Germany’s Merkel Cools to Russian Relationship

The German chancellor suddenly seems less concerned about upsetting the Russians.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference at the Moscow Kremlin, November 16
Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference at the Moscow Kremlin, November 16 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel chided her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Friday for the fragile state of civil liberties in his country.

Her comments, made in Moscow, mark a turnaround from Germany’s wariness to antagonize Russia, which is a major German energy supplier.

Walter Russell Mead argues at The American Interest that whereas during Gerhard Schröder’s chancellorship and the earlier days of Merkel’s, Germany was eager to engage Russia “even at the expense of good relations with nervous countries like Poland and the Baltic republics,” it has lately become more critical of the assumption — which harkens back to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik — that engagement alone will foster political change in the East. Putin’s return to the presidency this year has rather seen a more authoritarian shift.

Coalition politics

Merkel can afford to be critical. For one thing, it is popular. When the Green party submitted a Bundestag resolution that expressed alarm at the recent political developments in Russia, Merkel’s Christian Democrats supported it.

Mead writes: “Not since Adenauer’s day has an anti-Russian line been so popular with German voters.”

In the old man’s fierce pro-Western tradition, Germany’s ruling conservative party is more comfortable with an Atlanticist and European policy than a Bismarckian balance of power than recognizes the need to involve Russia in Europe.

The Christian Democrats’ liberal coalition partners are less sure.

“On the one hand, we don’t want to hold back on criticism regarding Russia’s internal development,” said Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister and former liberal party leader, on Deutschlandfunk radio this week. “But on the other hand, we are very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded.”

Fear of a German-Russian pact

Germany’s decision to shut all its nuclear power plants by 2022 would only seem to reinforce the rationale of a German-Russian pact. Russia supplies more than a third of the natural gas Germans consume every year.

The Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea enhances Germany’s independence from gas transit countries in Central Europe. Its ability to import natural gas from Russia directly has given rise to fears in Central European capitals that Berlin might balance its relations with Moscow at their expense.

Poland’s foreign minister warned in February that Germany “shouldn’t even try” to attain hegemony in Europe. “When Germany gets too big for its boots, we always automatically add allies,” said Radoslaw Sikorski.

Hence the apprehension of Central European NATO member states, including the Czech Republic and Poland, about American president Barack Obama’s promise in March to show more “flexibility” in negotiations with the Russians about the alliance’s missile defense shield in the region. If the Germans move closer to Russia, the nations in between will have little choice but to seek stronger security guarantees from the Americans.

European interests

Yet those same countries are deeply integrated with the German economy, which also helps explain Merkel’s newfound antipathy to Putin.

Indeed, she may decide that Germany’s commercial and strategic partnership with Poland outweighs any potential benefits of a German-Russian accord.

With French president Nicolas Sarkozy voted out of office in May, an understanding with her Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk — who shares many of her priorities in Europe — would be welcome.

Germany and Poland are both fiscally conservative and committed to improving the internal European market. They are also both critical of the common agricultural policy, which disproportionately benefits the French.

France has an interest too in thwarting a German-Russian alliance which would dilute its influence in Europe. The parity that existed between Bonn and Paris did not survive the German reunification. But with the United Kingdom apparently on the verge of backing out altogether and the Mediterranean states supporting the French position, the Germans have reason yet to treat the French as equals.

Foreign policymakers in Paris should remember that the very aim of Bismarck’s Russian policy was to isolate them. A German-Russian condominium would mark a shift from a European Germany to a German Europe. If the French are to prevent that and push the Germans in Poland’s direction instead, their policy must not be one of accommodation.

Rather, the simplest way to align German and Polish interest is for French president François Hollande to put up unreasonable demands, as the Germans and Poles see it. For example, relaxing the conditions of the tentative fiscal union or financing more bailouts for weak Southern European member states. See how fast Germany and Poland would make common cause then.

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