Systematising conflict narratives and making them transparent – a precondition for …?


Interview with Dirk Splinter

inmedio analyses conflict narratives under laboratory conditions – be they the Western and Russian or the Russian and Ukrainian discourses about the recent past. But how does this work, and what happens to the results? We talk to Dirk Splinter.

R. Possekel: You contrast the “Western” and the “Russian” discourses over the past 20 years of international relations and identify contradictory elements and blind spots, thus producing a comparison and commentary on the two discourses. Could you briefly explain the process by which you arrived at this result?

Dirk Splinter: In cooperation with our Russian partner, the well-networked Institute for Law and Public Policy, and with the support of a politically inclusive advisory board consisting of well-known experts on Russia, we brought together a group of 16 German and Russian academics, think tank experts, human rights activists, journalists and dialogue/cultural exchange practitioners, who met for two four-day workshops, one near Moscow, one in Berlin. Many were shocked that we asked for so much of their time. However, we are convinced that this was needed in order to ensure a real dialogue that was not just a sequence of statements but an in-depth attempt to get to a better understanding of the opposing views and their underlying concerns, sentiments and grievances. This includes a biographical reflection on how deeply-held political beliefs are connected to individual and family experience of historical events and political transformation. In a first step, the group agreed on a list of issues/events which were most relevant to the development of Western-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War. The main competing narratives regarding those events were then reconstructed step by step in sub-groups based on group members’ expertise in different professional fields, such as arms control, security politics, sociology, discourse analysis and human rights; we also referred to existing research and literature (e.g. the report of the OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons, Wolfgang Zellner’s ‘Security Narratives in Europe’ and Christian Nünlist’s ‘The Road to the Charter of Paris’). We used Conflict Perspectives Analysis and other methods which facilitate a shift of perspectives. After long discussions on how to frame the learning in a way which would encourage self-critical assessment on both sides, finally the idea of blind spots came up. These blind spots have all been hinted at before, but as far as we know never by a binational group systematically pointing at the blind spots on both sides.

R. Possekel: Do you think that this result will have any influence on these discourses, or to put it another way, in which circumstances might the result of your work have impacts, and what kind of impacts might they be?

Dirk Splinter: We have often been confronted with the argument: “You either talk to the small circle around Putin (which is not possible) or simply not start at all (because others have no influence anyway).” This doesn’t do justice to the many efforts by academics, semi-independent think tanks, civil society and media who do not necessarily share the Kremlin’s current views or mainstream Western views, but who try to use the existing room to manoeuvre constructively. In our project, we tried –  by establishing contacts and including relevant people – to make sure that the results will be noted in official dialogue formats and by relevant actors, e.g. the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, the Petersburg Dialogue, the OSCE and the German Government’s Coordinator of German-Russian Intersocietal Cooperation.

R. Possekel: You have been involved in a Russian-Ukrainian project since this year. Who is talking to whom?

Dirk Splinter: In the dialogue that I mentioned, you inevitably end up talking about Ukraine. Last year’s group therefore expressed the wish to include Ukrainians. So we continued in a trilateral format, and in cooperation with our Ukrainian NGO partner, Ideas for Change, included historians, sociologists, journalists and civil society activists from Ukraine.

R. Possekel: Do you apply the same methodology here, or are there any specific challenges that you have to deal with?

Dirk Splinter: We thought that more confidence-building was needed at a preliminary stage this year. That’s why we only had one joint workshop, but we held separate kick-off workshops beforehand in Ukraine, Russia and Germany. It also became clear that we must not only focus on the post-Cold War era if we want to generate an in-depth understanding of the narratives regarding Ukrainian-Russian relations: we also have to look at much earlier events, such as the first phase of Ukrainian independence after WW1, Stalin’s reign of terror and Holodomor. We also tried to take into account the variety of narratives in these countries. Finding non-offending names for the opposing narratives within these societies is already a challenge.

R. Possekel: When can we expect a result, and what do you think it can contribute to the transformation of existing conflict narratives and/or a peaceful solution?  

Dirk Splinter: The group has already started work on a consensus paper, to be published by the end of this year, which will explain about the different narratives regarding the topics we discussed in depth, namely: Holodomor and its impact on the idea of Ukrainian independence; 1991 and the different perceptions of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence; attempts and failures of cooperation with NATO; Maidan, Crimea and Donbas. The aim is of course not to agree on one narrative but to help societies to better understand the different narratives. This follows a long-term strategy. It doesn’t provide an immediate solution and is not meant to replace immediate problem-solving regarding the implementation of Minsk II, transitional justice mechanisms in Ukraine, military risk mitigation, visa liberalisation, EU-EAU cooperation, mutual interference … just to mention a few buzzwords. However, the in-depth understanding of the narratives can pave the way for more effective communication not just on conflict containment but on sustainable solutions, which we have to find at some point in time.


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Dirk Splinter is the managing director of inmedio peace consult ggmbh, a licensed mediation trainer (German Federal Association of Mediators) and works as a mediator and dialogue facilitator.

Issue: Diversity/Dialogue

a. Peacebuilding requires the integration of conflicting narratives. To that end, these narratives must be transformed/made “fit for peace”. How can this be achieved?
b. How can diverse perspectives be made visible in social discourse – or in a museum? What is the connecting element in this diversity? How can relativism and arbitrariness be excluded?