There are reasons for the Kremlin to be optimistic about the future state of Russian-German relations, even if current trade and economic relations have been weakened by sanctions.

German Minister for Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier, right, and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Germany to Russia Rudiger von Fritsch during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Photo: RIA Novosti

There seems to some reasons why the Kremlin could be optimistic about the working visit to Moscow made by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Mar. 23. He met and negotiated with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who described the talks with his German counterpart as an “intense dialogue.” 

At the meeting, the two ministers focused on major global political issues, such as mechanisms for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements in Eastern Ukraine, the prospects for the peace process in Syria, the situation in Libya, the increasing threat of international terrorism, and the future of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the presidency of which in 2016 will be entrusted to Steinmeier.

However, of course, the main focus of the talks between the foreign ministers was in fact Russian-German relations, which, from the point of view of Lavrov, “continue to be a very important factor in European and global politics, having a significant influence on the solution of many international problems.”

The effectivness of the Moscow meeting is evidenced, in particular, by the fact that both ministers announced the resumption of the Petersburg Dialogue in its full-fledged format. This is a forum of Russian and German civil societies, which was first launched more than 15 years ago. 

In mid-summer, this public forum will be held in St. Petersburg, the “northern capital” of Russia. In addition, the two ministers signed a joint declaration to hold a cross-cultural exchange year for youth in 2016-2017 under their patronage. At the same times, the German diplomat agreed to reactivate the Interagency High Level Working Group on Strategic Cooperation in the field of economics and finance very soon. 

An abnormal situation for Russian-German relations 

The full resumption of the work of this Working Group is imperative. Literally, on the eve of the Steinmeier’s visit, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a document, which stated that the past year had simply been disastrous for Russian-German trade relations.

The total volume of Russian-German trade turnover decreased by 34.7 percent in 2015 compared with 2014, with Russian exports decreasing by 32 percent and imports decreasing by 38 percent. Last year, the number of enterprises with German capital operating in the Russian market declined by 400. Commenting on these figures, Lavrov pointed out that “this situation is not normal” and “it must be corrected.”

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At the same time, there are reasons for optimism. Germany continues to be one of Russia's major investment partners. According to the Bank of Russia, the total volume of German investment is close to $12.5 billion. 

Even more reassuring is that fact that the “sanctions war” did not ruin Russian-German relations in the humanitarian and cultural fields. For example, the year 2015 was the cross-cultural Year of Russian Language and Literature in Germany and German Language and Literature in Russia.

The Russian factor in the German context 

A growing number of business people in Germany are openly speaking in favor of a return to the old format of trade and economic relations between the two countries. And this is no coincidence – in Germany they appreciate pragmatism, and if one quarter of German companies, in one way or another, have been affected by the “sanctions war,” then of course public opinion cannot remain indifferent.

In particular, a number of EU leaders are speaking up in favor of building the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, in order to deliver Russian gas to Germany. Thus, Mario Mehren, the chairman of the board of directors of the German oil and gas company Wintershall, argues that this pipeline “will provide stable and reliable gas supplies to Europe in the future.” 

However, some leaders of the EU warn against building the Nord Stream Pipeline. Objections to the construction of the controversial gas project come from a number of EU countries, including the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Lithuania and Croatia. In fact, it has thrown the Nord Stream into doubt. The ultimate decision is likely to be made at a political level, Russian experts say.

In the first half of March, regional elections were held in three federal states of Germany. On the background of the “migration crisis,” the political parties forming the current government – German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party lost substantial support of the electorate. 

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It is interesting that the third most popular party today in Germany is a young right-populist and Eurosceptic party – the Alternative for Germany. Among its voters are primarily those Germans who are émigrés from the former Soviet Union. And the leader of this party Franke Petry, as German newspapers regularly write about, “keeps expressing goodwill towards the Russian President.”

As Russian journalist and expert on Germany Oleg Nikiforof claims, the success of the Alternative for Germany indicates that more and more people in Germany “are starting to think that Merkel’s policies are not the only ones that are best for their country.” 

Those in the ranks of the governing coalition seem to be seeking to reassess the previous policies of the European Union and Germany toward Russia. So, Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s Mar. 23 visit to Moscow might be the good sign, at least for the Kremlin.

Challenges for Russia-Germany relations

Despite positive signs in Russia-Germany relations, very serious challenges still persist. Among them are economic and political ones. Most importantly, these problems could overshadow or even reverse the positive trends in Moscow-Berlin relations.

After all, a Russian-Germany reset is impossible without restoring economic and trade ties, including the lifting the sanctions against the Kremlin. Yet, as indicated by the EU’s rhetoric, it is hardly likely to cancel sanctions unless the Russian government changes its policy toward Ukraine. But both Moscow and the European Union (and thus Germany) appear to be very intransigent. Nevertheless, the Minsk Agreements could be a last resort: If they are observed, there are chances that Moscow and Berlin will be able to find common ground over Ukraine.

Another challenge that hampers their bilateral relations is a difference in political culture as well as differences in their political approaches of how to deal with current global challenges, including the migration crisis. While Berlin tends to support the Syrian migrants and provide them shelter, the Kremlin criticizes such policy and warns against the grave implications of such policy: an increasing risk of terror attacks comes from jihadists who come to Europe disguised as refugees.

In its turn, Germany always criticizes the Kremlin for its heavy-handed approach of dealing with Russia’s liberal opposition and its human rights abuses.

So, as long as Russia and Germany cannot see eye-to-eye politically, there are hardly likely to be any breakthrough in improving their relations.

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