Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the ninth essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part eight.
There is a new wind in the air in the country that today matters more than any other in forming and pursuing Western policy toward Russia: Germany. There is an irony about this that sometimes escapes general attention, an irony that is certainly ignored in Russia: The Russian elite continues to look to the United States as the key Western interlocutor, following a Soviet tradition of bipolarity that vanished some 25 years ago; meanwhile, for various reasons (history, geography, economic interdependency, the emergence of powerful lobbying machine, and most of all to the fact that Washington has outsourced its crisis management in Europe to Berlin), Germany is now the leading violinist in the Western orchestra when it comes to Russian melodies.
Berlin’s policy toward Russia had long stemmed from its sense of guilt for the German role in World War II and the invasion of the USSR, from Germany’s traditional gravitation toward Russia in culture and in sentiment, and from its economic (primarily energy-based) cooperation with Russia. The combination of idealism and business interests gave rise to an influential strain of pragmatism known as Östpolitik, and to the emergence of a slew of influential experts and observers who catered to this approach (the Russlandversteher). All of this has made Germany for years the main pillar of support for the Kremlin in all its incarnations—Soviet and post-Soviet. In the words of Stefan Meister, head of the Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia program for DGAP, “Germany has always been an advocate of Russian interests in the European Union and strategic partner with regard to energy and economic cooperation.”
Today, Germany has actually begun to look for new approaches to foreign policy, and for a new understanding of developments in Russia. The search was reflected in an unprecedented German debate, provoked by the Ukraine crisis, about how to view Russia. Proponents of the tradition of Ostpolitik, including some prominent figures in the German establishment, essentially continue to insist, “Let’s consider Russia’s security needs. Stop the ‘demonization’ of the Russian people. Show greater understanding for Russia’s fears.” These were the key ideas of the Russlandversteher manifesto, calling for accommodation of Russia (and for “Russia”, of course, you can read “Kremlin”).
“The most pro-German politician is sitting today in the Kremlin, but he is attacked by the German media”, laments Alexander Rahr, one of the most active Russlandversteher for years. “Putin gave Germany the cheapest gas!” says Rahr and this has in his mind to be the basis of German reciprocity.1 Look at how Rahr explains the causes of the Ukraine crisis: “Ukraine failed to become a strong, economically developed state…. The Ukrainian nation failed to become a united nation…. The EU forced Yanukovych to sign Ukraine’s association with the EU….” But even if the two first assumptions are correct, could they serve as justifications for annexation and aggression? As for the last assumption, it merely repeats the Kremlin’s arguments.
Today it looks as if the days of the Russlandverstehers’ unchallenged dominion in explaining Russia to Germany are over, at least on the expert level and in public opinion. The majority of German experts and intellectuals appear inclined to revise Germany’s position on Putin’s Russia. “One should differentiate between the aggressor and the victim,” said a letter by a hundred German experts writing on their country’s role in the Ukraine crisis. This could represent a turning point for German political thinkers and analysts, who generally avoided such sharp statements in the past, particularly in reference to Russia. Of course, this evolution would not have been possible without the evolution of Angela Merkel’s position. Joschka Fischer wrote that “Angela Merkel has undergone a remarkable transformation.” In many ways, her transformation has given an impetus to the new interpretation of politics, including policies toward Russia, in Germany. Today one would have real trouble finding an active group of old Russlandversteher on the German intellectual scene or in the media. They find refuge mainly in Valdai club corridors. “It took Russia’s armed support of the ‘separatists’ in eastern Ukraine to make them understand why the Balts are afraid. Now Merkel is holding together a European coalition against Putin,” says Constanze Stelzenmueller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explaining the change of moods in Berlin. She adds that a legendary 1970s advertising slogan (“You’ve come a long way, baby!”) applies to Germany in this case. “But it still has quite a way to go,” warns Stelzenmueller.
The most important fact is that the process of rethinking on the German political scene has started. Berlin has launched a process of “self-examination regarding the prospects of German foreign policy.” The German Foreign Affairs Ministry revealed to the public its “Review 2014: A fresh Look at Foreign Policy,” in which it posed provocative questions to experts from Germany and abroad: What, if anything, is wrong with German foreign policy? What needs to be changed? An unprecedented and courageous beginning, indeed.2
Here is how John Kornblum, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, former Assistant Secretary of State for European affairs, and one of the most astute observers of the German scene, describes its evolution:
I think Germany is evolving towards a stable leadership role. Not leadership in the way the United States leads, or even how the British or French used to, with big initiatives. Germany’s leadership has always been through osmosis…. Germany has taken over the main role as Western interlocutor with the Russians. Nobody would have ever thought that would happen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the one who is carrying the dialogue. Even Obama cannot talk to Putin. Of course there are reasons to be critical of the Germans…. But overall their behaviour over the past fifty years has made them the most respected country in Europe. And they are handling it pretty well.
However, having said that, Kornblum, along with Daniel Vajdich, former lead staffer for Europe and Eurasia on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in February 2016 co-authored a memo in which they wrote with concern: “The German political establishment yearns for a return to the Östpolitik…” The Economist recently also warned, “Nostalgia for “Östpolitik” is fouling up German diplomacy…. By clinging to an Östpolitik focused on Russia the Social Democrats are rendering with wider east increasing fraught.”
Dustin Dehez, managing partner at Manatee Global Advisors and a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group of the Atlantic Council, recently offered critical analysis of the German foreign policy, arguing that, when it comes to Germany’s policies with respect to Russia there are still “plenty of self-delusions that drive Berlin’s foreign policy.” Among five “self-delusions that plague German foreign policy,” Dehez mentions the following assertions, and offers a rebuttal for each:
- “Both sides” have to respect the Minsk accords, when one “side clearly is the aggressor.”
- “The West too has made mistakes…” This “obfuscates an honest consideration of the success and failures of German policy toward Russia.”
- “…though Germany has not.” In reality Germany has been misreading both the Kremlin and its own allies”
- “Treat Russia as an equal.” Doing so contributed to “Russia’s geopolitical revisionism.”
- “We need Russia to solve international crises,” which means “sacrificing Ukraine for the remote prospect of Russian cooperation in other places.”
Germany’s self-delusions, Dehez concludes, have influenced the recent Western policy that has created situation when “military aggression that challenges the foundation of Europe’s security is not met proportionally.”
In times of disorientation—and when, as Ambassador and host of the Munich Security conference Wolfgang Ischinger put it, “the vision of the European Union established 12 years ago has broken down completely”—returning to policy models that guaranteed stability in the past looks natural. The problem is that the old recipes when dealing with new challenges could turn into a source of new failures and frustration. Moreover, Western self-delusions could provoke the Kremlin’s self-delusions, reproducing a vicious circle of mutual misunderstanding.
In 2016 Germany assumed the chairmanship of the OSCE. One could hope that this will push Berlin to start more vigorous efforts to look for exit from the crisis around Ukraine.3 But how exactly Berlin will deal with irreconcilable Kyiv and Moscow’s agendas? Who will have to backtrack this time and under what pressure? When in January 2016, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, laid out the priorities for the OSCE chairmanship, Berlin’s agenda became clear. One could conclude that Steinmeier still believes that the current confrontation is the result of a lack of trust stemming from a breakdown in communications between Russia and the West. Hence, the solution is to put emphasis on dialogue and communication—the familiar song of the pragmatists! Here is how Dehez describes Berlin’s OSCE priorities, “There is indeed a lack of trust. However, that lack of trust is a direct consequence of Russian aggression, not Western miscommunication.”
Stefan Meister is critical of the European and German vector too:
It is frightening how much European leaders are driven by the needs of crisis management, winning short-term gains without any plan to secure long-term interests. With his support for Nord Stream 2 and trip to Moscow, Sigmar Gabriel has acted as though he is a purely domestic politician, one who is not concerned by Russian foreign policy…. Germanys OSCE chairmanship, along with the idea promoted by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to engage with Russia in a Eurasian Economic Union-EU context, will give Russian leaders plenty of space to finish undermining the credibility of Merkel’s Russia policy…. Ukraine, however, may well fall victim to these developments—it is increasingly seen as a hindrance to normalizing relations with Moscow.
It looks like the breakthrough in the German policies could be more difficult to achieve than expected. German historian Karl Schlogel, one of the most respected German observers of the Eurasian developments, had to admit, “The moods expressed by Sigmar Gabriel, have been long in the air. Too many people want to return to the status quo—to the hopes about détente that have nothing in common with reality, and do just business. The confirmation of this is the agreement over Nord Stream 2….”
Ulrich Speck, senior fellow at the Transatlantic Academy (Washington) explains how difficult it is for Berlin to find a balance in its Russia policy:
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.
Berlin is facing a truly formidable task: building a balance of engagement and “push back” at a time when America is trying to shed itself of global responsibilities, when Europe is struggling with an existential crisis, and when the West is still paralyzed by the intellectual and political shocks administered by Putin’s Russia. One can the Germans’ hesitations about whether to take the leading role in the Western policy breakthrough, the kind of decision that always comes with traumatic implications. “We already made two efforts to change the status quo in the 20th century and we remember how they ended,” one German diplomat told me.
However, any reproduction of the traditional German Ostpolitik that is associated with times of détente and cooperation could disorient the Kremlin and create the illusion that Germany is ready to return to old times of dating and acquiescence. “It would be good for German leaders to think carefully before selling out their own values and principles,” says Meister. Let’s hope that official Berlin understands this. When Washington is looking for ways to step back, Germany is destined—whether it likes it or not—to play a leading role in forming the European posture toward Russia and Eurasia. One way or another it will shape the West’s stance toward Global Illiberalism.
1The interview Rahr gave the Russian Komsomlskaya Pravda raised a storm of indignation in Germany that it seems has ended Rahr’s carrier as the leading Russia hand.
2See this analysis of German foreign policy: Andreas Rinke, “In For the Long Haul.”
3The German Foreign Office has prepared a road map for elections in the separatist regions of Donbass and Luhansk to get the Minsk -2 agreements implemented. But at the moment there are no signs that this attempt to break the Minsk deadlock has been successful.