Shocks, Disruptions and the global Pandemic: A response to the emerging challenges in 2021

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By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

The “storming” of the US Capitol which took place January 6th is an “ominous sign” on the wall. Inflamed and encouraged by President Donald Trump who had told thousands of supporters “to protest against the illegal election results”, the street “mob” started to move towards the building, where Senate and House met to discuss the certification of the electoral college that Joe Biden is the elected President. Unseen so far in recent American history, which was aired live throughout the world, thousands of protesters – among them the armed militias from “Proud boys” – were breaking through the protection zone of the US Capitol. The images of vandalizing Trump followers show that it’s not only President Trump who tramples on the principle of the “Rule of Law” and Constitution, but that the country – once called  a “beacon of hope” and  model for democracy – is deeply split. With the beginning of the new year 2021 and the inauguration of the new President Joe Biden one can only hope that renewed efforts are being made by heads of state around the world to lay the ground for a  new era of cooperation , “peace and stability” and a common effort to fight against the species threatening Pandemic Covid -19.
Never again war!
In a recent article published Dec 14th in a Bavarian newspaper, the former chairman of the influential “Munich Security Conference” Dr. H. Teltschik called for extraordinary efforts on the side of states in the EU, US and Russia, in order to prevent what he at one point called “a new kind of new apocalyptic hell”. Given the multiple newly emerging challenge, which includes the global pandemic, mass migration, environmental destruction, a renewed conventional and nuclear new arms race, as well as attempts to undermine multilateral organizations such as WHO, UN world Food program etc., he demanded that in 2021 major efforts should be done to preserve peace and security in the world.  He stated that Germany has lived through a long period of peace and that 75 years ago World War II ended leaving 50 million dead, millions of war prisoners and refugees, as well as leaving destroyed cities and annihilated villages. This was followed in August 1945 by the throwing of the first atomic bombs (by US Air Force E.H.) over the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki- killing on the spot hundreds of thousands of inhabitants  while 130.000 died in the following years and are up to this day suffering from the after effects. “Which type of inferno do we want to live through to finally understand, that the answer can only be ‘Never again war! Never again dictatorship’, Teltschik adamantly asked.  He underlined that Germany which was responsible for two world wars has all reason to be in the vanguard of states that wish to establish a secure peace in Europe and world- wide.  Being “one of the most stable democracies and economically most successful economy in the world” Germany could however not take that success for granted.  It requires each citizen to commit himself, overcome its own self- interest and engage for the Common Good of all human beings.
According to the author, one of the most important pillars upon which peace and security was built in Europe after the Second World War, was the German- French reconciliation and cooperation which was established in the post war period. It was the British statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, who in Zürich 19th September 1946 developed a “vision” concerning a future Europe. Being confronted with millions of trembling people, that were hungry, desperate, worn down – who after their return from the war were staring at the ruins of their cities and houses, there could be only one vision which would have a future in Europe: “The vision of creating a new European family of peoples.” As Churchill stated at the time: “We must create a kind of United States of Europe.” The way to do this is was by way of reconciliation and close cooperation between France and Germany. From Konrad Adenauer / de Gaulle this has remained, according to the author one of the most important principles in Germany’s foreign policy up to this day. It was Merkel, Macron and Putin who signed the Minsk agreement, to pacify Ukraine; it was Merkel and Macron who suggested a “European reconstruction Fund” at the recent European Heads of State summit to pave a way out of the economic crisis caused by the Pandemic. A second pillar remains the friendship with the US and cooperation within the Atlantic Alliance.
Cooperation with Russia-   a precondition for a secure peace
Teltschik however also made clear that- by looking at Russia, which at present sees NATO as a threat while at the same time it is beginning to rearm on a conventional and nuclear level, – a precondition for peace and security in Europe and the world is “cooperation with Russia.”  He referred to the famous Paris- Charta, by recalling that November 1990 all 27 governments and heads of state of the CSCE member states, signed in Paris the “Charta for a new Europe.” “Its aim was a common Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok, giving all member states equal rights and duties and equal security: It was a fantastic vision and the Paris Charta outlined the principles of cooperation and the instruments to implement those principles.” But “we only used it inadequately,” Teltschik wrote and warned that “today we are facing an almost ‘apocalyptic world’. How do we want to preserve peace? Our answer can only be an all- European perspective which includes Russia.”

The danger of a standstill in German- Russian relations 

Much more pessimistic in tone was a column written on Christmas Eve (24th December 2020) by Alexander Rahr, an influential Kremlin expert in Germany, who was the only one to physically attend the recent Valdai Forum (end of October). In an article written for “Russland kontrovers” entitled “2020 – Russia and Germany on the wrong track”, he wrote a quite dark assessment concerning future German- Russian relations. The Year 2020 was, as he put it, “a black year” in the history of Russian- German relations. He particularly pointed to the Navalny case, which “could poison the relations for years to come.” In an atmosphere shaped by mutual accusations and loss of confidence neither the economic relations nor the relations between the civic societies can improve Russia and Germany, which has been hampered anyway by heavy travel restrictions and lockdown. According to Rahr both Germany and Russia are caught in two “completely different narratives.” Germany accuses the Kremlin to have poisoned Navalny by using a forbidden chemical weapon. Putin rejects all this and in Germany he is qualified by some as liar and assassin.  The research conducted by the investigative platform Bellingcat (British) and by the “Navalny Anti-corruption Fund” are according to Rahr, taken as irrefutable “proof that the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt against Navalny” while the Russian Secret Service is portrayed as “dumb”. By referring to German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp- Karrenbauer, who had said in response to the Navalny case that one “should negotiate from a position of strength” with Russia, and with the upcoming election of a new CDU chairman, followed by new general elections which may end with a Black- Green Government, the course, as Rahr puts it, is set for a “storm” in respect to Russia.

In addition, there will probably a new human rights agenda set between the new US -administration and the EU, that will put Russia under significant pressure, according to Rahr.  As he estimates the West is using this Navalny case as a pretext to instrumentalize Navalny with the aim to split and weaken the Russian higher leadership. Russia will however not fall for this but rather withdraw into a “Wagenburg” mentality. He clearly warns that people in Germany should under no circumstances give in to those people within the EU that want to prevent and block a German- Russian relation in European policy,  that historically has a role to play for maintaining stability on the continent.
Rahr strongly warns that a “new iron curtain” may go through Eastern Europe – given that because of the Corona pandemics all contacts between Russia and Germany were reduced. Russia will not accept the model of liberal values from the West, and Germany does not want to deal with Russia that says “Russia first”. He reminds that in 2021 there are going to be two important jubilees: The Hitler offensive against the Soviet Union 80 years ago (June 1941), that left 27 million dead on the Soviet side, and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago (1991) which brought Europe freedom. These two jubilees are reason to reassess seriously the bilateral relations between Russia and Germany.
Annual press conference of President Putin – a call for more constructive cooperation
A close look at the recent annual press conference which President Putin gave December 17th  with more than 700 journalists accredited and present in various regions of Russia (there was as usual hardly any report in the German main stream press or only very prejudiced articles EH.)demonstrates that in order to master the challenges,  mankind sits in the same boat, and that there can only be constructive ways of cooperation in order to find an appropriate answer to the present strategic challenges. No matter whether we look at the EU, the US or Russia and Eastern Europe – the past year was characterized by a desperate fight, in different degree and intensity by most governments to bring the pandemic under control. It was from this standpoint shocking to see how many Russian citizens again and again during the annual press conference, kept asking the Russian President, what could and should be done to find ways out of the country’s acute economic crisis which has put Russia and its people against the wall (this does not include even the atrocious sanctions).
The President himself delivered data which demonstrate the dire state of the Russian economy: He stated that Covid -19 was the cause for the closing down of many manufacturers, causing a further rise in unemployment and a decline in disposable income: “Today 13,5% (of the population) live under poverty line,” he said.  According to Putin the Russian GDP in 2020 fell by 3,6%; real income sank by 3% while unemployment increased to 6.3%, i.e. approximately 20 million unemployed. 13,5% of the population lives under poverty level (!!). State indebtedness is 60 billion US Dollar, currency reserves were at 587 billion US dollar, National Welfare Fund has reserves amounting to 13,5 trillion Ruble (148 billion Euro).
In respect to the effects of the lockdown on the Russian economy, revenues were down by 10%. “Due to Corona the situation remains difficult,” Putin stated; “industries which are the hardest hit this year, include transport, primarily air transport, rail transport, especially passenger, retail trade in non-food products and the service sector, such as fitness centers, restaurants, cafes. “Emerging from the crisis will depend on how we cope with the pandemic itself, how quickly it will end, how quickly we launch a nation- wide vaccination, and subsequently lift all the restrictions that are still in place.”
The President also deserved quite some time to reflect about the challenges of the Corona pandemic for Russia and its health care system.  Aside speaking about 40 new Corona virus centers that were established, he pointed to some paradox which Russia is facing: Russia is “one of the first in the World in the country, to create and produce a vaccine (created by the Gamaleya Research Centre and the Novosibirsk based Vektor Centre). He stressed at the same time the need for cooperation with other countries, stating that “thankfully due to a change in attitude there is now collaboration in areas – such as with the Anglo- Swedish Zeneca vaccine producer “that is ready to work with us and is in a process of signing a corresponding agreement.” In order to do large scale mass vaccination (which is also envisioned in Germany France, Great Britain etc.) to counter Covid 19 and to produce this “we need corresponding plants, companies and equipment( …) With regard to cooperation with other countries, since we need time to boost the technological capabilities of our enterprises to produce the vaccine, nothing is preventing us form producing the components of this vaccine in other countries, which will invest their own money into expanding their production capacities and pushing the corresponding equipment”.
At the very end of his annual press conference President Putin, when being asked whether he would miss Chancellor Merkel, answered: “We have rather good personal relations with the Federal Chancellor, and the interstate relations are of quite a high level. The Federal Republic of Germany is one of our biggest trade and economic partners. It follows China, probably coming in second, I need to see the latest data. Everything has gone due to the pandemic, but German business people are undoubtedly among the biggest investors in the Russia economy. Unlike other investors they invest in the real sector. We highly appreciate this, let me stress it again, we really have a lot of friends there who trust us and we value their trust.” Concerning his relationship with President Biden, and what it will be like, he said: “I do not know. It will largely depend on the new administration. Let me reiterate, he is an experienced person, he has been in politics all his life. (…) We are not expecting any surprises. Nevertheless, we heard the statement by the president elect, that it would be reasonable to extend the new START. We will wait and see what that will amount to in practical terms. The new START expires in February.”

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