A Shift in German-Russian Relations
The Return of Pragmatism
The meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in August provided an opportunity to normalize German-Russian relations on an operational level. Issues such as Nord Stream 2, the war in Syria, the Iran nuclear agreement, and US sanctions policy under the Trump administration demand an interest-driven policy approach on both sides. The return to pragmatism means a “de-Ukrainization” in key areas of common interests.
Merkel’s talks with Putin in the castle of Meseberg just outside of Berlin in mid-August was the third in a series of high-level German-Russian meetings. The German Chancellor and the Russian President had previously met in Sochi in May, and Merkel had also held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chief of Staff Valeri Gerasimov in Berlin in late July. German and Russian interests have been concurring on a number of issues, and, as a result, required close coordination at the highest level. In addition to the Ukraine conflict, these issues include the future of the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, the increased US sanctions against Russia, the Iran nuclear agreement and the future of Syria.
The recent overlap of Russian and German interests has been prompted by the foreign policy of US President Donald Trump: In August, his administration not only announced tighter sanctions on Russia without previously consulting with the US allies in the European Union. Washington went further and threatened even tighter economic sanctions due to take effect within three months, unless the Russian leadership takes steps to bring clarity on the poison gas attack on the double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter of March 2018. These additional sanctions could then also hit companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in January 2019.
Nord Stream 2 has been criticized by the US Congress and has repeatedly been used by President Trump as leverage in order to negotiate a better trade deal with Germany and the European Union. Trump even dismissed Germany as Moscow’s “hostage” in the context. The German Chancellor has been seeking to appease Trump by pursuing firm Russian commitments on the quantities of gas to be transported via Ukrainian pipelines even after the completion of Nord Stream 2.
Putin, in turn, wants to ensure that Germany and the EU do not support the renewed US sanctions on Russia which have been putting massive pressure on the Russian economy and affected his approval rates. Popular support for the president and his government has been hit further in the wake of a recent pension reform and a general decline in the standards of living. In view of the possible domestic impact, the Russian leadership cannot afford any further dents to the economy, which more sanctions would surely bring about. Improved trade relations with Germany and the EU – and their effects at home – would therefore be of great value for Russia.
Meanwhile, Merkel is particularly concerned about the future of Syria. By now, Germany has accepted that a post-war solution for the country will have to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Above all, Berlin wants to be able to send Syrian refugees back to a stable Syria for its own domestic reasons. Further destabilization of countries such as Jordan, Lebanon or even Turkey would not only undermine this prospect for the region, but result in new waves of migration to Europe. Migration has become a crucial and controversial issue for German domestic policy – "the mother of all problems", according to Interior Minister Horst Seehofer – as it has been fueling right-wing populism. Germany will, therefore, have to accept at least a transition period with Assad. Nonetheless, the way in which Russia, Syria and Iran may recapture the remaining rebel-held province of Idlib in Syria’s northwest will impact any agreement with the EU. Merkel will need Assad’s cooperation before Germany can repatriate Syrian refugees, and she is keen on Putin’s support on this matter. Moscow, in turn, is hoping for financial support from Germany and the EU to facilitate the reconstruction of Syria after its destruction during the war.
Merkel’s and Putin’s meeting in Sochi in May already marked a turning point in German-Russian relations. Since 2014, the conflict over Ukraine had been overshadowing all other issues of German-Russian relations. Now, however, Merkel and Putin have realized that they also need to discuss other urgent issues. As a result, two tracks have emerged in relations between Berlin and Moscow. On the one hand, Merkel remains firmly committed to her position in regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Minsk agreements on the war in the Donbass region, and the EU sanctions prompted by Russia’s aggression. On the other hand, she is open for discussion with Moscow on topics such as Nord Stream 2, the US sanctions policy, and Syria. Germany’s Russia policy has, in some part, been voided of Ukraine. This “de-Ukrainization” and German-Russian rapprochement have been driven to a large extent by the impact of the US policy under Donald Trump. It echoes the previous resistance of German and Russian leaders to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
This shift, however, is not tantamount to a new strategic partnership between Germany and Russia. Angela Merkel is unlikely to give up her tough stance on the war in eastern Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia. What we are seeing is a new phase of pragmatic German-Russian relations in which both sides are open to discuss concurring interests without compromising on conflicting ones. We can no more expect a breakthrough in eastern Ukraine than we can a Vladimir Putin offering reliable confirmation for set volumes of gas to be transported via Ukraine after the construction of Nord Stream 2. However, both are bound together on several issues, and the support of the German government of Nord Stream 2 is an example for this interdependence. Despite growing domestic demands to stop Nord Stream 2 in Germany, the government will hardly be able to change its position now that relevant German authorities have granted all necessary permissions.
What the meetings between Merkel and Putin did achieve, however, was to send a signal to Washington that neither side will bow to blackmail by the US president. This stance is in accordance with a recent speech by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in which he argued for a more independent German foreign policy toward the US, and for a “Europe United” taking a stronger stance in international relations. While such proclamations might be popular among the German society, the country’s economy remains far more tied to the American market than the Russian economy.
In summary, the high-level meetings aim to normalize German-Russian relations at a working level without abandoning fundamental positions. Germany and Russia need each other on topics such as energy security, dealing with migration flows from the Middle East, and securing stability in the region. Although dialogue on such concerns is vital, the German government should be careful not to make any concessions in the wake of US pressure which would run against its interests in relation to its EU partners. Putin will bargain hard, and use any opportunity to further undermine transatlantic relations. However, pragmatic, interest-driven negotiations between Berlin and Moscow can be useful for both Germany and the EU – both in light of the tense international situation and given that the US administration has been unable to normalize its communication with the Russian leadership.
First published as DGAPstandpunkt 19, 2018 (in German)