With German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly condemning Russia for its Ukraine policy, the rift between Russia and Germany is becoming wider and more obvious. But is a Cold War-style confrontation between them really possible?

President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the June 6 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy.Photo: RIA Novosti

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently condemned Russia for "creating problems" for Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in a widely publicized interview in Die Welt am Sonntag newspaper (in German). She pointed to frozen conflicts in breakaway regions like Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Russian actions in eastern Ukraine.

Previously, Merkel was more tolerant of the Kremlin’s policy while trying to come up with a compromise, yet now she has changed her approach and become more adamant about what’s expected from Russia. Given the enormous economic supremacy of Berlin and its political heft within the EU, stable relations with Merkel remain of tremendous importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, given the ongoing rift over Russian policy on Ukraine, relations between Moscow and Berlin are further deteriorating and seem to have hit a new low.

In addition to imposing sanctions and teaming up with other Western leaders in their obvious aversion to the Russian president’s foreign policy, Merkel has undertaken several initiatives to act upon Putin in both direct talks (as during the last G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia) and through official channels, such as sending German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier personally on a diplomatic mission to Kiev and Moscow.

In a rather unusual direct statement during last week’s policy brief at the “Bundestag” however, Merkel made clear her frustration over the opaqueness of Putin and her rejection of Russian participation in the ongoing Eastern Ukraine standoff. However, one shouldn’t misconceive her words as a final breakage with Russia. Torn between transatlantic commitments, the European agenda and Germany’s own interests abroad, Berlin must figure out how to move forward with Russian-German relations. What is now clear is that they are likely to undergo a transition as a result of several key factors.

Why Germany’s decision makers don’t see eye to eye to Putin

Historically, German-Russian relations were always characterized by an alternating mixture of fear and admiration, mostly paired with sharp distinctions in both ideology and worldview. Accordingly, history has seen varying levels of cooperation between the Kremlin and decision makers in Berlin: wary imperial power politics before 1914, the cynical “Faustian bargain” between Germany and the Bolsheviks from 1917-1941 and a distinct confrontation during the Cold War.

But even after the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, old paradigms continue to influence relations between both countries. Having risen again to economic supremacy in Europe, Germany deepened its decade-long project of securing peaceful European integration and overcoming its historically fateful geopolitical positioning through cautious foreign policy, EU enlargement and the overwhelming support of Western norms in the international system.

As a result, the latter paradigm resulted in a renewed conflict with the strict realist-filled assumptions that define the Russian president's worldview and politics in Ukraine. Contradicting the German national calculus of pushing conflict away from EU’s periphery, Putin’s “old school” power politics generate less rather than more comprehension among German decision makers and are perceived as an “unforeseeable” imminent danger.

At the same time, Russia continues an adverse understanding of the events surrounding Ukraine. Consequently it is quite evident that an enormous discrepancy in the judgment of the international system and recent developments in Ukraine lies at the core of miscommunication between Berlin and the Kremlin. But how will the German leadership react to this conflict?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, walks by the media as she arrives for an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 6, 2014. Photo: AP

Domestic factors that determine Germany’s policy to Russia 

There are a few factors to keep in mind that could determine Germany’s probable response to Russia’s policy in Ukraine. The first factor is domestic policy and the German political system.

As a parliamentary democracy, Germany has a tradition of coalition-led governments such as the current alliance between Merkel’s “Christian democrats” of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union in Bavaria Party (CSU) and the left-centrist social democrats of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). With these parties supporting a tough response to the Kremlin, their opponents from the left-wing party Die Linke (which is considered the biggest opposition group in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament) are sympathetic toward Russia.

While mostly supported in Eastern Germany, this left-wing faction has so far included some of Merkel’s harshest parliamentary critics, attacking the government’s policy in several speeches. These speeches attracted a great deal of attention on social media and led to the accusations toward the Die Linke members of being “Putin-empathizers” and some sort of “fifth column”.

Likewise, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), founded in February 2013, won a significant number of seats in the 2014 European elections and is now seen as possibly receiving 10 percent in nationwide support. This party makes no bones about its pro-Russian position. Even though it is clearly unlikely that the heavy criticized AfD will achieve government participation anytime soon, its emergence indicates that Germany will see a great deal of debates over its future policy toward Russia.

The second factor that may determine Germany-Russia relations over the Ukrainian crisis is an observed divergent rift in media coverage and public opinion. While a controversial group of far-right conspiracy theorists and revisionist agitators such as Germany’s journalist Ken Jebsen are mostly depicted as leaders in “defending” Vladimir Putin’s politics on Ukraine, the reality is far more complicated and less obvious.

Numerous German intellectuals, including former Federal Chancellors Helmut Schmidt, Gerhardt Schröder and Helmut Kohl, have criticized Merkel’s policy over Ukraine and encouraged the following of a more balanced and understanding approach towards Russia. The same is true for various other politicians of all political camps, including former Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans Dietrich Genscher.

Moreover, media coverage has also made an impact on how ordinary Germans perceive Russia, something that has been especially evident during the Ukrainian crisis. Kai Gniffke, the chief director of ARD, Germany's largest public TV broadcaster, admitted that it has been biased and conveyed Russian interests “too little” in his blog. This statement highlighted the wide divergence of the German public on events in Ukraine and, particularly, on Russia.

Although these dissenting political parties and discordant public opinion bear no imminent threat to Merkel’s leadership, they could destabilize her power base if tensions with Moscow escalate further.

How Germany’s foreign policy priorities impact its response to Russia

Nevertheless, it is not solely domestic politics that determine Germany’s response to Russia, but also its foreign policy. Specifically, what many see as Russia’s military incursion in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea fuel Berlin’s fears that the hardened ring of peaceful EU neighbors surrounding Germany’s boundaries is now endangered.

In addition, the appearance of strong-willed decision makers in Moscow, paired with determined provocations of the Russian military throughout Europe, increase subliminal fears among German decision makers that they must secure the nation against a superior military power.

For now, however, there are absolutely zero signs of any Russian intentions to somehow attack or harm Germany. Nevertheless, motivated by these two perceptions, paired with an overall condemnation of the Kremlin through a “Western liberal” lens, Germany has a deep interest to encourage certain balancing processes to counter any of Russia’s hypothetical ambitions.

Pictured (left-right): Russian President Vladimir Putin, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko arrive for a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEM summit of European and Asian leaders in Milan, northern Italy, Friday, Oct. 17. Photo: AFP / East News

Regardless of that, the current tensions have still not hit a level at which one should speak of a full-scale Cold War, including any risk of military confrontation. A renewal of a Cold War-style confrontation between Germany and Russia is hence unlikely, although certain factors will complicate the multi-layered relationship.

First of all, Berlin will most probably use the situation to try to cement more cohesion within the EU. That said, collective European decisions to further sanction Russia will, on the one hand, strengthen the European project (which remains an absolute top-priority in Germany’s foreign policy concept) while at the same time, generate a domestic excuse for a harder foreign policy approach in regard to Russia.

Second, Germany is likely to support NATO’s initiative to counteract Russia’s policy. It will welcome an attempted deepening of NATO presence in Eastern Europe as an alternative to any possibly domestically unpopular German initiatives. Germany has signaled its willingness to participate in the NATO-supported supranational initiatives and will probably contribute a certain number of troops and materials to the new emergency force.

In short, Berlin is highly likely to join NATO’s initiatives in the case of an increase in tensions with Russia. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean a return to an old school Cold War confrontation between Berlin and Moscow, especially given Germany’s reluctance to act corresponding to its hegemonic European power position.

Likely next steps for Germany and Russia

It is in the interests of both Merkel and Putin to maintain ties and work towards a normalization of the current crisis. Given the different lenses through which both they continue to see the current world order, coming up with a compromise will be very challenging, as Germany and its European allies continue to view EU expansion eastward as both politically and morally justified.

As Putin obviously can’t be convinced to yield, Merkel hopes that economic sanctions and international pressure will make Putin’s policy simply too expensive and damage his internal power base, thus weakening the Russian bargaining position. Should this happen, Berlin would be first to offer a relaxation in sanctions in exchange for a stabilization for Ukraine. Yet it is unlikely: Despite a great deal of damage sanctions have brought to Russia’s economy, Putin remains as intransigent as ever.

There are a few reasons for Russia’s willingness to stand tall in the face of sanctions. First, Putin uses these sanctions to mobilize the population and boost his rankings. Second, he has several alternatives: He is turning towards China, Turkey, Israel and possibly India. Third, he keeps in mind the dependence of Ukraine and Europe on Russian gas. Assuring a sufficient inflow of gas and fuel to Ukraine throughout the cold winter will be expensive and, in particular, cost Berlin millions - a development that would further boost domestic refusal of Merkel’s generous donor mentality and also strengthen the hand of the Euro-skeptics.

In regard to the complex interlacing of domestic, economic and political factors that influence the German position towards Russia, determining the future of German-Russian relations is obviously not an easy job. It is evident however, that both actors can’t afford a total collapse of relations or a full-scale Cold War confrontation.