After having reached a new low in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, German-Russian relations show cautious signs of improving by the end of the year.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin make their way to bipartisan talks within the scope of the G20 Summit in Belek, Turkey, 15 November 2015. Photo: DPA/Vostock-Photo
For a different take read: "Russia and Germany: Where are we headed?"
There can be no doubt that German-Russian relations are deeply troubled. The low point, of course, was reached after Russia incorporated Crimea in February 2014 and allegedly intervened in the Donbas area of Ukraine in the months immediately following. Later, Russia’s military campaign in Syria reinforced this trend, leading to the perception of Russia as an aggressor state.
As a result, Germany, in close solidarity with friends and allies in the EU and in NATO, has scaled down its relationship with Russia from a policy of partnership to one that is currently characterized by restraint, sanctions and renewed distrust.
The reasons that have generated this drastic change of political climate are fairly well known: Germany holds Russia responsible for breaking fundamental commitments that all European partners have assumed as part of the Helsinki Final Act of 1976 and the Paris Charter of 1990, as well as by membership in international organizations like the UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe.
And it is Germany that feels particularly concerned about the deterioration of the Russian relationship after having invested a considerable amount of confidence into the modern Russia that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union.
This confidence now appears deeply shattered. As a consequence, Germany's new security policy guidebook scheduled to come out this summer may list Russia as one of 10 major security challenges on a par with terrorism, migrants from the Middle East and global climate change.
The picture was substantially different when the German coalition government between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which resulted from the general elections of September 2013, hammered out its foreign policy guidelines. Back then, Germany's relationship with Russia looked promising overall despite certain frictions that had already come to the fore.
At the end of the 1990s and the 2000s, bilateral relations were boosted by a host of official meetings and contacts in many spheres of economy, culture and civil society. Not always to the delight of friends and allies, Germany advised its partners to take a position of restraint and prudence with regard to issues like NATO enlargement and establishment of a missile shield in Europe. Critics held that this was equivalent to lenience with regard to Moscow's allegedly bad intentions.
Still, the coalition agreement of November 2013 between the German Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats tried to look at this relationship in a positive way. It highlighted the importance of German-Russian relations in one separate paragraph stipulating that security for Europe was inconceivable without Russian involvement and pleading in favor of an open dialogue with the Russian leadership, thereby strengthening a policy of “Modernisierungspartnerschaft” (“partnership in modernization”).
This term has no longer been used after February 2014; obviously it has missed its purpose in the eyes of its authors after EU sanctions entered into force as a sign of strong protest again Russia's role in the Ukrainian crisis.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian issue has developed into something of a litmus test for German-Russian relations. Not without some hesitation Germany had agreed to take over a lead role in the so-called Normandy Four format (which also includes Russia, Ukraine and France) designed to help work out a valid political settlement on the basis of the Minsk agreements.
The challenge increased with Germany taking over the OSCE chairmanship at the beginning of 2016. The Ukrainian crisis was, and still is, at the top of the OSCE agenda. However, peace efforts there were repeatedly torpedoed due to what is widely believed to be a lack of Russian cooperation. It is primarily Germany that will be damaged politically should these efforts finally come to naught.
So, any forecasts for an improvement of German-Russian relations are based on shaky ground. Predictably, the issue will continue to figure prominently on the German political agenda. At the same time, friends and allies will closely watch German-Russian relations, especially those who still nurture suspicions about Germany's alleged Russophilia.
From this perspective, Germany has had an inclination to play down Russia's aggressiveness and give Russia too much credit for any gestures of appeasement. The debate crystallizes on the issue of whether or not current sanctions against Russia should be continued, and if they are, to what extent. A decision by the EU is due at the end of June.
Only recently the German Social Democrats came out with another initiative suggesting a reduction of these sanctions. Merkel commented that sanctions should not be handled as “an end in itself,” but as a political instrument that should be used very carefully. The sanctions against Russia have never really enjoyed much support amongst the broader German public.
Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik helped to establish a mainstream opinion that Russia should no longer be looked upon as an enemy, but as a partner [Ostpolitik was a policy of détente between Western Germany and the Soviet bloc nations of Eastern Europe during the late 1960s – Editor’s note]. There seem to be so many common interests between the two nations, first of all in economic matters like energy.
But culture plays its part as well. To this day, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky remain German favorites. And the stories of Russian artists who suffered from Soviet repression in the past - Pasternak, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn – have always resonated deeply in the German mind.
Starting this fall, Germany will increasingly be influenced by the campaign leading up to the next general elections scheduled for September 2017. In this context, German-Russian relations will again figure as a focal subject of concern. In a best-case scenario for Russia, this bilateral relationship will become a point of consensus rather than contention among Germany’s politicians on the campaign trail.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.