With German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Moscow, the Kremlin hopes for a revival of an effective German-Russian dialogue.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talking near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Garden on May 10. Photo: RIA Novosti
The celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day has reactivated the Russian-German dialogue, frozen since winter 2014. May 7 in Volgograd saw a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and on May 10 President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Angela Merkel held meetings in Moscow.
According to sources, no breakthrough results were achieved. The heads of state of Russia and Germany simply announced their intention to continue implementing the Minsk-2 agreements and to resume the dialogue between Russia and NATO.
But the resumption of the Russian-German dialogue in itself can be considered a success. The model of the privileged partnership between Russia and Germany was molded back in the mid-1990s. But the Ukraine crisis destroyed that model, turning Berlin into one of Russia’s most stringent opponents. The question is whether the model can be restored.
Germany’s two paths for a return to great power status
The Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, signed in Moscow in 1990, removed the remnants of the occupied status imposed on Germany after World War II, but retained a number of restrictions on German sovereignty. They included bans on holding referenda on military-political issues, on requesting the withdrawal of all foreign troops, on taking foreign policy decisions without consulting the “victorious powers,” and on developing various elements of its armed forces.
From a formal legal point of view, Germany’s status cannot be compared with other European countries, let alone the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Therefore, over the past 25 years German foreign policy has essentially been about the rivalry between two groups, each with its own vision of Germany’s return to great power status.
The first group (typically represented by Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder) sought a mechanism to compensate for the restrictions through mechanisms for discussing global issues on an equal footing with Russia. First, they raised the status of Germany in the system of pan-European relations, placing it on a par with Russia and the United States, not with Italy and Sweden, although technically the latter were more “sovereign” than Germany.
Second, this dialogue expanded the boundaries of Germany’s economic impact, transforming the nation into Europe’s leading energy power.
Third, the special relationship with Moscow increased the role of Germany within the framework of transatlantic relations: German diplomats could show the United States how to work constructively with Russia.
Fourth, the dialogue with Russia helped Germany become a major military power. Post-1991 Germany’s armed forces took part in foreign wars without opposition from Russia.
The second group proposed a different approach. Germany began to accelerate the process of EU expansion in Central Europe. Their entry into the EU allowed German business to open up new markets from Bulgaria to Estonia.
The “Eastern Partnership” was designed to extend this influence to the post-Soviet space. (Paradoxically, they were the same territories over which Germany gained control as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918). It augmented Berlin’s role in the dialogue with the other “giants” of the European Union — Britain and France.
But in acquiring influence over the countries of Central Europe, Berlin became their de facto political leader. Most of them had complex relations with Russia and positive ones with the United States. The leaders of the bloc in union with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia suggested abandoning the priority dialogue with Moscow in favor of building an “anti-American Fronde” with Paris. Germany effectively assumed the role of junior partner to the United States, something to which it was not accustomed. That moment, in early 2012, could be said to mark the cooling of Russian-German relations.
How Germany fits into the Russian foreign policy calculus
Russian foreign policy was a continuation of Brezhnev-style Soviet policy. Since the beginning of the 1960s, Western Europe’s political spectrum was built on the rivalry between the Atlanticists and the Euro-Atlanticists. The former, prevalent in Britain and the Netherlands, were in favor of priority relations with the United States. The latter, prevalent in Italy, France and Germany, recognized U.S. leadership, but were in favor of curbing it.
Paris, Rome and Bonn saw dialogue with the Soviet Union as a means to balance U.S. influence. The Kremlin fed this sentiment to limit America’s room for maneuvering.
Moscow tried to implement something similar within the framework of Russian-German relations. By around 1995 it was clear that a partnership between Russia and the United States had failed to materialize. The Kremlin saw Germany as an alternative.
As a member of NATO, Berlin acted as a mediator between Russia and the United States in all key crises. This model of Russian-German relations enabled the Washington-Berlin-Moscow triangle to form the bedrock of European security.
The Franco-German anti-Americanism on the eve of the Second Gulf War opened a “window of opportunity” for Moscow. At the turn of 2003-04 France, Germany and Russia held regular consultations aimed at counterbalancing U.S. influence.
The Russian-German energy dialogue (exemplified by the North European Gas Pipeline, later the Nord Stream) and the framing of a treaty on European security were due to consolidate this trend.
The fundamental shift in policy on the part of the Merkel cabinet was not properly registered in Moscow. The Russian elite hoped that the new chancellor’s overtures to Warsaw and Riga were nothing more than tactical moves. The Kremlin tried to institutionalize a new model of European security through the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), conceived as a Russian-German-U.S. forum.
The Russian government failed to heed the alarm bells, namely the collapse of the EASI at the Munich Conference of 2012 and the negative reaction of the German establishment to Putin’s return to the Kremlin.
Britain’s attempts to block Russian-German rapprochement
British diplomacy is the chief opponent of Russian-German rapprochement. Until the early 1990s, Britain was firmly ensconced as the leading energy power of the European community. Germany’s partnership with Gazprom and the depletion of the North Sea’s energy resources robbed London of this status.
Moreover, the British establishment was always wary of the idea of revising the 1990 Treaty of Moscow, to which Russian-German talks on European security were naturally leading.
Starting around 2005 London played the energy card to counter the Russian-German partnership. At the EU level, the cabinet of then Prime Minister Tony Blair was the main initiator of the negotiations on the ratification of the Energy Charter Treaty in 1994.
At the level of Central Europe, London fully backed the Baltic countries’ protest against the North European Gas Pipeline, proposing to President Putin that it should bypass Germany en route to the Netherlands. A difficult choice gradually presented itself to Berlin: prioritize dialogue with Russia or the countries of Eastern Europe.
David Cameron’s cabinet changed tack. Merkel’s attempts to impose tighter controls on EU fiscal policy were met with open hostility in London. It was against that backdrop in early 2012 that Britain launched a dialogue with Russia on issues ranging from Syria to European security.
Unlike Berlin, London demonstrated complete willingness to build a dialogue with the newly returned Putin. Britain informally but effectively utilized the traditional notion of a Russian-British counterweight to German hegemony in Europe. That further alienated Russia and Germany from each other.
Post-Ukraine scenarios for Russian-German relations
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her to Moscow on May 10. Photo: EPA
The Kremlin still harbors hopes for a revival of Russian-German dialogue. The “Norman format” talks established in summer 2014 evinced Moscow’s desire to engage in dialogue on Ukraine with Germany and France without the United States.
The reality proved otherwise. The Merkel cabinet worked closely with Washington throughout the crisis. The Russian establishment and various experts believe that the Americans used German diplomacy as a conduit to convey its interests in the talks with Russia.
From that perspective, restoring the Russian-German dialogue to its previous format looks out of the question. But there are other options on the table.
The first is Germany’s transformation into a privileged junior partner of the United States. It seems that Washington is set on delegating some functions to Berlin in negotiations with Russia. The idea is for Berlin to exhort Moscow to accept a particular U.S. proposal in exchange for symbolic concessions from the White House. This option benefits Washington, but it is likely to prod Russia into looking for alternative partners in Europe other than Germany.
The second is Germany’s transformation into an opponent of Russia. In shifting its focus to the Pacific region, the Obama administration is seeking a key military partner in Europe. As the leader of the anti-Russian sentiment in Central Europe, Germany can objectively oppose Moscow. This option is beneficial to London, which will readily assume the mantle of mediator between Russia, Germany and the United States. But Germany is unlikely to gain from losing the unity of the European Union.
The third is the extension of the “Norman format” to the level of full-fledged negotiations on European security — which is essentially what Putin and Schroeder failed to engineer back in early 2004. For this scenario to work, Germany will have to exert more influence on the Central European countries, including Ukraine. But under Merkel, Berlin is unlikely to resist their anti-Russian sentiment.
The latter is the natural result of the choice made by the Merkel cabinet. Having become the leader of the small anti-Russian countries of Central Europe, Germany has unwittingly diminished its status to their level. Merkel’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl, held consultations with then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 on the option of revising the Treaty of Moscow.
Merkel in 2015 is focused on the need to “address the concerns of the countries of Central Europe.” Consequently, today’s Germany is yielding leadership on matters of European security to the United States and Britain. That could limit any attempts by Germany to play broader role in creating a new European security arrangement with Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.