German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first trip abroad of the new decade was to Moscow, where she met with Vladimir Putin on Saturday. This was symbolic: Russia and Germany discussed how to re-stabilise the fragile world order. In this multi-polar system, appealing to the United States no longer makes sense for Merkel: President Donald Trump does not give advice, he only orders his allies around; if they do not obey him, he punishes them with sanctions. Whatever he does in the Middle East, he puts Europeans ahead of him. Trump also does not need European diplomacy to compete with American policymaking in the region. If Europe wants to play a key role in the Middle East, it has to come to an understanding regarding the regulatory power of Russia there.
Putin and Merkel discussed many key issues related to world politics. The foreign ministers and the most important foreign policy advisers from both countries took part in the talks. The main thing was to prevent worse things from happening. If Iran actually builds a nuclear bomb, the United States will stop Tehran by all means and intervene there militarily. Iran may then attack Israel. Germany should side with Israel. An escalation spiral would shake the entire region – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya would then be subject to further destabilisation and states could collapse. The result of this dramatic development would be the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism; Europe would then face a new wave of refugees, which Merkel would like to prevent at all costs.
The “Arab Spring,” supported by the West, has failed. Instead, the Arab world is falling apart. The terrorist Islamic State is regrouping, the US is being pushed out of the Middle East, Russia and Turkey are increasingly acting as regulatory powers there, and the Europeans are onlookers – too weak to influence potentially catastrophic developments. The region has becomes a powder keg – if it implodes, it will sweep Europe into the vortex.
For the time being, a civil war akin to what happened in Syria could be stopped in Libya – not by the West, but through the mediation of Russia and Turkey. Merkel has called for a Libya conference in Berlin, but Putin has signalled to her that all Libyan actors must be at the negotiating table on an equal footing. It will no longer resemble what the West has demanded in Syria: that Assad should leave under all circumstances. The West will also have to put up with the fact that Assad is the world’s main contact in the Syrian conflict. The US could now be willing to support regime change in Iran, but the failed Arab revolutions of the past decade should have taught it that this is unwise.
Putin also has to make concessions to reconcile with the EU. He has already done so in the Ukraine conflict. The Russian economy is sluggish; Russia still needs the West as a modernisation partner. Powerful business lobbies and the consumer society in Russia are pushing the Kremlin to pursue a more positive agenda with the West. Lost trust must be restored. Merkel’s Moscow trip would be the first step.