Discussion at turning point: What the chancellor’s advisers say about Russia

Chancellor Plötner’s adviser caused a stir with the remarks about Russia. In one event, he outlined how he sees central geopolitical issues. Based on this statement, CDU leader Merz sees “reasonable doubt” whether Scholz is really serious about his Ukraine policy.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz may want to clear up doubts. “Frankly speaking: Partnership with Russia, as stated in the 2010 ‘Strategic Concept’, is inconceivable in the future with Putin’s aggressive and imperialist Russia,” the SPD politician said in his government’s statement in the Bundestag.

Two days earlier there had been another sound from the Scholz camp. Jens Plötner, the Chancellor’s foremost foreign and security policy adviser, chose a subtle example during an event organized by the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP) on Monday. When the question and answer session on the topic of “turning points in the making” was about the culture of geopolitical debate in the Baltic states, Plötner declined to comment. He prefers to comment on Germany.

“Of course we still have a lot to do to improve the culture of strategic debate,” Plötner said. He was under the impression that foreign policy debates in Germany were often greatly shortened and presented with “fever”. “For example: you can fill many newspaper pages with 20 martens, but now there are fewer and larger articles about how our relationship with Russia will actually look like in the future.” That is an equally interesting and relevant question to discuss now.

With his clumsy example, Plötner achieves the exact opposite of what he intended to say. CDU leader Friedrich Merz later quoted the chancellor’s adviser in his response to Scholz’s government statement, adding that the quote in Germany and internationally raises “legitimate doubts” whether Scholz was really taking what he said in the Bundestag seriously.

“We will do that”

The excitement about Plötner has a background. For one thing, the chancellor’s adviser doesn’t make public statements very often. At the end of April there was a detailed portrait of him in “Zeit”, where he also had his opinion. While other pundits provide daily updates on Twitter, his last tweet was in August 2020. On the other hand, he stands – rightly or wrongly – for foreign policy thinking, especially in relation to Russia and especially in the SPD,” which has led us into this dire situation in recent decades,” FDP politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann accused the diplomat on Twitter. Plötner worked for Secretary of State Frank-Walter Steinmeier for a long time. The Federal President today acknowledged mistakes in his policy on Russia a few weeks ago. As manager of his office, Plötner was also involved in “Minsk II”, a treaty with which Germany and France wanted to curb the Donbass war, but were deemed unfavorable for Ukraine.

Merz’s doubts are part of a debate that is also taking place at the SPD. Party leader Lars Klingbeil said only on Tuesday that mistakes had been made in “dealing with our partners in Eastern and Central Europe.” The sentence was a response to accusations of a lack of empathy for Eastern Europe that some experts had leveled at the SPD. One can see “that most SPDs find it difficult to follow turning points,” historian Jan C. Behrends tells ntv.de.

At the DGAP event, the Chancellor’s adviser outlined his views on various matters, as the Federal Government had a lot of work to do. “We are at the beginning of a turning point and facing a huge challenge,” Plötner said. There is war on the European continent again, the world is being shaped by systemic competition and, at the latest with war, the vulnerabilities of a globalized world have become common consciousness. Therefore, Russia’s war of aggression led to a radical rethink, which Plötner argued was not only initiated by the federal government on February 24, the first day of the war. The European Union and NATO responded with a “strategic compass” (EU) or “strategic concept” (NATO).

Plötner cites three perspectives for supporting Ukraine: political, economic and military. When asked, he added reconstruction as a fourth aspect. He found it difficult to talk about it when vandalism was still the main motive. Chancellor Scholz is eager to “rethink the proper form of reconstruction assistance.” It is unsustainable to swing from billions to billions every month. He argued for something as basic as the Marshall Plan, comparable to the US aid program for the European economy after World War II. Scholz also mentioned the Marshall Plan in his government statement.

In “fever way”

Politically, it is about using all diplomatic forums for the “simple truth”: Who were the perpetrators and who were the victims in the Ukraine war. According to Plötner, the idea that no one needs to be convinced of the question is Eurocentric. There is a measurable majority in the UN General Assembly, but not among the world’s population. In addition, there is economic support in the form of money and sanctions. In an almost “hot” way, as the chancellor’s advisers put it, military aid is being discussed in Germany. “Here, deliveries are made early and continuously,” says Plötner. “Of course we want full shelves in the Bundeswehr.” In consultation with partners, work is continuing to ensure that Ukraine gets what it needs.

There is also criticism of another sentence by Plötner: “Just because you were attacked doesn’t automatically make you a better constitutional state,” he said, with a view to the country’s possible accession to the EU. This stance is the consensus in the EU – the tone is more problematic here. Structural problems still exist and need to be addressed, Plötner said. In most EU countries, there is a clear understanding that candidate status should not be combined with a discount to meet the accession criteria. “That very strict interpretation of the criteria is also the greatest service that can be rendered to the Ukrainian people,” he added.

“Don’t equate China and Russia”

The radical rethinking caused by Russia’s war of aggression has also had other effects. “For us, a turning point means more Europe and a strong Europe capable of acting,” Plötner said. Geopolitically, that means not falling into the trap of saying “West” against the rest of the world. That’s why Germany is doing its “outreach”: global democracies “with whom we must unite” are on the guest list for next weekend’s G7 summit. Chancellor Scholz also confirmed in his government statement that he had invited Indonesia, India, Senegal, Argentina and South Africa to Elmau.

Together we must ensure “that China and Russia do not pretend to be supporters of the Global South. No, we must work to have a fair dialogue with these countries on an equal footing,” said Plotner. At the next three summits (EU, G7, NATO), Germany will work to ensure that there are different views on China in the decision. Plötner warned against uniting Russia and China. “My concern is that if you do, it will become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.”

China is seen by the EU as a partner, competitor and systemic rival. Each of these principles is independent of the other and requires its own approach. “The stronger the ‘systemic rival’ dimension, the more it spreads to the others.” The aim is to reduce systemic competition with China in international relations. China has joined a number of international agreements. Here, the People’s Republic must also be reminded to comply with these agreements. Speaking to “Handelsblatt”, Noah Barkin of the German Marshall Fund called Plötner’s words “worrying”. As such, the performance will raise concerns “that Scholz and his team are not taking China’s challenge seriously”.

And it seems that you can’t completely disengage from China. “If you look at climate policy, one of the biggest challenges of our time, I’m no longer sure how cooperation with Russia should work,” Plötner said. And if that becomes difficult, what is more important is dialogue with China. According to him, speaking of antagonism is wrong, it also needs a cooperative element.

Ambrose Fernandez

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