German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the then Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, met in June 2010 at Schloss Meseberg in Germany and produced a half-page memorandum on security issues. The “Meseberg Memorandum” supported the establishment of an EU-Russian dialogue at the foreign-minister level and of EU-Russian cooperation on crisis management. Specifically, the agreement committed the EU and Russia to cooperate on resolving the frozen Transdniestria conflict,i one of the remnants of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Neither side could deliver on these commitments. That outcome was the product of mixed signals and misjudgment. Normally, Russians and Germans have a firm understanding of the other’s mentality. Yet during the Meseberg meeting, each side misread the other, seemingly through “mirroring”—ascribing to the other its own analytical framework.

The memorandum was peculiar in its content. It made no mention of German-Russian cooperation. Rather, Germany explicitly committed the EU to certain actions—cooperating with Russia on Transdniestria and reviewing progress at the next EU-Russia summit. The agreement also committed Germany to promoting other EU efforts with respect to Russia, notably establishing a political and security committee. The EU, however, was not informed of this initiative before the meeting—nor, for that matter, was the German Foreign Ministry.

The Transdniestria Conflict 101

Beginning as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the Transdniestria conflict originally pitted pro-Romanian forces on the right bank of the Dniestr River against left-bank separatists who identified with their Soviet heritage. Russian military forces stationed in the region sided with the separatists in the brief armed phase of the conflict in 1992, after which most of the left bank plus the key right-bank city of Bender ended up in the self-proclaimed “Transdniestrian Moldavian Republic.”

There have been no armed clashes in Transdniestria since 1992. This has reduced the urgency of a settlement both for the parties to the conflict and for the international community. Still, there is no shortage of would-be peacemakers. Since there are few ethnic or religious differences separating the two sides, neophytes often believe this is the easiest of all frozen conflicts to resolve—the “low-hanging fruit” that might provide a mediator with a quick and easy accomplishment.

Yet psychological divisions throughout Moldova are deep. In 1919, present-day right-bank Moldova became part of Romania, and the present-day left bank ended up in Soviet Ukraine. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a treaty of military support and territorial division between Germany and the Soviet Union, gave the right bank to the USSR in 1940. Present-day inhabitants of Moldova whose families were persecuted by the Romanians who invaded in 1941 tend to be pro-Soviet in outlook. By contrast, those whose families were persecuted by the Soviets (in 1940 or when they returned in 1944) tend to have a nationalistically Romanian outlook. These are not religious or ethnic differences, but they are every bit as real.

Each side wants peace—on its own terms. As in other protracted conflicts, although the sides may hope that the conflict will be resolved, after twenty years without a settlement they no longer expect it to happen anytime soon and have adapted to that expectation. As a consequence, both sides view negotiations not as a process leading to a solution but as an opportunity for short-term political gains over their opponent.

The compromise necessary for a settlement is risky for politicians on both sides. Rather than make concessions, each side has entrenched maximalist demands into its legislation. Only the other side’s surrender is acceptable. Each party has developed a negotiating strategy that depends upon outside backers to deliver that surrender.

The result of such a strategy is predictable: official negotiations in the “5+2” format—which brings together the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the United States plus the two sides in the conflict—broke down in 2006. Efforts in this framework thereafter were devoted to fostering informal talks and trying to turn them into renewed official negotiations.

Western and Russian Negotiating Styles

The Germans stepped into this stagnating process, but in a way atypical for Germany and the West. In the West, government and business initiatives are usually staffed out vertically and horizontally, producing detailed proposals and position papers coordinated among appropriate entities and agencies.

The Russian method of negotiation, in contrast, is based on a personal type of trust, usually referred to by Russians as respect (uvazheniye), rather than the more institutionalized trust codified in the West’s rule of law. Ideally, two principals get together alone in an informal setting—the archetype is the banya, or Russian bath—and hammer out the rough outlines of a deal. Underlings and lawyers are left to put the agreement into contractual form. If one principal comes with a proposal, he leaves out the details—if, indeed, he has any. Too detailed a proposal might show a lack of respect for the other principal’s ideas and jeopardize the necessary buy-in.

As a result, Russian diplomatic initiatives tend to be short and vague, leaving it until later to fill in the blanks. (There are of course exceptions, such as UN Security Council Resolutions.) This type of process is common throughout the former Soviet Union in both diplomatic and business contexts.

This is not to say that Westerners, including Germans, never engage in freewheeling personal diplomacy at the highest level. German chancellors seem prone to it mostly when dealing with Russia—as demonstrated by Merkel at Schloss Meseberg.

How the Germans Negotiated Russian Style

When Merkel and Medvedev sat down in June 2010, the meeting and its product more closely resembled the Russian than the German style of negotiating. The German side kept its initiative within a small set of principals who did not coordinate with EU officials, officials from other EU countries, and even the German Foreign Ministry. The apparent driving force behind at least the Transdniestria part was Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s national security adviser. Heusgen had been impressed by Moldova’s polished and professional foreign minister (now prime minister), Iurie Leancă, and wanted to help the struggling pro-Western coalition that had ousted former president Vladimir Voronin’s Communist government in September 2009.

Heusgen knew little of the Transdniestria conflict. But he accepted the Moldovan version he heard from Leancă, who tends to be hardline on the issue: that the key to resolving the conflict is in Moscow. Heusgen had been working with the then EU high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana in 2003 during the negotiations on the “Kozak Memorandum,” originally a Moldovan settlement proposal mediated by Russian presidential aide Dmitry Kozak and ultimately rejected by Voronin. Heusgen came away with the impression that Russia could indeed force its will on Transdniestria.

According to a cable published by WikiLeaks, Heusgen told a U.S. official that Russia could solve the issue in a month, if it wanted. Blithely unaware of the dynamics of the conflict or its negotiating history, Heusgen had his staff draft a peace settlement that he was sure the Germans and Russians could force the two sides to accept.

None of this was revealed in advance to officials in the German Foreign Ministry or the European Commission. However, amour propre aside, that does not mean the initiative was unwelcome. Many in both entities believed that a constructive Russian approach was necessary to resolve many of the frozen conflicts on the territory of the former Soviet Union. They reasoned that such a constructive approach had yet to be seen and that it was worth exploring what might produce it. Moreover, success in cooperation with Medvedev in the run-up to Russia’s presidential elections in 2012 could boost Medvedev’s chances of staying in power. Many Westerners thought he represented a more moderate line than the then prime minister and current president, Vladimir Putin.

What She Said, What He Heard

At Meseberg, Merkel put forward a proposal that she thought meant the following (as German officials have confirmed): the EU would welcome a dialogue on security issues with Russia. Among the security issues of mutual interest, she suggested, were the frozen conflicts dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the EU would like to cooperate with Russia on resolving them. Cooperation toward a successful resolution of conflict in Transdniestria, the “low-hanging-fruit,” would, Merkel believed, prove to skeptics both inside and outside the EU the value of a meaningful EU-Russian security dialogue.

Medvedev appears to have heard something completely different. In the vaguely worded half-page document, he found all the right phrases to back up his suppositions. He clearly heard Merkel offering Russia an institution—an “EU-Russia Political and Security Commission,” as it is termed in the Russian version of the document—that would deliberate on “current topics of the international political and security agenda” and elaborate methods of cooperation on resolving “conflicts and crisis situations.”

To Medvedev this could have meant such issues as European missile defense, thus giving Russia a voice, or perhaps a vote or even a veto on European security issues in a forum that excluded the United States and NATO. All Russia had to do in return was to deliver a settlement of the Transdniestria issue.

For the Russians, this was the opening offer in a bargaining session: How much of a commission in exchange for how much of a settlement? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the first counteroffer in a letter to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton in August 2010. He proposed not a Lavrov-Ashton “committee” but a “commission” of 27+1 operating by consensus—that is, with a Russian veto.

At the same time, Russian officials made it known in conversations with EU officials that they expected that the “price” of such a commission—the progress to be made on Transdniestria—would be no more than the reestablishment of official negotiations, which had been broken off in 2006.

Sorting Out the Misunderstandings

From the day of the Meseberg meeting itself, a number of EU member states—mostly from the former Soviet bloc—were up in arms about the memorandum. They viewed the political and security committee as the Russian camel’s nose under the tent and vowed to block it, in either the Lavrov-Ashton format proposed by the Germans or Lavrov’s 27+1 iteration. It quickly became clear that the Germans were in no position to deliver even on the commitment Merkel thought she was making. Yet it took a long time for the Russians to realize this. The commission was a central talking point for the Russians in all dealings with the EU for the following year.

It also became clear that the Russians were in no position to deliver progress on resolving the Transdniestria conflict. Despite promise after promise to the EU in the year following the Meseberg meeting, the Russians would not or could not coordinate their own policies internally.

Russia’s policy incoherence came to a head in June 2011, when the Russians demanded to host a 5+2 meeting. They claimed that they would deliver Transdniestria’s agreement to resume official negotiations but bungled the preparations: no senior Russian official called Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov to press him to resume negotiations. The Russians refused to let their negotiator liaise with the other mediators to plan for the meeting; instead they angered the Moldovans by trying (unsuccessfully) to set up their own meeting between Leancă and Transdniestria’s “foreign minister” Vladimir Yastrebchak. Russian negotiators demanded to be sole drafters of the Moscow meeting’s product but then circulated three separate drafts within ten days, each contradicting the others. The net effect of this fecklessness was to alienate both parties to the conflict and all the other participants in the negotiations.

The June meeting in Moscow was a failure. To avoid embarrassing the Russians—and head off the obstructionism that might have engendered—the meeting was suspended, not adjourned. It was only after the OSCE persuaded the leaders of Moldova and Transdniestria to meet in the German town of Bad Reichenhall in September 2011—despite the objections of the Russians and of Heusgen’s friend Leancă—that the Transdniestrians agreed to resume negotiations. The agreement was formalized at a reconvened Moscow session the same month. This history of Russian bumbling takes on significance when contrasted with Russian enthusiasm for the “commission” that was supposed to be the reward for progress.

Assessing the Questions That Remain

Why did Merkel abandon the traditional German negotiating method for a meeting of unprepared and uncoordinated principals? It is tempting to draw parallels with the way former French president Nicolas Sarkozy acted in 2008 when he shoved aside all non-French experts to conduct personal diplomacy with Medvedev over the Georgia war. This may have been in character for Sarkozy, but not for Merkel.

German officials maintain that they realized the probable consequences of not consulting but stress that the effect of full consultation would have been endless EU working committee discussions. They also emphasize that even if Germany had managed to present the initiative to the Russians, other EU members would have attached so many conditions limiting German room for maneuver that it would have lost all use as a basis for Russian-EU cooperation.

This rationale does not explain why the German Foreign Ministry played such a small role in developing the initiative. Tensions between the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry are not new in Germany. But given the wealth of experience with the Transdniestria conflict then available at very senior levels in the Foreign Ministry, the failure to draw on available expertise looks like a significant oversight. The peace plan that Heusgen’s staff drafted quietly faded away.

Despite studying one another for a thousand years, how did the Germans and Russians so completely misjudge one another’s words?

It is unclear how the Russians could be so unaware of the workings of the EU and of the Germans’ need to convince a host of skeptical European partners to agree to a committee, let alone the commission that the Russians wanted. And if they were aware of the stumbling blocks, it is unclear why they would choose to behave in such a heavy-handed way, making maximalist demands for a commission while acting in a noncollegial and uncoordinated way on Transdniestria.

Perhaps the Russians assumed that the Germans were negotiating in a German style, that they had already coordinated throughout the EU. Perhaps the Russians believed the Germans could push the commission through—even without a demonstration of Russian good faith. That is an exceptionally large set of assumptions.

As for the Germans, why did Merkel assume that a Russian leader could deliver on personal commitments in the same way that Soviet leaders up to Brezhnev did—just by giving the order? Today, German officials believe that Medvedev and Lavrov went beyond their capabilities in committing to action in an arena where senior representatives of Russia’s armed forces and security services—the siloviki—had traditionally held the policy reins.

It is clear, therefore, that at some level the Germans were aware that, despite the “power vertical,” modern Russia is a collection of satrapies, all owing nominal allegiance to the “power vertical” but all jostling against one another to protect their institutional, political, and financial interests. A Russian leader—whether Medvedev or Putin—cannot just issue a fiat; to keep the system running he must also ensure that satrapies are compensated for any damages their interests suffer.

In the twenty years since the Transdniestria war broke out, a host of Russian satrapies—in the military, security, financial, and industrial fields—have developed entrenched interests in the region. Indeed, Heusgen was right in one sense: if all the interested parties agreed simultaneously to resolve the Transdniestria conflict, they could do so in a matter of months. But to get all those satrapies on board, Medvedev would have needed to expend institutional, political, and financial capital to compensate them. He simply did not have the resources to do so.

Medvedev later confessed to Ashton that he had no idea there were so many internal Russian interests to be compensated in the Transdniestria conflict. Given the region’s insignificance and obscurity, he may not have been entirely disingenuous. But Merkel (or her advisers) should have known better. Perhaps her concept of Russia is still dominated by the Soviet and East German experience.

Mutual misunderstandings following the Meseberg summit may explain Russia’s uncharacteristic, confused bumbling at the failed Moscow meeting in June 2011. The Russians were increasingly aware of the strains that Meseberg could place on Russia’s internal balance of power in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, and of the uncertainty that Meseberg would ever result in a tangible gain for Russian foreign and security policy. In this light, Russians may have found it impossible to agree at a senior level on any actions or provide coherent instructions to their working-level negotiators.

The Lessons of Meseberg

German pride notwithstanding, the misunderstandings surrounding the Meseberg Memorandum prevented it from playing a direct role either in promoting an EU-Russian security dialogue or in achieving progress on resolving the conflict. However, the Meseberg meeting had two positive effects.

First, it generated a prolonged German interest, which resulted in an investment of German resources into a previously neglected issue. The Germans helped fund the OSCE conference in 2011 at Bad Reichenhall at which agreement was reached to resume negotiations. They also helped fund a follow-up conference in 2012.

Second, Merkel’s interest raised the profile of the Transdniestria conflict in EU-Russia talks. Previously the issue was too far down on the list of priorities to merit discussion at EU-Russia summits, or indeed at any EU-Russia meetings outside the specialized circles directly dealing with the conflict. After Meseberg, however, the conflict was mentioned—in however sterile terms—by principals at senior EU-Russia meetings.

But there is no denying that the conference underscored the difficulties of Russian-Western communication. It is possible to theorize about the reasons. Westerners and Russians may look alike, and both may be rooted in the same European civilization. But Westerners and Russians—certainly Russians over the age of forty—were educated in vastly different systems, each with a very distinct way of analyzing political psychology and behavior. The analytical system taught to Russians in the Soviet era precluded political analyses that might seem self-evident to Westerners, and vice versa.

Each side can—and does—surprise the other with incomprehensible reactions. “Mirroring”—the fallacy of believing that your interlocutor will react as you do to a given stimulus—is much easier to slip into if your interlocutor looks like what you see in the mirror. You expect people who look exotic to think differently. Russians and Westerners no longer look exotic to each other, masking the still-vast gulf in their analyses.

Practicing diplomats, then, should expect such differences, should check constantly to see whether they are caught in such a vortex of misunderstanding, and should take action to neutralize the problem. Of course, all that is easier said than done.

Philip Remler is the former head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova.

i Also referred to as the “Transnistria” conflict, using the Romanian spelling.