German-Russian relations: What is next?
A relationship that used to be characterised by the 1969-invoked “change through rapprochement” and “partnership on eye-level”, has seen a rapid cooling over the course of the last two years. Germany and Russia used to be close partners with vibrant exchange on the political, economic, social and cultural levels. Even when Russia’s relations with the rest of the West began to deteriorate in 2011/2012, following the untransparent presidential election, the German government was seen as a connector and mediator. However, since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, the German political elite also distanced itself from president Putin and became a strong advocate of sanctions. At the same time, Germany has always been in favour of dialogue and remained at the discussion table, which helped to facilitate reaching the Minsk II agreement.
Numerous Russophile formats and interest groups supported the long tradition of close strategic cooperation between Germany and Russia. Among them are the Petersburg Dialogue, the German Russian Forum, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, as well as the circa two million Russian-Germans – Russlanddeutsche.
With the upcoming federal elections in the autumn of 2017, the future of German-Russian relations seems to be rather uncertain and hard to predict. However, the developments of the recent years may allow us to draw several scenarios.
Currently it seems that trust has been lost. It began with the circumstances of Putin’s election for the third presidential term, followed by his reassurance that the “green little men” in Crimea are not in fact Russian soldiers. Germany used to serve as Russia’s main advocate in the Europe and at the same time was one of the few countries whose criticism regarding the human right situation in Russia was accepted. While the Baltic States and Poland have always been sceptical of Russia, the German government advocated for close ties and increased their own economic dependency on the country’s oil and gas.
As Stefan Meister asserted in 2015, Germany’s policy towards Russia significantly changed following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, events strongly condemned by chancellor Angela Merkel as a backlash against the international law. While economic and business interests were the main argument in the government’s relations with Russia in the past, political values have recently become the guiding principles regulating the relationship.
While German industry lobby strongly discouraged sanctions in the beginning, it backpedalled following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Markus Kerber, the head of the Federation of German Industries, stressed that German businesses comply with the international law and therefore support the sanctions.
German politicians remain to be positioned in-between. The minister of defence, Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, emphasised the need for NATO to commit itself to the Founding Act. A majority of the German political elite, however, has accepted the fact that the partnership has been affected tremendously and that the annexation of Crimea and war meddling cannot be simply forgotten in order to return to usual cooperative relations.
2017 and beyond?
Hence the question remains of how Germany’s foreign policy towards Russia should and could look like, if it was to find a viable middle ground between dialogue and interest on the one hand, and condemning the breach of international law on the other. Given the upcoming federal elections next year, different scenarios are possible. The Social Democratic Party has begun to position itself as more Russia-friendly, advocating in favour of ending the sanctions.
The current vice-chancellor and minister for economic affairs, Sigmar Gabriel, for instance, has been calling for federalisation of Ukraine. Matthias Platzeck, the former state premier of Brandenburg and now head of the German-Russian Forum, stated that the annexation should be settled under international law, although he did distance himself from the statement later on.
A scenario of a red-red-green coalition forming the federal government after the elections in 2017, would see two parties with positive attitudes to Russia (the Socialdemocrats and the Left Party). Having advocated in favour of lifting the sanctions, the parties often criticise the West and defend Russia’s actions. Prominent examples of such an approach are the former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Gregor Gysi from the Left Party.
In another unprecedented scenario, the conservative parties of CDU and CSU could form a coalition with the Green Party (black-green) and thus create a common front against Russia. All the parties support sanctions as a punishment for the breach of international law and established norms. The liberal FDP party would most likely join them in support of the sanctions.
Regardless of the outcome of the elections, several factors need to be taken into account. First, parts of German society, especially the more left-oriented, and increasingly also the far-right, are characterised by a deeply-rooted and widespread anti-Americanism. At the same time, however, approval ratings of Russia have also been declining among surveyed Germans. The society is generally pacifist and in line with the political elite opposes any form of military solution to the Ukraine crisis. Simultaneously, the German and Russian societies seem to be estranging, which calls for the deepening of cultural cooperation and exchange.
Germany’s foreign policy has a strong norm-based approach. While European integration is one of its main pillars, Russia perceives the concept as a threat to its security interests. Rather than a continued integration, president Putin has been advocating the idea of a multipolar security, with the West and Russia being equal partners. The narrative should not be dismissed without a thought and could be discussed along with a proposal for a stronger cooperation between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (“an open room from Lisbon to Vladivostok”).
Sanctions or no sanctions?
As a study by Ernst and Young suggests, contrary to expectations one result of the sanctions was a record increase in investment in Russia. In 2015, 201 projects were completed, creating more than 13,000 jobs and, interestingly, half of them were financed by the EU.
Moreover, the Russian government has recently initiated “special investment contracts” to attract more foreign investment. A minimum requirement for the foreign investor is to invest $750 million roubles. The contracts localise future production sites and ensure legal security and tax facilitations for the investors.
Thus, are sanctions the right way to go? At the Warsaw Security Forum 2016, Ilya Ponomarev urged to target the sanctions on the political elite rather than the whole country to make them more effective. Another possible approach would be to tighten the sanctions in order to affect more sectors, while communicating via different channels that it is a reaction to the government’s international behaviour. However, the question remains whether this will put any pressure on the government or rather increase the suspicion and hostility towards the West. For even the rouble decline did not stop the growing approval of Putin among the Russian population. One could speculate whether this would change with an increasingly weak economy, however, so far Russian society has not made any connection between Russia’s international behaviour, declining oil prices and the country’s stumbling economy.
It seems that the implementation of the Minsk II agreement continues to be the most probable requirement for lifting sanctions. However, the German government will need to put pressure on both Russia and Ukraine to increase the efforts to observe the truce. Moreover, in order to move from the stabilisation process towards sustainable peace, it is necessary to make adjustments to the agreement.
Thus, Germany needs to continue to advocate for bi- and multilateral dialogue and collaborate with Russia on matters related to common challenges, while remaining credible and reliable to its allies. No matter who takes power in 2017, such an approach remains the only solution to the ongoing crisis.
Jacqueline Westermann works with the Warsaw office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. She received her MA degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews, UK, and a BA in Political Science and Law from the University of Muenster, Germany. She also writes for the Moscow German Newspaper and her own blog, The PACT Online.