Steinmeier Unlikely to Effect Change in German-Russian Relations

Germany’s new foreign minister may be something of a Russophile, but his influence could be limited.

Germany might want to pursue a more friendly policy toward Russia under the stewardship of its new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but in her coalition with the Social Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces many of same challenges in the east she did during the last four years.

Steinmeier, who was also foreign minister in Merkel’s first cabinet between 2005 and 2009, is considered something of a Russophile in the vein of his party’s former leader, Gerhard Schröder. The latter famously described President Vladmir Putin once as a “flawless democrat” and now chairs the company that operates the submarine Nord Stream pipeline that delivers Russian natural gas to Germany.

Steinmeier calls for dialogue and engagement but so did his predecessor, the liberal Guido Westerwelle, who said in a radio interview last year that he was “very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded.” That didn’t stop him from showing up at a demonstration in Kiev last week where thousands of Ukrainians had gathered to protest their government’s decision to put off an association agreement with the European Union and deepen ties with Russia instead.

German president Joachim Gauck has also used his largely ceremonial office to pursue a more moral foreign policy. He canceled a visit to Ukraine last year to protest the persecution of its former prime minister, the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko, by the government of its more pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich. Gauck announced this week that he will also not attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — apparently without informing the chancellery beforehand.

Yet it is in all likelihood Merkel who will continue to exert the most influence over her country’s Russia policy. Whatever Steinmeier’s conciliatory instincts, the chancellor has rather cooled to Russia in recent years and there is no reason to believe this will change under her third government which took office on Tuesday.

Merkel implicitly criticized Russia’s treatment of nongovernmental organizations, some of which have been banned, in a speech in April when she argued that economic progress “can happen most successfully when there is an active civil society.” She added, “We must intensify these discussions, develop our ideas and we must give the NGOs, who we know as a motor for innovation, a good chance in Russia.”

A June trip to Saint Petersburg also didn’t go without controversy when she asked for artworks that were looted during the Second World War and displayed at the Hermitage Museum to be returned to Germany.

Germany has a clear interest in maintaining stable relations with Russia. More than a third of the natural gas it consumes is imported from that country and this share might increase as it intends to shut all of its nuclear power plants within less than a decade.

But it might have a more immediate stake in Central Europe where countries have become wary about its increased independence of transit nations since it started to import gas from Russia directly through the Nord Stream pipeline. These countries, Poland especially, are deeply integrated with the German economy.

The case for a closer German-Polish relationship has also grown stronger since a change of government in Paris last year weakened the Franco-German axis, long the most pivotal in Europe. The socialist president there, François Hollande, sympathizes more with the heavily indebted Mediterranean states than his conservative predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did. Poland’s liberal prime minister Donald Tusk, by contrast, shares many of Merkel’s priorities for economic and fiscal reform in the European Union.

Finally, Merkel has a domestic political imperative to distance herself from Putin. What seemed like a continuation of Schröder’s Russia policy during her second term was far from uncontroversial. The Social Democrats, then in opposition, criticized her for cozying up to an authoritarian regime. Some Christian Democrats, traditionally more Atlanticist, worried about the prospect of a German-Russian condominium in the east. Certainly neither of the parties is in favor of deepening ties with Putin’s regime. Germany’s interests suggest it will not take a firm stand against Russia either but it does seem likely that Steinmeier will have to be a bit more confrontational than he might like — and Russia seems to expect.