A bear of a problem.

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The German Sage Who Makes Putin Wax Nostalgic

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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At the core of Russia's current split with the West is President Vladimir Putin's conviction that Western powers brushed a weakened Russia aside when the Soviet Union fell apart, rather than include it in a common global security and economic architecture.

In a recent interview with Bild, Germany's most popular daily, Putin lamented a Europe that could have been when he heaped praise on Egon Bahr, the German social democrat behind Ostpolitik, a policy of rapprochement with the Soviet bloc that was meant to lead to German reunification. Putin showed Bild editor Kai Diekmann a thin file containing transcripts of conversations between Bahr and Soviet officials in 1990. Tracing the lines with his finger, Putin quoted Bahr's remarks:

This, for instance, is what Egon Bahr said on June 26, 1990: 'If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.'

Bahr, a wise man, had a very concrete suggestion as to how this danger could be averted: the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures. Bahr even said: If Russia agreed to the NATO expansion, he would never come to Moscow again.

Bahr, who died in August at the age of 93, was considered "a wise man" in Germany, too. In a condolence letter to his widow, parliament speaker Norbert Lammert praised him as the "farsighted architect of the new Ostpolitik." Indeed, the ex-journalist and close aide to Willy Brandt -- the charismatic West Berlin mayor who went on to become German chancellor -- formulated the idea of rapprochement with the Communist bloc for the sake of eventual German unity back in 1963. In a speech that is now considered a German political classic, Bahr said of the Berlin Wall:

We have also said that the Wall is a sign of weakness. One might also say that it was a sign of the Communist regime's anxiety and urge for self-preservation. The question is whether there might be opportunities to gradually move these thoroughly justifiable concerns far enough away from the regime that loosening the borders and the Wall becomes feasible, because the risk is tolerable. This is a policy that can be summarized by the formula: change through rapprochement.

Brandt valued Bahr as a strategist, and the two put the policy into practice with the so-called "eastern treaties" -- cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union and its satellites, including East Germany. They were much maligned by the German right wing, but Brandt managed to push them through before he had to resign in 1974, after it was discovered that one of his aides was an East German spy. Even after Brandt's downfall, however, Bahr retained influence, serving as a minister, high-ranking party functionary and parliament member until his reunification goal was achieved in 1990.

Photographer: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1963 speech, Bahr cautioned against attempts at regime change in Eastern Bloc nations:

Every policy aimed directly at toppling the regime there is hopeless. This conclusion is excruciatingly uncomfortable and runs counter to our feelings, but it is logical. It means that changes and alterations coming from the current regime are the only ones that are attainable. It is an illusion to believe that economic troubles might lead to a collapse of the regime. 

As often happens, he was both wrong and right. By the end of the 1980s, the convoluted, unnatural economic systems of the East were imploding and Communist rulers became amenable to change and compromise. The Soviet Union's economic collapse was probably more helpful to the German unification cause than President Mikhail Gorbachev's goodwill, but the contacts Bahr retained with top Soviet officials were undeniably helpful in establishing a dialogue.

As it became clear that reunification would be achieved and the Soviet Union would weaken and fail, Bahr became concerned that, in a unipolar world led by the U.S., Germany and Europe would face a new danger. As NATO expanded to Eastern Europe, the concern grew. In a 2003 brochure entitled "The German Path," Bahr speculated on the view from Washington thus:

'We are interested in weakening multipolarity and in preventing the creation of a multipolar camp. Our interest is in weakening the European Union.'

Europe, he wrote "faces an undeclared but de facto challenge from America."

In Bahr's worldview, the U.S. support for Eastern European countries, including their accession to NATO, was part of a challenge to "old Europe," and the exclusion of Russia from a common European security system was a mistake. A 2007 paper he co-authored says President Boris Yeltsin's Russia resented being left out in the cold as much as Putin's Russia does -- it was just too weak economically and militarily to put up much of a fight.

It's easy to write off Putin's championship of Bahr's ideas to the old link between the German Social Democrats and the Soviet foreign policy establishment. As a former intelligence officer in East Germany, Putin, indeed, might be inclined to see people from the Brandt team as natural allies. That, however, would be simplistic.

For more than 40 years, Bahr believed in negotiating with whoever was in power to achieve German goals. That's the attitude Putin would like to see from Western leaders. Putin wants to talk with advocates of inclusiveness and compromise; instead, he is faced with leaders who are wary of appeasement tactics, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin called her a "sincere person" (Bild incorrectly translated the word as "open") whose hands are tied by "certain constraints and limitations" -- a broad hint at U.S. influence. The Russian leader doesn't believe in current European leaders' independence, and he wishes they were more like Bahr in realizing that Europe's interests don't always match American ones.

The problem with his Bahr nostalgia is that he's too unsavory an interlocutor to the Europeans. Merkel's "sincerity" is about values rather than merely interests. For Bahr, a leftist in the 1960s and 1970s, some of the declared Soviet values were acceptable and even desirable. But Putin's values, from cronyism to Orthodox Christian conservatism, are alien to his negotiating partners.

Bahr's vision of an inclusive European security and economic system may still resurface, but that will have to happen after Putin is gone -- or weakened by economic woes, as Gorbachev once was.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net