kremlin positions, I followed the American folk wisdom for getting the attention of a mule: you first whack him with a 2 by 4 beam.  The beam at my disposal was the remark: “Gentlemen if we continue in this tone with the Russians, we will all be dead.”  It was amazing and heartening how the conversation did not end at that point but actually came alive.  In these side conversations, the German officials I spoke to cast off the Teflon persona associated with their rank and we began to talk in earnest about the real threats from the present nadir in communications with Russia amidst muscle flexing by the armies of all sides.

I was not surprised to hear one of the more prominent German colleagues go up to our Opposition politician and shake his hand warmly, saying:  “Ah, I was hoping by now you would already be President.”  All in all, the German participants were paying too much attention to the Russian ‘dissidents’ at the conference who said what Westerners like to hear about the ‘regime.’  But the power is not there and will not be there for the foreseeable future. Nor is it with the Russian academics at the conference.

Any regime change in Russia will not lead to formation of a government that is kinder to the West. On the contrary, it would likely bring to power fervent nationalists who have been impatient with the restrained Realpolitik of Putin which always makes moves within the bounds of feasible even if they fall well short of the desirable.

Our German colleagues have to be brought back down to earth before it is too late.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015


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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future?  (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to eastwestaccord@gmail.com