Germany is increasingly in doubt on how to deal with Russia as a political partner. An approach that worked during the Cold War era no longer seems to be working.

A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Photo: Reuters

Unfortunately for Russia, what started as a political adventure in Crimea was soon followed by a terrible tragedy in the separatist-held region of Eastern Ukraine. If Russia indeed played a role in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing 777, then it acted with a disregard for Western values and interests and little understanding of political accountability. This has certainly shocked those in Germany who thought they had an understanding of Russian foreign policy.

However, there continues to be a deep-rooted conviction in Germany that security in Europe can only be had with Russia, not against her, as Foreign Minister Steinmeier stated recently. This is a lesson from decades of exposure to Soviet Russia during the East-West confrontation. It was Germany that had to bear the brunt of this situation - as a divided country and one that had to live with Russia as a neighbor, not separated by an ocean like the U.S.

The result was the Ostpolitik of the 1970s, an era characterized by limited cooperation and by peaceful competition alongside with negotiated deals on a range of contentious issues. The Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE of 1975 highlighted this road. It marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet system paving also the way for the liberation of Eastern Europe.

For the first time since the end of World War II, Russia had to retreat from the center of Europe. And it is often remembered that this was achieved by a policy that was based on peaceful means.

This policy could only succeed with a strong Western alliance in place in which the U.S. and Germany formed the backbone. Today, with the crisis in Ukraine, an increasingly self-assertive Russia, and the Malaysia Boeing downing, the question has come up whether former approaches to handle Russia are still valid.

There is a lively strategy debate inside NATO that has brought to light certain differences. The U.S. seems to side with those who favor a much harder stance vis-à-vis Russia, while Germany advocates a somewhat more nuanced policy line where dialogue and negotiation still occupy a major place, as indicated from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the MH17 crash.

"What is important now is for an independent investigation to take place as soon as possible. For that, a ceasefire is needed, and then it is of course crucial for those responsible to be brought to justice," Merkel said after the tragedy while calling the Kremlin for contributing to an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

"Events have shown there must be a political solution, and here it's all about Russia's responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine right now," she said. "I can see no other way than to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin. There are difficulties in the partnership, which we have to overcome."

Here the question arises as to what extent the spy affair will hamper Western unity of action vis-à-vis Russia's increasingly aggressive policy as it is currently unfolding. Every day there are colorful stories in the German media on how U.S. intelligence agencies hired spies in German Ministries, topped off by speculations about possible motives underlying this policy.

Undoubtedly, damage has been created in the relations between two key allies who have been working together closely for decades in a transatlantic partnership considered by many to have been exemplary.

Russia, no doubt, has been following events with satisfaction and, understandably, also a certain expectation of benefit. However, there is no evidence that the spy affair has had a bearing on this debate up to now. Germany was firm when it came to taking decisions on Western sanctions.

But there is a second frontline – and that’s public opinion in Germany. Here matters are more complicated. Recent polls show that the spy affair, coupled with an U.S. unwillingness to explain or discuss, has had an effect of frustration and irritation. Awareness has grown that much of the beautiful rhetoric of bygone days regarding U.S.-German relations may be wishful thinking.

There is a widespread feeling that when it comes to core security interests, the U.S. puts its interests first, disregarding those of its allies. To take this as an expression of anti-Westernism or Pro-Putinism is missing the point– it is, in the first place, deep disillusionment with an ally who had been sincerely trusted, but turned out to be overly self-centered.

Meanwhile, there are many political challenges of a global dimension that will necessitate German-U.S. cooperation more than ever, be it in Ukraine, in Iran or the Middle East. Despite all quarrels, there is every reason to believe that the close partnership between the U.S. and Germany inside NATO, and also on the bilateral level, will continue to function.

Common values, shared interests and unity of purpose will prevail. The Russia of today cannot seriously be considered as a political option for Germany, and the MH17 makes the conundrum more challenging. Berlin feels that more than the distance of geography separates it from Moscow’s values and political objectives.

But restoring the trust that has traditionally prevailed in the German-U.S relationship remains a top political priority. This will require a reciprocal effort. From this perspective, these relations may adopt a more pragmatic and less sentimental character. This would not be a disaster.

However, there are broader ramifications of the U.S.-German spy affair that will influence the future agenda. To what extent will the U.S.-German credibility crisis generated by the spy affair affect NATO? What sort of damage control may be needed there? Is this another signal that NATO will in the future matter less for the U.S. and that policy priorities will increasingly be directed to Asia and the Pacific? On a more general note: Does this all indicate an inclination of U.S. foreign policy to “go it alone,” preferably without allies? These questions remain unanswered.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.