Support for Tougher Russia Policy Growing in Germany

Angela Merkel is urged to take a stand.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimea has further tested what was already a strenuous relationship with Europe’s biggest economy, Germany. While German officials remain reluctant to sever ties with Moscow altogether, they are growing exasperated with President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.

Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag‘s foreign affairs committee and a leading member in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party, told Die Welt on Saturday that “economic sanctions,” affecting Russia’s economy as a whole instead of the individuals targeted so far, were “inevitable” unless the country agreed to negotiate over its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, a territory that up to last week was part of Ukraine.

Günther Oettinger, Germany’s European energy commissioner, earlier told the same newspaper that he considered such sanctions, “involving exports, imports and investments, as logical and understandable.”

Even many Social Democrats, who tend to be more Russophile than the Atlanticist conservatives, believe Germany should take a stand.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party leader and economy minister, last week stopped a €120 million military training equipment export order for Russia whereas France is still due to deliver two helicopter carriers to the country.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, is more cautious. He earlier resisted suggestions that Russia should be permanently kicked out of the G8, the group of top industrialized nations that met as the G7 in The Hague on Tuesday. Merkel’s own officials, too, have made clear she is not yet prepared to take that step.

American sanctions following Russia’s intervention in the Crimea have so far been tougher than Europe’s. German business interests, which have a strong influence on Merkel’s conservative party, are wary of sanctions that could threaten their contracts. German exports to Russia were worth €36 billion last year and lobbyists claim up to 300,000 German jobs depend on that trade.

But as Peter Eltsov and Klaus Larres write in The National Interest, Germany’s cautious approach has less to do with business ties and its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas — even if it gets a third of both from Russia — than its Cold War experience in dealing with the country.

The government’s point of reference, they argue, goes back to the era of détente and the West German Ostpolitik of the 1970s. This “policy of small steps” aimed to accomplish “change through rapprochement” with the Soviet bloc through cultural and educational interchanges and led to disarmament and trade treaties. The United States, initially worried that it would enable Germany to reach a separate understanding with Russia and thus weaken NATO in Europe, came to appreciate that the policy was undermining the Soviet Union’s ideological hold over Eastern Europe. This played a part in communism’s collapse and Germany’s reunification in 1990.

Merkel, the authors believe, “knows that a blustering approach which threatens consequences in the form of sanctions and the refusal of visas is unlikely to impress Moscow.” This did not affect the behavior of Soviet leaders during the Cold War and it does not appear to sway President Vladimir Putin today.

Yet Merkel’s imitation of Ostpolitik has not impressed Putin either. His return to the presidency in 2012 was marked by an authoritarian and nationalist turn that worried former Soviet satellite states that are now in NATO. The German chancellor subsequently criticized the fragile state of civil liberties in Russia and where she formerly seemed eager to engage Putin even at the expense of good relations with the Baltic states and Poland, she revisited ties with those neighbors in the last two years.

Central European economies, Poland’s especially, are deeply integrated with Germany’s. The case for a closer German-Polish relationship also grew stronger when the government changed in Paris and 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 Europe.

Germany and Poland together intervened in the crisis in Ukraine after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, pulled out of an association agreement with the European Union and took a trade deal with Russia instead. Yanukovich’s ouster prompted Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine.