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Germany had an excuse for being soft on Russia. New Zealand doesn't

German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin to Berlin in 2012. Photo/Getty Images

It took a while for Germany’s conciliatory attitude to Russia to break, but eventually four Russian diplomats were expelled.

The conspiracy theories have been around for a while now: there was no foreign influence in the US presidential election, and if there was, Russia had nothing to do with it; nor did the Russians have anything to do with the shooting down of that Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine.

Western nations want regime change in Syria and the Russian military is only protecting Syrian civilians against evil jihadis, who are all cunningly disguised to look like first responders in a war zone (bet you didn’t know all those bleeding Syrian kids were actors).

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On it goes: Russian athletes have never used performance-enhancing drugs – that’s just an unfair slur put about by those who are jealous of all those gold medals. Oh, and Russia had no involvement in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. In fact, British spies probably did it.

Keeping track of the social-media traffic has been infuriating, exhausting, depressing and, finally, boring. If you know anything about the incidents discussed – and you don’t need to know much – you’re already aware that this is just disinformation.

It is not about denial, anyway: these are shots fired in an information war in which rationality is impossible and what-about-ism routine. You are soon driven back to emotion-based argument.

In Germany, the folk who like those conspiracy theories are described in a typically concise German way: they’re called “Russlandversteher” – literally “Russia-understanders”. There are plenty of them, and they turn up in the darndest places – here’s looking at you, Winston Peters.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent masked soldiers over the border into Crimea in 2014, one particularly liberal colleague in Berlin argued that the Russians were only responding to Nato’s territorial aggressions. “They felt surrounded,” she gushed empathetically. “They felt trapped.”

These guys were crossing an international border, with guns, to, er, start a civil war. Is that a reasonable reaction to “feeling trapped”? And why was it okay for Russians to do this, when it was never okay for any other country?

There are plenty of reasons that Germany has so many Russlandversteher: Putin said when he visited Berlin in 2011 that “between Russia and America lie oceans; between Russia and Germany lies a great history.”

Germany and Russia do have a geographical proximity. They are also linked by the joint-venture natural gas pipeline Nord Stream, which is being doubled in capacity.

The acrimony of the Cold War era has not entirely dissipated. Since 1969, German Social Democrats have worked hard on rapprochement with the Soviet Union and then Russia, emphasising political change through trade even as their US allies were taking a harder line against the commie menace.

This is why the recent European pushback against Russia over the Skripal case was a small but welcome surprise. After all, nobody expelled anybody after the Malaysia Airlines incident and the Dutch relatives of those who died are still annoyed about that. For years, Russian warplanes have dropped bombs on civilians in Syria with impunity. Yet at the time of writing, almost 30 countries had expelled over 130 Russian diplomats.

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May, beleaguered by Brexit, did a fine job of rallying the troops on this one. Maybe everybody had had enough of the conspiracy theories.

European politicians have taken a while to get to this point and the Germans, with their contingent of high-ranking Russlandversteher, their perennially conciliatory foreign policy and their dense web of economic ties to Russia, may have a bit of an excuse for waiting this long to tell four Russian diplomats to sod off. New Zealand doesn’t.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin. 

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.