During his recent visit to Moscow, Didier Burkhalter referred to Vladimir Putin as “Cher Colleague” before the cameras. While this might not seem like a monumental step towards de-escalating the violence in Ukraine or resolving the crisis, it was a highly symbolic gesture that warrants more attention than it has received.
As the President and Foreign Minister of Switzerland as well as current Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Burkhalter visited Moscow on May 7 with few expectations from the international community. Indeed, the OSCE has successfully sent some observers to the country, but the separatists’ activities in the East have accelerated and the Crimea has been de facto annexed to the Russian Federation. With the May 25 elections in doubt, the visit of the leader of a small non-aligned country and head of a 57 nation consensus-based soft power organization was not heralded as a determining event. After all, the April 17 Geneva agreements concerning the disarmament of irregular militant groups and a dialogue on constitutional reforms negotiated by the United States, European Union, Russian Federation and Ukrainian officials had been Dead on Arrival (DoA). No concrete steps were implemented.
Without predicting whether or not the proposals put forth in Moscow will themselves be operationalized, Burkhalter’s use of “Cher Colleague” is a determining moment in the crisis. How can two words be that determining? One of the causes behind the current crisis has been the demonization of President Putin. Not only has Russia been marginalized during the post-Soviet era, Putin himself has been compared to Hitler and his actions in Ukraine to Anschluss – See Hillary Clinton quoted in New Republic March 5, 2014 or the German Finance Minister in EuroActiv.com of April 1, 2014 among others.
Another cause of the crisis has been the foreign policy of the United States. While several Russian authors such as Sergei Karaganov in the Financial Times have talked of a new U.S. approach revisiting the Cold War containment, Peter Baker, in a front page article in the April 19 New York Times, went even further describing how “Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.” Move over Iran, Iraq and North Korea, there is now another member of the Axis of Evil Club, Mr. Obama’s first inductee. Forget the re-set button, except for Republicans who are gearing up to ridicule Hillary Clinton for believing U.S./Russian relations could be congenial if not cooperative. Democrats soft on security once again in the 2016 election.
So amid the marginalizing, demonizing, containing, Mr. Burkhalter referred to the President of the Russian Federation as “Cher Colleague”. The first rule of diplomatic negotiation is to say “We agree to disagree”. Didier Burkhalter has, by the public use of the two words, established a new tone in the negotiations, one of respect and collegiality. What follows will follow, but the words are a very optimistic note in a threatening situation that could easily spin out of control.
One is tempted to say that once more Switzerland has punched above its weight, but the term punched is too pugilistic. Words do matter, and Didier Burkhalter has given an excellent example of how words could make a difference. Minimally, the two words are a welcome use of diplomatic language in a situation that has been fraught with Cold War power/interest/force declarations.