The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in February 2022 changed the attitude of German officials towards Russia and its society. There was a radical simplification of the image of Russia in Germany to a contrasting black and white image, without halftones. Most of Russian society has been subjected to systemic demonization, having experienced all the “achievements” of Western “cancel culture”, writes Valdai Club expert Artyom Sokolov.
The closure of the Petersburg Dialogue, one of the most authoritative communication platforms for citizens of Russia and Germany, was a symbolic step taken by the German side in the autumn of 2022, marking a new state of Russian-German inter-societal relations. The rupture of political and economic relations between Moscow and Berlin following the start of the Russian armed forces’ special military operation in Ukraine was followed by the interruption of established contacts in other once-important areas. Supporters of the preservation of communication channels in Germany faced unprecedented pressure against them and, in the absence of free and respectful discussion, were forced to retire from the public space.
The escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in February 2022 changed the attitude of German officials towards Russia and its society. There was a radical simplification of the image of Russia in Germany to a contrasting black and white image, without halftones. Most of Russian society has been subjected to systemic demonisation, having experienced all the “achievements” of Western “cancel culture”.
The search for “good Russians” by German politicians ended in Berlin, where a “representative” community of opposition-minded Russians settled. It is these people who have now come to be regarded as a convenient substitute for the diverse breadth of Russian society.
Along with the emergence of new formats and organisations, the basis of inter-societal Russian-German relations has also undergone a reconfiguration. Individual organisations have ceased to exist. Others, formally continuing to act on a bilateral basis, have ceased to represent the Russian side, transferring its functions to Russian-speaking opposition activists or experts living in Germany. The agenda of events held by such organisations is completely determined by the German authorities without coordination with partners from Russia.
This strategy of Berlin has its own prerequisites and internal logic. Even before the events of February 2022, Germany was one of the most popular destinations for the emigration of Russian citizens. For several decades, a Russian-speaking community has formed in the country, numbering about three million people, well integrated into German society and mostly apolitical. The German authorities, interested in saturating the labour market with highly qualified specialists and representatives of working specialties, has sought to form a stable channel for labour migration from Russia.
After the start of Russia’s special military operation, German authorities feared an increase in conflict between Russians and Ukrainians living in the country, by analogy with the processes between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Both Chancellor Olaf Scholz and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared the unacceptability of Russophobia. Indeed, the wave of anti-Russian protests in Germany, accompanied by property damage, arson, vandalism, verbal abuse, and dismissal from work for taking a position on world politics, quickly dwindled to isolated cases, although it did not stop completely. Russian officials expressed their gratitude to the German authorities and law enforcement officers for their assistance in resolving problems.
After a relative stabilisation of public sentiment and an increase in the size of the Russian-speaking community due to opposition activists who left Russia, Berlin began to consider it as an important resource in the process of searching for new approaches to Russian-German relations. Popular German media began to systematically publish content in Russian or by former Russian journalists. The German side is working on the formation of a pool of Russian-speaking experts and politicians who comment on Russia’s foreign and domestic policy from sharply critical positions. We see the result of determining leadership among the Russian-speaking anti-Russian community being formed in Germany at the Munich Security Conference, whose organisers have already announced the appearance of “Russian” representatives on their site, whose opinion they are ready to listen to.
The processes in inter-societal relations between Russia and Germany indicate that in the near future they will be divided into two parts. The dialogue on one of them will be organised with the decisive role of the German side and will be extended to activists, experts and journalists who have left Russia and who are ready to condemn Moscow’s actions. The other part will receive the support of the Russian side and will consist of rare semi-official contacts with retired German politicians, representatives of such parties as the AfD and Die Linke, as well as events in a remote format within the framework of the remaining partnerships between cities, government organisations and NGOs. The probability of the intersection of these dimensions can be estimated as minimal, and the conflict potential of their meeting is unlimited.
The tendencies towards increased unevenness in the Russian-German inter-societal dialogue, which were observed even before February 2022, will receive their final expression amid the current conditions. This is a wake-up call that should not be underestimated. Objective historical and political prerequisites have made Germany a leader in terms of the quality of the formation of the infrastructure of inter-societal relations. Broad financial opportunities, internal inter-institutional competition, and rich experience with project work give Berlin the opportunity to act proactively and aggressively. The institutional foundations of Russian public diplomacy must be adapted to the new situation in Russian-German relations.
The trend towards “Ukrainisation” of the Russian-German dialogue will also not contribute to the search for constructive new thinking. The saturation of German think tanks and NGOs with specialists who left Ukraine strengthens their anti-Russian rhetoric, which, in the view of the German side, is a “new look” at Russia, free from stereotypes and misconceptions of recent decades. The desire of the German side to act as an intermediary between Russian and Ukrainian societies is doomed to move in a one-sided direction.
The transformation of the Russian-German inter-societal dialogue at the present stage can be characterised as the destruction of the usual system when trying to define a new basis for communication. In Berlin, they continue to think about where exactly the wrong turn was made: in 2014 in Minsk, in 1970 in Moscow, or in 1922 in Rapallo? The depth and nature of changes in the approaches of Germany to Russian society will depend on the fundamental political attitudes of the German government towards Russia, which will be formed as a result of the active phase of hostilities in Ukraine.