23rd German- Russian- Potsdam meeting: The pandemic and its impact on foreign and security policy


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

On May 25, the 23rd German- Russian Potsdam meeting took place in order to discuss about “The pandemic and its impact on foreign and security policy”. The meeting under the patronage of the Russian and German Foreign Ministers -Sergej Lavrov and Heiko Maas- was organized by the “German-Russian Forum e.V.” and the Russian “Alexander  Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund.” Due to the Corona pandemic the conference this time was organized in form of a Video Conference moderated by the well- known German Kremlologist Alexander Rahr.

German Foreign Minister Maas in his greetings to the conference participants emphasized that in the context of the upcoming German Presidency of the EU Council (which will start on 2nd of July) Germany should engage for “multilateral solutions”, accompanied by a German – Russian dialogue on all levels, i.e. country, government, parliament and civic society. He underlined the need for improved cooperation between the two countries’ health ministries and health authorities in fighting the Corona pandemic. Similarly Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that this pandemic in the future will become one of the most important factors in developing a “common approach” toward foreign policy, the world economy and in respect to an improved cooperation between the health sectors. He urged to transform a pessimistic, but currently popular motto “The World will never be the same again” into a more ambitious forward looking slogan “The World must become a better place.”

The world must become a better place

The chairman of the Moscow Institute of World economy and International relations (Primakov Institute) Alexander Dynkin expressed from his side amazement that “so little” was said from the side of the EU about President Trump’s cancellation of a series of arms control treaties. Fjodor Lukjanov (Valdai Discussion Club) and political scientist sounded somewhat pessimistic by  predicting that the Corona crisis won’t make anybody stronger ,,irrespective of whether we talk about Russia, EU or China,” but that all will take a heavy damage.” What counts however what conclusion will be drawn is: old conflicts will return full force. Even if Corona is a global challenge, the response will be “local and national.” Since the EU and Russia both are badly hit by the crisis, Lukjanov sees little room – due to lack of money and energy – for a reinforced cooperation between Russia and the EU.

The permanent representative of the German Ambassador to Moscow Beate Grzeski pleaded for a closer cooperation between Germany and Russia. In her view the pandemic had underlined the necessity of multilateralism.  She focused attention on the future German Presidency of the EU Council, starting on the second of July. “One key aspect will be the revival of world trade which is also in Russia’s interest and both countries wish to strengthen the WHO.”  She also underlined that more should be done in terms of vaccine research and pointed to the existing cooperation between the Robert Koch Institute and the Russian Federation, as well as the cooperation between the Paul Ehrlich Institute and Siberian research Institutes. Third she emphasized broad cooperation between both countries underneath the level of elites, on a “communal level.”

Alexey Gromyko, chairman of Europe Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, stated that in the aftermath of the Corona pandemic, the new phase of globalization is marked by the fact that the local integration is pushing the global one aside; that protectionism is growing in order to increase the competitiveness of the country. He pointed in particular to the collapse of “supply chains” in global trade and stated that many companies were reflecting how to “restructure” supply chains and “relocate” production to Europe, part of which is also Russia. In this field he saw a major potential for the Russian and German economy.


The chairman of the Ost- Ausschuss of the German Economy, Michael Harms, mentioned three aspects: 1.The need to reinforce Digitalization – where Germany could learn from Russia. 2. In the health economy of the two countries there would be interesting perspectives for cooperation. 3. Re-Localization of supply chains from Asia. Russia would have good chances to position itself in the “nearshoring” for Germany and the EU. He also focused on the role of the state and good governance. Federal structures in Germany and Russia were very efficient in and for both countries. The German management consultant Rainer Lindemann spoke about the need to promote the medium sized firms. He pointed to the Deutsche Bank forecast whereby the GDP loss in Russia due to Corona was 16% in the second quarter, for Germany 12%. He made similar proposals like German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier in his Video message to the conference, focusing on the Efficiency partnership and the need to help medium sized industry. In Russia he saw an oil price shock and he spoke about the need to relocate the economy so that the German -Russian energy partnership will get a new dynamic and he mentioned the Eurasian Economic Union as a potential stimulus for improved cooperation.

Hopes for the upcoming German Presidency of the EU Council

The moderator of the Potsdam German -Russian conference, Alexander Rahr in an article “War and peace in the period of Corona”, which got published several days after the conference (Russland kontrovers, 29.5.2020), wrote a quite pessimistic resume. He described the present situation as one where the “US has lost its leadership authority in the World”, while at the same time it is trying desperately and angrily to distract from its own internal problems; forcing the others to maintain the American World order.”  At the same time it contains China with “trade war” while imposing sanctions on Russia. According to Rahr the “US will force the EU to much more orient along USA and to drop China.” Russia which has been badly hit by the pandemic economically lacks the means for an expansive foreign policy and looks for more cooperation with China. He strongly emphasized that “a close cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, which participants of Potsdam vehemently had called for – is very far away.”

Yet at the same time he also cautioned by stating that “things may change if Germany – the economically strongest country in the EU – uses beginning of July its presidency in the EU council to think about possibilities how to “normalize” its relations with Moscow and the sanction policy.  He warned that “each time, when Germany wants to move in this direction, somebody may try to put pressure on Merkel not to engage  for example in favor of a strong Russian- German energy partnership. “Could it be that the US tries to prevent with all means the realization of the concept of a common space between Lisbon and Vladivostok in order to cement the concept of a transatlantic Europe from Vancouver to Donezk?” Rahr asked.

As pessimistic as Rahr may sound, he does raise strategic issues that are worth to be looked at: Fact is that in the last weeks the US President has cancelled a series of Arms Control treaties – which is a direct provocation against the legitimate security interest of the EU.  After having abrogated the Iran agreement (May 2018) that was  followed by a sanction regime against Iran, provoking sharp reactions from the EU and Russia, Trump in August 2019  announced that the US would leave the INF treaty that forbids land based nuclear  missiles, which was received with great concern in Europe. On the 21rst of May 2020 President Trump announced that the US will leave the “Open Skies agreement” (an agreement signed in 1992 by 34 States NATO and at the time still former Warsaw Pact, including Russia) that provided for several unarmed surveillance flights annually in the air space of the respective treaty partners. The agreement was part of arms control and confidence building measures.  The US argued that it skipped the agreement because Russia was violating it (not allowing surveillance flights in the exclave Kaliningrad).

The end of US leadership as moral world power

Similarly the US has recently announced that from now on it will no more support the WHO. It does so demonstratively in the midst of the most terrible pandemic. What however real  shocking is, that so far there has been no “strong” reaction from the side of the EU or from Germany. On the contrary, it seems that there is a “defensive reaction formation” in light of a brutal intimidation campaign that is launched by the US against Germany in particular. Part of this is the attempt to sabotage the “Nord Stream II” energy deal by erecting new EU administrative obstacles, to prevent the finalization of this project, i.e. prevent an “effective energy partnership” between Germany and Russia.

The other major issue is China, where cooperation with this country – given its huge economic and technological potential – should be in Germany’s and the EU self- interest, as is the cooperation with Russia (as one participant at the Potsdam meeting demanded- there should be a 12 months moratorium on sanctions). Yet we should also see that on May 31 a quite revealing interview was published by the French Daily “Le Figaro” with the ultra- right wing ideologue and former consultant of President Trump, Steve Bannon – who is known for his role in “hyping” up populist leaders in Europe (Salvini, Le Pen etc.) The single one subject that he concentrated upon in the interview was to hammer against China. He essentially demanded that Germany and EU cut relations with China- along the line “you are either for the US or with China”. The interview was published under the headline “We must put ourselves together, or else Europe will become a vassal of China.”

Bannon accused the Chinese Communist Party to be responsible for the pandemic, which has infected the Chinese people and the world. He accused the WHO of “lying” and of being an “accomplice of China.” “All peoples that have been infected with the Virus Covid 19 should demand compensation from the Chinese Communist Party,” Bannon stated. He predicted that the China issue would become the “principal topic” in the upcoming US presidential elections and demanded an abrupt “decoupling” from China which has decoupled itself by pushing ahead its Silk Road project with Huawei profiling itself as a new technological hegemon. Hence he called for “Populist revolts” in Europe against the “inertia of the Western Elites” trying to force them to change their model. “We must put our forces together otherwise the European countries will become vassals of China.”

The only conclusion to draw on the background of Trumps reckless campaign against the EU, is that Germany and the EU must send a strong signal, reaffirming that it is in the economic and strategic self- interest of Europe to have both a functioning dialogue on all political levels as well as a strong economic/ scientific cooperation with both Russia and China.


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