The German-Polish divisions hurt common EU policy towards Russia

speckA conversation with Ulrich Speck, Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC. Interviewer: Wojciech Jakóbik


WOJCIECH JAKÓBIK: Having in mind Nord Stream 2, for example, seems like Germany wants to get closer with Russia again. What is the assumption standing behind Germany’s rapprochement policy towards Russia?


ULRICH SPECK: Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian conflict, Berlin has pursued a strategy towards Russia built on three pillars. First, sanctions, in an attempt to change Russian behavior by using pressure. Second, diplomacy, in order to change Russian behavior through engagement and third, support for Ukraine, in order to make it better equipped to function as a sovereign state capable of defending its borders. The overall goal was to reassert the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity as the foundations of Europe's peace order.


This strategy has not changed in principle. Germany has used its weight to convince reluctant EU member countries to roll over sanctions into this month. Sanctions remain in place as long as the Minsk Agreements are not fulfilled; this is the official position shared by Germany, the EU and US. However, as the conflict in eastern Ukraine has receded and as pressure has mounted to work with Russia in Syria, those arguing for more engagement with Russia have become stronger. As Europe is split between more hawkish and more dovish countries regarding Russia, Germany is split as well into both camps. As long as there was open war in Ukraine, the hawkish camp was in a better position to build a majority behind its views - that Europe must push back against Russian aggression. The less violence there is, however, the easier it is for the dovish camp to regain influence. 


Germany is currently on the forefront of new efforts to engage with the Kremlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leans more towards the hawkish view, has not vetoed plans to build a second pipeline in the Baltic Sea, Nord Stream 2. The latter has been pushed forward by vice-chancellor and minister for economics Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of Merkel's coalition partner the Social Democrats (SPD). Germany's OSCE presidency this year will also be devoted to attempts to reduce tensions with Russia. While both camps in Germany, hawks and doves, share the same analysis regarding the problematic character of Russia’s regime, they do differ when it comes to the response - how to deal with a more aggressive Russia.


For the more hawkish camp the key for dealing with Russia is to push back, enforce rules and demonstrate strength, while for the dovish camp the key is to bring Russia in from the cold, integrate it into a web of relations, show "respect" and try to communicate that the West is not seeking regime change in Russia - pretty much what was tried before the Ukrainian conflict. Traditionally, the SPD, which controls the Foreign Ministry, is rather in the dovish camp. The SPD has an Ostpolitik history which it is proud of and which it considers as crucial in having brought down the Berlin Wall. Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, is in his 11th year as a chairman of the Kremlin-controlled Nord Stream AG’s board. His closeness to Putin has not made him a persona non grata in SPD; quite the opposite, Schröder gave a well-applauded speech at the last party convention.


Is Germany assuming that rapprochement with Russia works, even if the Minsk Agreements are not being followed?


Regarding the Minsk Agreements’ merits, you can find different assessments. In my view, it helped bring the conflict form a military level to a diplomatic level. The agreement is far from being fulfilled, and there is a long way to restore Ukrainian control of its border with Russia. It looks as if the Donbas is going to become into another "frozen conflict", another region controlled by Russia against the will of the government of the country to whose territory it belongs to. Whether engagement with Russia works in the sense of changing Russian behavior towards its neighbors and the West is a difficult question.


Isolation is a risky policy; even NATO, which overall sounded quite hawkish during the height of the Ukrainian conflict, had been worried about the lack of communication channels, therefore risking a potential escalation quickly getting out of control.  But engagement is risky as well, as it may send the wrong signals to the Kremlin. Russia may assume, as it apparently did before the attack on Ukraine, that the West is quietly in agreement with Moscow's view of the post-Soviet space as Russia's sphere of control. It may assume again that the West is weak, divided and unable to push back when challenged by Russia. The best path is engagement in a principled manner - sending the right messages and leaving no doubt about one's own views and positions. The West must do both, push back where necessary and engage where possible.


Is Nord Stream 2 a child of this engagement policy or just a continuation of policy/business German-Russian interdependence?


First one must say that Nord Stream 2 is still a project. It has to go through a number of legal checks by the EU before it can be built.  Secondly, business is not as influential regarding Germany's Russia policy as many think and German business organizations (such as BDI, der Bund der Deutschen Industrie) have said again and again that they stand fully behind the chancellor regarding sanctions. Angela Merkel has said that Nord Stream 2 is a "commercial project", but if it were only commercial, it would have been easy for the chancellor to stop it.


The chancellor is well aware of Nord Stream 2’s geopolitical problems: the problematic message it sends to the Kremlin (about its perceived ability to influence internal German decisions); the anger it provokes in Italy and other EU countries (because the Commission has stopped South Stream); the considerable loss of fees that the end of transit of gas via Ukraine would mean for Ukraine and Slovakia; and the general unease in the EU and US about a project that sends the message that Germany is back on track with its old special relationship with Russia.


However, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is also in line with the idea of "change through rapprochement" (Wandel durch Annäherung), which is still very much alive in SPD-circles, as part of Ostpolitik. The breakdown in relations with Russia over Ukraine has not been perceived as a failure of this policy which was revitalised by Schröder and Steinmeier in the 2000s. Steinmeier’s "Partnership for Modernisation" was the last brainchild of this line of thinking. Nord Stream 2 therefore fits into the idea that Russia can be changed by integrating it into a dense web of relations. With oil and gas prices low, Russia under economic pressure and Ukraine at least a half-failure from a Russian point of view, advocates of engagement in Berlin may think the time is ripe to try "change through rapprochement" once again.


How could the difference between the German rapprochement and the more hawkish approach of Poland and the Baltic countries be overcome?


The current tensions between the new Polish government on the one hand and Brussels and Berlin on the other are making it harder to come to a joint approach. In recent years Poland has become a key partner for Germany, the second most important partner in the EU after France, at least as far as Germany's eastern policy goes. Both Berlin and Warsaw should make it a priority to bring the relationship back on track, because both have a strong interest in having a joint approach towards Russia and the eastern neighbourhood. If Germany and Poland are divided, it is difficult to put a common EU policy towards Russia together. The lack of such a policy is damaging for everybody, including Poland, Germany and the EU as a whole.


Ulrich Speck is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy in Washington, DC. His work is focused on German and EU foreign policy, the EU's relations with Eastern Europe and Russia, and transatlantic relations.


Wojciech Jakóbik is an energy analyst at Jagiellonian Institute and editor-in-chief of economic portal