Critical moment approaches for EU to tell US to stop acting like they do - adviser to Helmut Kohl
Europe could find itself at the epicenter of a confrontation between major powers, with the historic INF arms treaty on the verge of collapse and Washington opposing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Can Germany stand tall and defend its interests? We asked Joachim Bitterlich, former adviser to Helmut Kohl and German ambassador to NATO.
SS: Joachim Bitterlich, former advisor to Helmut Kohl and German Ambassador to NATO, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. A lot is going on lately, Europe would likely suffer in the case of a missile standoff between Russia and the US, and the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says Europe doesn’t want to become the battlefield for a confrontation between the two powers. What can Europeans do to save the INF treaty - or at least to mitigate the consequences of its collapse?
JB: It’s difficult for the Europeans to react to this, because the problem is, when you look at the year-old situation between Moscow and Washington, it’s what I call a “period of no contact”. Contact is nearly forbidden because of the ongoing investigation of the FBI, because of the so-called “Russian links” of president Trump before his arrival in the White House. And therefore, it’s a sort of radio silence between Moscow and Washington. At the same time, when you look at the actual case of problems between Washington and Moscow, the INF treaty, it’s clear that this treaty is coming to an end. Why? Because of a lack of interest of both sides – of Washington and of Moscow – both sides I don’t want to launch responsibility to anyone, neither to Moscow nor to Washington.
SS: But do you think Europe can do something to save it?
JB: I would like to see something what I call – what Bush Jr. in one moment called – a “reset” of the relations between Moscow and Washington or Moscow and Europe. And for me there’s a need. Both sides have made a series of mistakes and misjudgements at least over the last decade, and they have to find again a moment.
SS: We will talk a lot about how both sides have made mistakes and how we should find common ground but at this point it just doesn’t seem possible at all for many reasons that you’ve cited above. Right now, what we have is the INF situation on our hands, and it’s not clear what’s going to happen after the treaty is liquidated.Germany’s foreign minister Mr. Maas tried to talk Washington into staying in the INF treaty, but it didn’t work. What do you think can happen right now, that America wants to end the INF and Russia wants to end the INF? Maybe the Europeans can flat out refuse to host American weapons on their territory? Do you think that could be one way?
JB: I do not exclude this at the end of the day. If there is no serious reaction of the Russian side – and I don’t think that Lavrov’s last talks in Moscow have been very serious, I’m not convinced at all about this – if there is not a serious discussion between the two on how to reduce potential tensions under the given circumstances, that would come up, it would be normal. Because otherwise you get what we call the famous “blame game”. If the Russians refuse any serious preparation there could come a moment where the West – perhaps under American pressure or under the pressure of some Europeans – will have to react, and, if necessary, by nuclear rearmament. Please, be aware of this. What I do not understand is the Russian reaction.
SS: But you know, both sides – the American side and the Russian side – are saying that they have no money for a nuclear rearmament. This is not a question of a new nuclear rearmament. This is just a question of this treaty being obsolete and useless, and there’s just one very important factor – China.Because China is a power that has intermediate-range missiles, and they haven’t been governed by the treaty. When Trump wants to replace the INF treaty with a “much better deal”, as he says, this is a good plan, but how can that be done if China isn’t prepared to become a part of any new multilateral treaty? Why are we forgetting about China? How can there be a new treaty if China isn’t part of it?
JB: But please, you could not only talk about China – add Iran, add North Korea, add India and some others who would like or who are developing comparable arms. Cruise missiles is the new arm, if you want, of intermediate range. And therefore, it’s right, the most ideal situation would be that Russians, Americans and Chinese sit together and negotiate, let’s say, a treaty combining, let’s call it the minimum for any side to feel protected, on the flexible use of cruise missiles especially. This would be what I call the ideal way. I don’t see the Chinese ready to enter such a game, therefore I think the Russians…
SS: So that’s a big problem…
JB: Yes, it’s a problem, you are right. But I don’t see the need for any prestigious…
SS: So that’s a big problem, and then after that it all comes down to America and Russia and who is going to give in first. And as we know, these two are ethnocentric nations and they’re locking horns, so I’m not sure any of the countries that I’ve noted is ready to give in.There’s a suggestion, actually, that Russia should move the disputed missiles in violation of the INF treaty to the other side of the Urals, so that they can’t reach Europe. But you know, the question that everyone’s asking here in Russia is why expect Moscow to listen to other countries when it comes to the placement of arms on its own territory? I mean, would it be okay if the US, for instance, was asked to move their missiles from Berlin? No, right?
JB: There are no missiles in Berlin. You don’t see the same armament today in Europe. The key is what you call the so-called “grey zone”.
SS: But there are American missiles in the German bases.
JB: There are, but not intermediate range missiles.
SS: Right, but I’m just saying, you know, it’s a play of words – would it be okay for America if we asked them to move them out of the German bases? I’m not sure. So why ask Russia to move their missiles from one side of the country to another?
JB: No, it’s perfectly understood. I think everyone wants to be in a position of strength, and the question I was putting to myself is “Is Russia sending a signal to the Europeans to take Russia more seriously or to exercise pressure on the US?”. This was the question I was putting on me. But on the other hand, who are the two nations who had difficulty relying in this field? These are the Americans and the Russians, if you want. Both sides have been badly reacting to a series of crises in the bilateral or in the multilateral field – look at the Ukraine, look at other fields. And I think there is no need, I think when I talk about Europe and its security, we need Russia as a partner and as a friend, if you want. It should be normal to us.
SS: OK, what you’re saying is words of a true diplomat. But if we are speaking concretely applying to the problem of today – reliability – if the Russians move the missiles in question beyond the Ural Mountains, that will still leave the U.S. missile shield system in place in Poland and Romania, and nobody is planning to move or dismantle them. Can we expect a benevolent peace gesture from one side without the other following suit?
JB: Clearly no. I understand you quite well, because the Russian side is considering the missiles in Romania and elsewhere as a certain threat. I understand this. On the other hand, if you take into account the reality of these missiles, they are not really a threat, it’s more psychological than anything else. And therefore, I think we should come, let’s call it “down to earth” again, and look in a realistic way at these questions. And this applies to the West as it applies to Russia. But please look at the last words of the last interview of the Polish Foreign Minister, who has been asking, let’s say, for a European nuclear force with French and British weapons. I don’t think the French are ready to do so. But please be aware that Europe as a matter of fact is not a threat.
SS: We know Europe is not a threat, but it could become a battlefield between America and Russia, that’s what’s worrying most of the Europeans, I believe…
JB: Europe doesn’t want to see it.
SS: I don’t think anyone wants to see Europe becoming a battlefield, that’s why I’m asking you how Europe can help solve this issue of the INF treaty, but clearly there is no way out right now.You’ve previously said that both the Americans and the Europeans have made too many mistakes in the past towards Russia, that they’ve ‘misjudged and needlessly cornered it’. Is this whole situation around the INF treaty basically repeating the same mistake?
JB: The only way you could do it – let’s be a bit of spin doctors for both sides – would be that Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron should sit together during a quiet weekend without media with Vladimir Putin and reflect together how to avoid the growth of tensions between the East and the West especially with regard to Europe. And then the next step would be that Merkel and Macron should discuss the same question with Donald Trump, and, by the way, with the other European allies who are a bit more sensitive than many people think.
SS:Mr. Bitterlich, you have said that it’s not always easy to talk to Russia, but obviously Germany is much more involved with Russia than the U.S. despite the chill in rhetoric, and having shared projects like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is only helping diplomacy. The pipeline is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year - but with all the resistance to it, does Angela Merkel have enough political clout left to see it through?
JB: As long as Germany and France are sticking together, I don’t see any danger for this pipeline. Donald Trump is looking for invested interests in this field, which is perhaps less for the Polish lobby.
SS: What do you mean? He wants some money out of it?
JB: No, he has some invested interests perhaps less for the Polish lobby – this is existing too – but on the other hand exports of energy. He wants to raise the exports of energy gas from the US to Europe, and therefore he’s asking for an effort.
SS: But it’s still very interesting to see how Germany will be reacting and how it will be actually responding to what Trump right now does in light of the Nord Stream 2. I mean,he has called Germany “Russia’s captive” due to its dependence on Russian gas and called on Berlin to halt the project. U.S. ambassador to Berlin Richard Grenell even went as far as threatening to impose sanctions on German firms working on the pipeline. You know, we look at this and we’re like “who’s captive in Germany in this situation?”
JB: Well, it was for some extent typical for what the Americans call the “extraterritoriality of American legislation”, which is not acceptable for the Europeans as such. On the other hand, we know exactly that at least some European member-states are sensitive about this subject, about this pipeline, especially Poland – it’s your neighbor too – they suffer with regard to Russia from a certain paranoia, as the Russians too, but it’s historical. But on the other hand, I said – as long as Germany and France stick to this construction of this pipeline, which is for me useful for the future of the relationship between Russia and Europe as such, I think there will be no danger. Perhaps Russia should do an effort, let’s say to tranquilize the Polish side a bit. Therefore, there was a proposal on the table – I do not remember well when – to create a certain junction of this pipeline from Germany to Poland in order to tranquilize to some extent the Polish side. There seems to be a problem.
SS: OK, I just want to ask you a question about your Foreign Minister, because I remember that in response to the speculation on sanctions Mr. Maas recently said that ‘questions of European energy policy must be decided in Europe, not in the United States’. I can’t agree with him more, but can Berlin really stop Washington imposing penalties on whomever they chose?
JB: We have never been succeeding in this in the last years. We had a series of cases with the Americans where we complained about the extraterritoriality of American legislation. For us, it’s not acceptable at all, and I think we will come to a point where we have to discuss this frankly with the Americans – where are the limits of American legislation and where not.
SS:You’ve been saying that the Nord Stream 2 project will help mend relations with Russia and Germany. Do you think the project, at the same time, can inflict damage on Germany’s relations with Washington?
JB: Yes, I think so. But it’s not only Nord Stream. There are series of other cases. Look, for example, at the Iran case, where the Europeans try to develop a minimum of relationship towards Teheran, and where the Americans have, let’s say an attitude which is not at all positive for the future of the whole region, where we do not agree with the US, and where sanctions could come up too. We have cases like this, we had even others. Look at the American attitude towards the Huawei case. The arrest of the CFO of Huawei in Canada done by the Americans in my idea not at all compatible with international law, but – again – typical American. And I think there should come a moment where we tell in a clear way to the Americans: “Stop this, please! Otherwise we will have to produce other ways and means of international financing”.
SS:But also, the European Parliament – not just the Americans – is calling for the Nord Stream 2 to be stopped, seeing it as a political project and a threat to European energy security. Can a direct confrontation between Berlin and Brussels erupt over this, since so far Germany has shown no sign of complying with the European Parliament’s opinion?
JB: I don’t see this. Well, there are some European states who are critical about this pipeline. We know this from the beginning, and it’s again a question of invested interest, of national interest. On the other hand, if you look at what I call “reality”, the dependence of Germans on Russian gas is not as important as the percentages expressed, in my view. There is not a “dependence” of Germany on Russia, and therefore the Europeans, the hardliners should tranquilize themselves, calm down and be aware that there is no real reason to stop this project.
SS:Sure, I agree with you, but I’m going to play a little “devil’s advocate” here. As of now, the Nord Stream 2 project does actually fall outside the scope of EU energy rules. Can you blame Brussels for being nervous about a project it can’t control?
JB: My counter-question as advocatus diaboli would be “Do we have in Europe a real common energy policy?” Up till now, no. And therefore, before exactly prescribing to any member-state what they should do in detail, Brussels should first of all develop a real common policy on energy in Europe. What goes up till now, there’s no common energy policy in Europe. This is the truth. And therefore, to control under these conditions what are the different means and ways of import of energy, it’s not up to Brussels to decide. Perhaps, next week they could decide should we import crude oil from Saudi Arabia or not.
SS: Well, look what happened with the South Stream. Remember what happened with the South Stream pipeline? Can we expect the European Commission to mothball the project, just as it did with the South Stream?
JB: Yes, I remember. But the South Stream didn’t have the importance, if you want, didn’t have the same value. And there you attack directly Germany, and France. Because France is part of the Nord Stream project via Total. And therefore, it’s not the same, if you take the balance, it’s not the same importance. I don’t see the commission able to oblige the Germans to stop it, I don’t see it. And, by the way, Russia has an important ally in Germany.
SS: I see what you’re getting at. I remember you mentioned in an interview that Germany, perhaps more than any other nation in Europe, would like to see a solid partnership between the EU and Russia. And it’s obvious, it only confirms it, that when it’s business like Nord Stream 2, everything works out. So, what’s stopping Berlin from achieving a solid partnership with Russia in other areas?
JB: Please, please. I remember in 2003-2004 we were near an agreement between Russia and the EU on a treaty of cooperation. And I regret still this moment, and my question is to both sides – I don’t have the answer because I’m an outsider, if you want – why the hell this treaty has not been signed? This treaty could have saved us from many, many misjudgements or misinterpretations of the other side. This could have become the sound basis of the relations. I know my dear Russian friends always had difficulties with understanding the structure and the construction of the EU, I know this too. On the other hand, this could have become a real sound basis for both sides, and therefore, I think, it’s, perhaps, not this commission, or, perhaps, the new commission that will have to open a serious debate inside and then with Russia on how to set up a new relationship. I think it’s time for a reset, and Germany and France can be helpful in this field. But they will have to integrate at least, let’s call it, someone from the Eastern European countries, who have a relationship which is more special with Russia.
SS: Hopefully it’s going to happen sometime in the nearest future.
JB: I hope so.
SS: Mr. Bitterlich, thank you so much for this interview. We were talking to Joachim Bitterlich, former advisor to Helmut Kohl and German ambassador to NATO, discussing the future of the historic INF treaty and the rising tensions between Washington and Berlin over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.