Russian-German Relations: Back to the Future

Dmitri Trenin

Berlin is ending the era launched by Gorbachev of a trusting and friendly relationship with Moscow. Russia, for its part, no longer expects anything from Germany, and therefore does not feel obliged to take into account its opinion or interests.

The poisoning of the opposition activist Alexei Navalny has become a turning point in Russo-German relations. The details of the incident are still largely unclear, but what is clear is that it has prompted Berlin to make a crucial decision for German foreign policy: it will no longer follow a special policy toward Russia. Berlin will not try to understand the other side’s motivation or strive for mutual understanding and at least basic cooperation. Nor will it act as an interpreter of Russian political language, or take it upon itself to communicate the position of its allies to Moscow.

This special role performed by Germany and its chancellor in recent years is now a thing of the past. From now on, Germany will have the same attitude to Russia as all the other countries in Western Europe. At the level of rhetoric, this will mean unflinching opposition from Berlin to Kremlin foreign and domestic policy, harsh criticism of specific steps taken by Moscow, and strong solidarity with the countries of Eastern Europe. At the economic level, many now expect the cancelation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. At the diplomatic level, we will likely see a significant restriction of official contact and possibly a suspension of dialogue at the top level.

It’s unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin envisaged this turn of events when he gave permission for Navalny to be flown from the Siberian city of Omsk to Berlin for treatment. If anything, he was probably expecting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to cooperate, and that Germany’s help would result in a joint way out of an unpleasant incident without any additional losses to Russia’s reputation.

One can only imagine how Putin reacted to Merkel’s announcement that Navalny had been poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent. A stab in the back is the mildest reaction that comes to mind. For Putin, his personal relationships with foreign leaders are of major importance in determining foreign policy, and he will not forget Merkel’s actions.

This means that not only is Berlin ending the era launched by Gorbachev of a trusting and, for many years, friendly relationship with Moscow. Russia is also embarking on a new chapter. Thirty years ago, German reunification seemed to be not only a historic reconciliation, but also a guarantee of future friendly relations and close cooperation between two peoples and states. Now that, too, has become a thing of the past.

The present, meanwhile, is beginning to echo what had seemed to belong firmly in the past. The Russian side has expressed outrage, comparing Germany’s accusations to the 1933 arson attack on the Reichstag by the Nazis, which was at the time blamed on the Comintern and Moscow. The Kremlin is unlikely to take any drastic action immediately, but will from now on view Germany as being controlled by the United States. 

This will have consequences for the resolution of the Donbas conflict, as well as for the protracted standoff between protesters and the authorities in Belarus. The value of cooperating with Berlin and Paris on those issues—in either the Normandy format or bilaterally—is decreasing, while dialogue with Washington on Ukraine and Belarus has long been reduced to fierce admonishments and equally fierce rejoinders from both sides.

The situation is accordingly becoming both simpler and more risky: Russia no longer expects anything from Europe, and therefore does not feel obliged to take into account its opinion or interests. As for the United States, Russia has long been engaged in a zero-sum hybrid war with it, in which there are fewer and fewer inhibitive factors left.

The collapse of the special relationship between Russia and Germany is the latest and most serious in a series of blows to Russia’s position in Europe. In recent years, high-profile corruption scandals in various countries have eliminated leading politicians who were inclined to cooperate with Moscow: presidential candidates Dominique Strauss-Kahn and François Fillon in France, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria.

In other countries—Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Norway—Russian conspiracies or spies were exposed, leading to a cooling in relations with Russia. Finally, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the British city of Salisbury had a truly universal fallout.

The reaction in the West was strategic: a purge of enemy influence. As a result, there are hardly any states left in Europe whose authorities have a neutral or positive stance on Russia. Accordingly, Merkel’s decision to let the fate of Nord Stream 2 be decided at an EU level looks like a death sentence for the project.

Despite the scandals and other obstacles, the key interests of both Europe and Russia require coordination and cooperation. These periodic scandals don’t override those interests; they simply sometimes drown them out. For this reason, it’s vital to keep emotions in check, and take a broader view of the picture.

Everyone in the Euro-Atlantic region needs to remember that the Russo-German reconciliation is a vital pillar of European security: nothing short of a modern miracle, considering the rankling wound of Nazi aggression, the enormous scale of destruction, and the many millions of lives lost.

The return of Russo-German enmity will not strengthen NATO, as enhanced dangers of confrontation may bring new divisions. Germany may, perhaps, fulfill its obligation to increase defense spending more promptly, but that expenditure will not enhance Europe’s security amid faltering geopolitical restraint. Frontline countries will live up to their description. Nor is there any point in counting too much on external help, or on nuclear deterrence. The latter is only a guarantee of destruction, not of salvation. 

Russo-German relations have been deteriorating for nearly a decade now. It’s unrealistic to think they might be restored to a partnership in the foreseeable future, but there is still a chance to stop the relationship from descending into one of hostility.

To achieve that, Russia needs to dial down the public rhetoric, conduct a thorough investigation of what exactly happened to Navalny on Russian soil, and develop a detailed and well-argued position before discussing the issue at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

This position must be credible, above all for the Russian public. The approach of “we don’t know what happened, but we have a dozen versions of what might have happened” didn’t work in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the shooting down of MH17, or the Skripal poisoning, and it won’t work in the Navalny case either.

In terms of the relationship with Berlin, it would be better to take a time-out. Let the Germans decide for themselves whether or not they need another gas pipeline from Russia. 

After a while, the quest must be renewed to reach mutual understanding with Germany on a new basis: that of neighborly relations, predictability, and mutual benefit. For Moscow, the most important task right now in Europe is not to lose Belarus as it so incompetently lost Ukraine; not to allow Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to take Putin for a ride; and to make sure Putin does not miscalculate the Belarusian people—or, for that matter, the Russian people either.

This material is part of the “Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue” project supported by the EU Delegation to Russia.

(c) Carnegie Moscow Center

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