Germany wants no "strategic relationship" with Russiaby Constanze Stelzenmueller / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
The conflict in Ukraine is far more than that. It is a struggle between the west and Russia over a civil society’s right to chart its country’s course; over the future of the European Union, of Russia, and of the lands in between on the Eurasian continent; and over competing notions of modernity.
In all of this, Germany is central—because of its geographical location, its economic strength, its current position as the pivotal power of Europe, and its age-old special relationship with Russia. For centuries, relations between the two countries have been a dark tangle of reciprocal attraction and complicity; never more so than in the 20th century. The region which has set the two powers at odds once more today was the scene of some of the worst atrocities committed by both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Small wonder, then, that Germany’s neighbours and allies are nervous. These memories of man’s appalling inhumanity to man have become hardwired into our collective cultural DNA. They remain the backdrop for any debate about the future of the region.
There is cause for concern indeed. And yet some of the worriers-in-chief are getting it wrong. “The Ukraine crisis has reopened old questions about Germany’s relationship to the rest of the west,” writes Hans Kundnani in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. Actually, Germany has answered them comprehensively.
When Germany’s President, as well as its Foreign and Defence Ministers, called for a more responsible German foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference in January 2014, few of those present—the speakers included—could have imagined the dramatic events that were about to unfold, or the sheer reach and magnitude of their consequences. Since then, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, the continuing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine by Russia, and the propaganda and harassment directed at Europeans, have produced a historic policy turnaround in Berlin, and a sense of urgency not seen since the fall of the Wall a generation ago.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has agreed to three waves of sanctions, despite opposition from the Ostausschuss, a subcommittee of the German Federation of Industries which is the mouthpiece of German businesses engaged in Russia; a May op-ed in the Financial Times by Markus Kerber, the Federation’s Director General, admitted a “heavy heart,” but promised fealty. (Marcus Felsner, head of the Osteuropaverein, an association of businesses operating in Eastern Europe, was even clearer, denouncing “moral cowardice and dealmaking at any price” at the group’s annual meeting in November of last year.)
The conservative Chancellor and her key partners in the grand coalition, Sigmar Gabriel, the Economics Minister, and Frank Walter Steinmeier, the Foreign Minister (both Social Democrats), have said repeatedly that Germany’s “strategic relationship” with Russia is over “for the foreseeable future.” This put an end to Germany’s postwar tradition of Ostpolitik, based on rapprochement, mutual trade, and investing in the modernisation of Russia (and, rather less explicitly, on the assumption that the future of Eastern Europe, and the countries lying in between the EU and Russia, were at best secondary priorities). The fact that the Social Democrats have signed up to this stance, despite a strong preference for diplomacy, testifies to the personal anger of party leaders at Russian bluster and lies.
Germany’s public opinion has been harder to convince. In summer, the country was still split on sanctions. The shooting down of Flight MH17, the disrespect shown to the remains of the dead by Ukrainian separatists, and Vladimir Putin’s callous refusal to rein them in, were game-changers. Since then, national polls have shown a deep distrust of Russia, and majority support for tough measures.
What are the deeper reasons for this shift? Germany’s economic dependence on Russia has long been overstated. With a share of less than 4 per cent of total German exports, Russia only occupies 11th place in the annual ranking of Germany’s bilateral trade partners. Germany imports roughly a third of its oil and gas from Russia, but Moscow has never managed to turn that into political leverage. The political relationship with Moscow had already begun to sour, notably over the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. And Nato and EU enlargement, the economic and political transformation of the new Eastern European members (particularly Poland), and the Baltic states’ joining the eurozone, have all drawn Berlin’s focus eastward.
The challenge for Germany remains huge: Russian aggression, Ukraine’s volatility, the vulnerability of the neighbourhood and of many EU member states to Russian pressure, and more recently, the fragility of the Russian economy, as well as domestic opposition to the Merkel government from pro-Russian right-wing parties (Alternative for Germany) and movements (Pegida). Sanctions are up for renewal in the spring—at a time when Germany will also be grappling with the looming threat of a Greek or British exit from the EU, and fraught trade negotations with a United States that will be closing more bases in Europe. The real German question is not whether it will take an overly conciliatory approach to Russia but whether it will be able to prevent a paralysis and fragmentation of Europe.