While Germany may be more cautious about engaging with Russia after events in Crimea, the future stability of the European continent requires that Germany once again find a common ground with its eastern neighbor.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hanover in April, 2013. Photo: Reuters

There is no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Crimea has impacted adversely on relations with Germany. Considerable damage has been caused which will take some time and careful consideration to fix. At the same time, both Germany and Russia are aware that they cannot afford a radical break in their relations. Like perhaps no other country in Europe, Germany remembers the seriousness of the Cold War and will spare no effort to prevent a relapse into a similar situation.

Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, Germany has been among those countries which undertook to engage Russia in a policy of fair partnership and cooperation based on the observance of democratic rules and a respect for international law. In the  field of trade and economy, this policy has resulted in an extensive network of mutually beneficial relations where Russian energy supplies figure prominently without, however, creating unilateral dependencies. The ultimate goal was to involve Russia in shared responsibilities for the security of the European continent.

This political concept has certainly suffered a setback by recent events in Ukraine and Crimea. It should be noted that the government in Berlin has reacted promptly, condemning the Russian invasion of Crimea as directed against core provisions of international law. In solidarity with its European and Transatlantic allies, Berlin has joined in sanctions agreed upon by NATO and the EU.

However, at the same time, it was Germany which, at an early stage of the crisis, struck a note of caution. There were reminders by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that the West should remain ready for dialogue at any given time. This policy approach has helped to defuse tensions and avoid misunderstandings. Communication channels with Russia remained intact.

Meanwhile, a very lively and intense debate unfolded in the German public over Russia’s future reliability as a political partner. There were those who held that this reliability was seriously compromised. They considered the annexation of Crimea as just more evidence of an inherently expansionist character in Russia’s policy, insinuating that this character would never change. 

Dissenters made the point that one should look with more understanding into the motives for Russia’s aggressive action. Was there not in the West a long history of ignoring legitimate Russian security interests which had helped to traumatize Russia, creating a perception that it was being encircled by extremely malevolent, even hostile, neighbors?

It is this kind of reasoning which has revived suspicions among some allies that Germany was too accommodating with Russia – suspicions which are well known since the days of the Ostpolitik of the 1970s. But let us be aware that the concept of engaging Russia is not a national German caprice – it has long been an integral part of a strategy by NATO and EU allies, although not all of them may have shared it with the same feeling of urgency. It is based on the obvious insight that Russia is an indispensable partner for the security of the Euro-Atlantic space.

This will remain so after the Crimea crisis. The act of political gambling which we have witnessed in Crimea has illustrated once more that there is little commonality of views with Russia regarding democratic standards, human rights and key rules of international law. This will make Russia a more difficult and incalculable partner than before. Germany may be more affected than others; in all probability it will continue to be the Western country which entertains the most highly developed relations with Russia. 

Most likely, German relations with Russia will be characterized by a lesser degree of confidence and a still higher degree of pragmatism, even caution, in the future. However, for Europe and its transatlantic partners, there can be no question about maintaining the basic policy line of engaging Russia. This is hardly conceivable without Germany playing an important contributing role.

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