The appearances of Russian representatives at the Munich Security Conference are always eagerly awaited—from Putin’s anti-Western rambling in 2007 to Sergey Lavrov being laughed at last year: they always promise stuff to talk and worry about.
This year it was Prime Minister Medvedev’s turn. One of his most remarkable sentences—and there were many—was his denial of civilian casualties due to Russian bombing in Aleppo: “There is no evidence of our bombing civilians, even though everyone is accusing us of this.” The room (and Twitter) gasped at the audacity of this statement.
But there is a more fundamental truth underlying his statement: The Russian leadership does not see civilian suffering, because…it does not care. It never has. Russia has always conducted wars without any regard for human lives, be it in Chechnya, or under Stalin, who used masses of people as cannon fodder. People die in war, and that is normal. Human suffering only matters if it can be instrumentalized for propagandistic purposes, as has been the case with refugees and aid transports in eastern Ukraine.
One can dig deeper and cite a fundamental fatalism in the Russian mindset as reason: Wars happen, catastrophes happen and, in the best case, the bereaved are paid, and the issue is quickly “resolved.”
But it is not only that the Russian leadership does not care: It also does not believe that anyone else (in the West) cares. In its worldview, morals are just a cover to pursue interests, and in this case: to pursue Western interests in Syria, to pressure Russia to stop its advance on Aleppo.
The disregard for human casualties, for morality in politics, might be at first glance seen as a strength of Russian policy. If you do not care, you can just follow Shakespeare’s “as you like it.” But it is also a great weakness. As German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed in an interview in the run-up to the Munich Security Conference: Morals are the guideline for politics. Otherwise, politics are erratic.
This miscalculation and underestimation of morals and values as (one of the) drivers and motivations of Western policy is also why Merkel’s refugee policy remains a huge riddle and question mark for many Russians. Why is she taking in so many refugees, undermining her power base, and—here many Russians would agree with Donald Trump—potentially risking a revolution? Even if it is not for the moral high ground, but out of an instrumental concern for the European Union, as some argued, why put European interests over national interests?
Merkel has surprised the Russian president already once, when she led the transatlantic community toward a common position against Russia’s actions in Ukraine. And with her quiet but persistent and stubborn battle for European unity in the refugee crisis, she might surprise the Russian president again.
Because this is what Medvedev’s appearance in Munich and his plea for renewed Euro-Atlantic cooperation has also shown: Even in the refugee crisis, Merkel is not at the mercy of Putin. Rather, Putin is at the mercy of Merkel: to loosen sanctions and to relieve the pressure on the Russian economy, which must be of paramount importance for the Russian leadership in the coming year until the next Munich Security Conference if it wants to avoid serious internal disturbances.