German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for ending the demonization of Russia and its people on Sunday. He added that Germany should do more to help de-escalate tensions, given his country’s unique history with Russia.
Steinmeier warned that the US-led airstrikes in Syria in the early hours of Saturday morning raised the risk of direct confrontation between US and Russian forces operating in the Syrian theater. Relations between the US and Russia have hit a post-Cold War low after the attack, which followed the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, last week. The Syrian regime has denied allegations that it gassed its own people, particularly in an area where, and a time when, its forces were on the brink of total victory.
“We are at the next step of escalation in the Russian-American relationship,” Steinmeier told Bild. “Regardless of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, we cannot declare Russia as a whole, the country and its people, to be an enemy,” he said. “Our history speaks against it, and there is too much at stake.”
Even before the alleged Douma gas attack, Russo-Western relations were tense in the aftermath of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, on March 4. The UK prime minister declared it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the poisoning, citing a lack of “plausible alternative explanation” and the purported Soviet origin of the chemical agent used. For its part, Moscow has vehemently denied any involvement in the poisoning and decried the total lack of transparency in the case. Russian Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko said it was possible that London was destroying evidence that could exonerate Russia.
Steinmeier described the Skripal row as “a very serious incident.”
“The galloping alienation between Russia and the West must also concern us, with consequences that will go far beyond this case. There is practically no basis of trust any more.”
Speaking about the Syrian conflict overall, Steinmeier said it is too important for petty point-scoring politics to prevent a real solution, adding that estrangement between the West and Russia is, “the real challenge for responsible politics.”
“Of course, you can’t do it without the regional neighbors in the end, but everything begins with the US and Russia,” he was quoted as saying. “Putin and Trump owe it to the world to take the first step.”
However, Steinmeier’s comments come in stark contrast to the sentiments expressed by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas Sunday. Mass criticized Russia for what he “has to assume” was its involvement in a December cyber attack against his own Foreign Ministry. Both Steinmeier and Maas are Social Democrats, but Maas has adopted a far tougher stance on Russia than any of his predecessors.
“We had an attack on the Foreign Ministry where we have to assume that it stemmed from Russia,” he told the German broadcaster ZDF. “We can’t just wish all that away … And I think it’s not only reasonable but necessary to point out that we do not view those as constructive contributions.”
Mass also decried Moscow’s alleged role in the Skripal case, its apparent failure to implement a lasting ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, its supposed meddling in Western elections and its ongoing support for the Syrian government.
“What I said is just what it is. I just described the reality. We have Ukraine. The peace process there goes no further. We have had that Skripals [case]. We saw Russian organizations influencing elections in the West. One cannot just pretend that nothing of these happened. Unfortunately, this is reality. I regard it not just as malignant, I believe it is necessary to point out that we do not see it as constructive behavior.”
“It is time, I think, to point out that we expect constructive contributions from the Russian side, including on the Syrian conflict. And also that they don’t always simply protect (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad,” Maas concluded.