Ostpolitik Is Not Going to Work This Time

Social Democrats think that accommodation will moderate Russia’s behavior. They’re wrong.

Vladimir Putin Angela Merkel
Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference in Moscow, November 16, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

Germany’s Social Democrats are falling back on an old idea to try and improve relations with Russia. The second party in Angela Merkel’s coalition government is calling for rapprochement and understanding, thinking that modern-day Ostpolitik will have the same effect as it did in the 1970s.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister and a prominent Social Democrat, told parliament last week — on the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union no less — that there can only be “lasting peace” in Europe through collaboration with the Russians.

He had raised eyebrows earlier when he condemned Western “saber rattling and war cries” in remarks that were widely interpreted as a critique of NATO military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland.

Steinmeier’s party leader, Sigmar Gabriel, who also serves as economy minister, is planning a trip to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin there.

Hard line

Merkel’s traditionally more Atlanticist Christian Democrats regard all this with apprehension and the chancellor’s office has made clear she remains personally in charge of Russia policy.

Merkel has taken a harder line than many assumed she would after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Every six months, when European sanctions against Russia are up for renewal, we read that German business interests are lobbying for a relaxation of the embargo. Yet every six months they are extended without controversy.

Merkel has taken the measure of Putin and clearly doesn’t see change-through-rapprochement on the horizon.

The Social Democrats are more optimistic and this has little to do with German exporters exerting a nefarious influence over the workers’ party. Their mindset is informed by a history of East-West relations.

Different context

Ostpolitik did work once. Under Willy Brandt in the 1970s, the Social Democrat-led government of West Germany opened up relations with the East. Through small steps, like cultural and educational exchanges, it effected meaningful change. It thawed relations and undermined the Soviet Union’s ideological hold over Eastern Europe.

But this took place in a very different context. Ostpolitik worked because East Germany and the Soviet Union sought the West’s recognition of the status quo in Eastern Europe.

East Germany in particular desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a country. Before Brandt, the government in Bonn didn’t even recognize its Eastern counterpart as anything more than a Soviet occupation zone. That changed in 1972.

Putin’s Russia seeks the opposite of the Soviet Union 45 years ago: a revision of the post-Cold War order in Europe.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact left Europe whole and free. Now Russia is deliberately weakening the pillars on which a Europe whole-and-free is built: the internal cohesion of the European Union, solidarity within NATO, the principles of liberal democracy and the inviolability of national borders. Any compromise — for example, recognition of the Crimean Anschluss or a formal pledge not to build NATO military bases in Eastern Europe — would give Russia a victory and might encourage it to push harder.