If the visit of a top Bavarian politician to Moscow is any indication, Russia could be searching for ways to reconfigure the Russian-German partnership to its geopolitical advantage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Feb. 3, 2016. Photo: AP
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel finds it hard to maintain its political authority against her handling of the refugee crisis and faces criticism from her opponents in the government, Russian diplomats seem to start looking for new partners among the country's elite.
The recent visit of one of Merkel's critics – the German conservative politician and leader of the state of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer – to Moscow in early February seems to be an important sign of this development. Although, in and of itself, Seehofer's visit did not convert into any serious political decisions, it could turn out to have some political implications over the long term.
According to the media, the German guest stated that he was hoping to instill "confidence and normalcy" into the relations between Russian and Germany that have been rather complicated lately. Still, the Minister-President of Bavaria made no mention of removing sanctions against Russia and certainly did not say anything that could be interpreted as supporting Russia on the Crimea issue. It also remains to be seen whether Seehofer is going to become the Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.
But that is not what this is about. Moscow appears to be looking for an alternative to Angela Merkel's government in order to start a constructive dialogue. The matter here is not just the current German government's hostility, which reached its peak with the war of sanctions and backing Turkey in its diplomatic conflict with Russia.
Also read: "Russian-German relations: A renewed dialogue?"
The issue goes a lot deeper. Not a single high-ranking German politician stepped forward to speak against Merkel's position on Russia. Nor have German businessmen raised their voices against the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions. We can talk all we want about corporate malcontents, but no one is about to impeach Merkel's government.
The collapse of the Russian-German partnership was a source of frustration for the Russian elite. Over the past twenty years, Germany has not just been Russia's key European partner, but also served as an intermediary in dealing with the U.S. Moscow had high, even though not always well articulated, hopes that Germany would be reborn as a superpower and a counterweight to the U.S. The Kremlin welcomed both Berlin's aspirations to become the locomotive of European integration and German diplomats' growing activity in the Middle East and even the use of armed forces outside Germany.
Russia was even more optimistic about the coordination of efforts between Berlin and Paris and their decision to form a European security system without their NATO allies (Great Britain and the U.S.). Moscow was also hoping that Germany would assist Russia with influencing Eastern European NATO members.
These expectations were based on the historical analogy to the creation of the Second Reich, when defeat in the Crimean War caused Russia to abandon its European interests. At that time, Alexander II supported Prussia, which was able to create the German Empire. As for Russia, it gained leverage by acquiring the ability to utilize the tensions between Germany on the one hand and Great Britain and France on the other.
Naturally, no one was thinking that the 1860s situation would repeat itself, but positioning the Russian-German partnership as a NATO alternative and in broader context as an alternative to the American presence in Europe indicated that the Kremlin wanted to explore the options of non-American power players.
The events of the past five years seriously undermined this direction of Russian-German partnership. Back in 2009, German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier repeatedly stated that he saw future relations with Russia exclusively in the general European context. Berlin was not too excited about Vladimir Putin's return for his third presidential term, but the turning point in bilateral relations came on Nov. 9, 2012, when the Bundestag approved the Schockenhoff resolution that denounced Russia's foreign policy.
The Ukrainian crisis demonstrated that Berlin was not a mediator, but to a great extent, the instigator of anti-Russian sanctions. This position of Merkel's government is hardly accidental. In the past, her cabinet initiated the EU’s Eastern Partnership program that aimed at establishing a partnership with six countries that used to be a part of the Soviet Union. Thus, the program upheld Berlin's interests within the borders that actually matched the progress of the German armies under the1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
With the worsening of Russian-German relations, a new problem came to the fore. The Moscow Treaty of 1990 removed the remnants of Germany’s occupation status, but maintained certain limitations of its sovereignty. (Technically, the limitations shall be effective until a peace treaty is signed.) Based on Russia's cautious commentaries, it can be inferred that Moscow entertained the possibility of revising the limitations through negotiations with Germany in spite of the U.S.
The situation changed dramatically after the Munich Security Conference of 2014, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that America saw the Federal Republic of Germany as an equal military partner in Europe. Since then Russia has been operating on the suspicion that the rebirth of Germany as a world power may have an anti-Russian as opposed to an anti-American ideological foundation. Such a Germany may become the leader of the anti-Russian Intermarium alliance being formed that already includes Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and possibly Sweden.
The reasons behind this trend should be ascribed exclusively to American and British diplomatic games. The German establishment can loosely be broken into two groups. One believes that Germany should become a world power. Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder belonged to that group. They understood that this approach involved friendship with Russia. Since Germany was a country with limited sovereignty, Kohl and Schröder needed to revise the Moscow Treaty of 1990, and that was not possible without a good relationship with Russia.
But there is also another group that feels that the priority should be the economic assimilation of Eastern Europe and interaction with Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries. This group is interested in having a conflict with Russia, and Merkel is definitely an adept of this course, even though by partnering with the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine, Germany positions itself as yet another anti-Russian country of Eastern Europe. But if it is in the best interest of Germany to become "a large Poland," the current government is moving in the right direction.
Since 2005, the first group has been on the losing end. Presently, there are no high-ranked German politicians who would support the return to Chancellor Schröder's policies.
Russian diplomats are looking for partners who would at least partly follow the course of making Germany a superpower, i.e. becoming an alternative to the U.S. and Great Britain. That is why Russia is organizing meetings with German conservatives like Seehofer. So far their foreign affairs agenda is limited to the discussion of immigration issues. It remains to be seen whether the restoration of Germany as an independent power player is going to be on the table any time soon.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.