A pedestrian walks past a partly vandalized mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade on June 2, 2022. - At a time when most European countries are struggling to detach themselves of Russian fossil fuels, EU candidate Serbia announced a new gas deal that could further lock it into political dependence on Moscow. The Balkan country secured "a very favourable" contract with Russia, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic said after a phone call with Vladimir Putin last Sunday. (Photo by Andrej ISAKOVIC / AFP)

Was that the hope that famine in Africa and Asia could be prevented? The day after the agreement, which was supposed to open transport routes for the export of Ukrainian grain, Russia shelled the port city of Odessa.

Why is Vladimir Putin acting in such a contradictory way? He pursues mutually exclusive interests. He wants to keep the lever in his hand, but not appear to be the culprit.

One would like to hope that the whole world will see through him and even more so take sides against him. But you can’t rely on that.

The five months since Putin’s attack on Ukraine have shown that war is not only a struggle for territory but also a struggle for public opinion. In an ideal world, the verdict would be as clear as it was at the UN General Assembly special session in March.

141 states condemned Russia at the time. Only five voted against, along with Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea and Syria – countries that are considered pariahs.

But although the vote was only symbolic, 35 countries chose to abstain rather than openly oppose Putin. These include India, which counts itself among the democracies, and many African countries.

In the real world, every country is its own closest entity – and the gray area for those who don’t want to choose between Russia and the pro-Ukraine coalition is larger than the 35 states. In international jargon they are called the “in betweens”.

How should the West deal with those who muddle through? Should he show understanding for the respective situation and motives or demand that these states take sides according to the motto: whoever is not with us is against us?

After the division of Germany, the Federal Republic had long pursued a principled policy. The “Hallstein Doctrine” gave states a choice up until 1969: Whoever recognized the GDR lost the opportunity to cooperate with the economic boom.

With the policy of détente, the calculation of costs and benefits changed. It became more lucrative for the German economy to trade with countries that were ideologically on Moscow’s side. With the mutual benefits, political influence could be exerted more than with isolation as a punishment.

What are the lessons from this for the struggle over the position of the 193 countries in the world in the Ukraine war? The world situation is too complex for a new doctrine – we boycott those who don’t side with Ukraine.

But Germany and the EU can do more to isolate Russia and refute Putin’s narratives, including claims that Western sanctions are at the root of the grain crisis and rising global energy prices.

German and European foreign policy is guided too much by the idea that undecided countries have to be lured with rewards in order not to lose them to the other side. They shy away from putting pressure on the Lavières.

Russia or China have less to offer them than Berlin and Brussels. But they threaten countries that oppose them with disadvantages. Why not counter the pressure?

As a result of the war, many countries are in existential difficulties, as the overthrow in Sri Lanka and concerns about famine in Africa show. You have to be helped. But heads of state who receive a lot of money from the West can be threatened with the withdrawal of aid if they make the pilgrimage to Moscow now.

One has to say to EU candidates like Serbia: whoever is on Putin’s side, we are not negotiating accession with them. It should also have consequences if Hungary torpedoes a unified EU position or if India buys Russian oil, which the West is boycotting, at cheaper prices and thus profits from the war. The West does not have to accept passively when states that want to be its partners circumvent its sanctions policy.

Often the alleged motive of remaining neutral, in order to eventually serve as a mediator, is a hypocritical excuse not to have to make a decision. Moreover, Turkey shows that neutrality is by no means a condition for a mediating role. This common assertion has also been empirically refuted.

She is Putin’s competitor in Syria. With its drone aid to Azerbaijan, it recently sealed Russia and Armenia’s defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Nevertheless, Putin accepts President Erdogan as a mediator.

Their cynical power politics cannot be a role model. But Germany and the EU can use their leverage more consistently to expand the global front against the aggressor Russia.