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Transatlantic relations

'Punishment of Putin is not the main goal'

Chancellor Merkel's recent trip to Washington came at a dramatic time. But the Ukraine crisis is a chance to improve transatlantic ties after discord over the NSA scandal, says Wolfgang Ischinger in an interview with DW.

DW: Mr. Ischinger, in Washington there is talk that America's foreign policy toward Russia is a dramatic failure. Some see a new Cold War brewing on the horizon. Is this a burden and a challenge for transatlantic relations? These are, after all, still suffering from a loss of trust due to the NSA scandal and from sanctions against Russia which are not fully functional.

Wolfgang Ischinger: I have the impression rather that the Ukraine crisis followed now by a crisis in our Russia foreign policy are strengthening transatlantic relations and not further weakening them. If we weren't so enormously busy with the current crisis we would still be arguing about our failures in Syria and about the difficult topic of Snowden and the NSA scandal. In a way – I'm not quite serious about it – we can say: thank you, President Putin, you have reminded us Germans and Americans that NATO still plays an important role. You have reminded us that it is important that Europe speaks with a single voice and that it is an important goal to diversify Europe's energy supply so that we do not depend on one source.

In the US, key political leaders are seriously thinking about a re-alignment of global security and foreign policy towards Russia. Suddenly, they are again talking about containment policy. What does the US expect from Germany?

I think we can say: first, Mr. Putin was not able to split the European Union. That is viewed positively by Washington. There is not only a single European voice there is also a well functioning transatlantic coordination. Secondly, sanctions cannot replace politics. We will see if sanctions can influence the behavior of the Russian leadership. There are some doubts. And that means, we need a new strategy. The first goal of this new strategy shouldn't be a punishment of Russia. Some American commentators give the impression that a punishment and isolation of Putin is the most important goal. But that's wrong: we will still need President Putin and the Russian leadership as negotiating partners on several international issues. We have to set the right priorities.

Aiming for a civilian victory over Putin

What are these priorities?

The first priority is that the US and its European partners agree on a common Ukraine strategy. If we succeed in transforming a dysfunctional state into a functional state, we won't have a military victory but a civilian, soft-power, victory over Vladimir Putin.

What role can the Germans play? It seems that Washington is expecting a lot from Germany. But, at the same time, the Germans are criticized for not really being willing to implement sanctions. And Angela Merkel, who, on the one hand, is seen as very strong, is accused, on the other hand, of pursuing a kind of appeasement policy towards Putin.

That is certainly wrong. We must vehemently counter this accusation. On reflection, you have to say that all US sanctions are nearly without consequences for the American economy because trade with Russia is insignificant. But for Europe, and especially for Germany, trade with Russia is not insignificant. Each sanction we implement has ten times more effects on Russia than US sanctions …

… but also for German companies …

and possibly negative effects on our interests. I think we have to defend ourselves against the accusation that our policy towards Russia is too soft. What we see here is the aftermath of the Libya crisis. The political arena in the US has not forgotten that the Germans hardly took any action in the Libya crisis. Now, they want the confirmation that this time Germany as the most important and most influential country in Europe – also Chancellor Merkel personally – plays a central role in this conflict.

Not just business as usual after the NSA scandal

In Washington it has caused irritations that Chancellor Merkel's only public speech is on the joint transatlantic market (TTIP). Do you think it is reasonable to assume that they would prefer a speech on Russia and transatlantic security issues?

TTIP is a transatlantic issue of strategic importance. Merkel is doing the right thing by addressing the American economy and indirectly also the German economy. We need a campaign on both sides to move this project forward. At the moment there is a lot of resistance to TTIP.

Moving on to the NSA scandal: It is an important issue in Germany, but not so much so in the US. What message should Merkel and Obama deliver to the public?

Unfortunately, large parts of the political public in the US have not yet understood what damage to the trust this scandal caused in Germany. The US reputation as a partner suffered greatly. It is right that we insist that we can't just go back to business as usual but that we need to rebuild lost trust. The prospect of a transatlantic cyber-dialogue could be a useful step. But we should not expect miracles.

Wolfgang Ischinger was Germany's ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2006. He is currently chairman of the Munich Security Conference.

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