Why Germany’s relationship with Putin’s Russia is a problem for Ukraine

UkraineAlert by John Lough

July 9. 2021

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 12 July, they will find plenty of common ground in their analysis of Russia. German-Russian ties have deteriorated sharply over the past year after Merkel offered medical treatment to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Berlin’s revelation that he had been poisoned with novichok provoked a furious response from Moscow.

This occurred against a background of earlier cyberattacks on the German parliament along with the country’s foreign and defense ministries, and the murder of a fugitive Chechen in a Berlin park by an individual connected to Russian military intelligence.

Merkel had earlier demonstrated considerable courage in 2014 when she led the EU’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its establishment of separatist regimes in eastern Ukraine. Outraged by Moscow’s disregard for international law and its willingness to risk the wider destabilization of Europe, she built consensus both in Germany and the EU for sanctions against Russia.

This relatively uncompromising stance represented a dramatic shift in Germany’s policy towards Russia, which for years had remained in denial about the course that Russia was taking after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. 

As a relatively young German-speaking Russian leader, Putin seduced German policymakers into believing that Russia saw its future in close cooperation with Europe based on common values and aspirations. The friendship between Putin and Gerhard Schroeder symbolized this new level of relations that German diplomats described as the best for 100 years.

In the early years of her chancellorship, Merkel largely stuck to the Russia policy of her predecessor, although she was not shy of meeting with opposition leaders and maintained a detached personal relationship from Putin himself, despite their frequent meetings and telephone calls.

Left largely alone by the Obama administration to manage the situation in Ukraine in 2014, Merkel was instrumental in initiating the Minsk peace process aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the poorly drafted Minsk agreements led to predictably few results. Crucially, Berlin never officially challenged Moscow’s claim to be a facilitator of peace when it was, in fact, a party to the conflict.

Nevertheless, EU sanctions remained in place and much of German business resigned itself to the fact that political interests trumped economic gain in relations with Russia. From the early 1990s up to 2014, Germany consistently argued that the expansion of economic relations with Russia would contribute to modernizing its institutions and improving rule of law.

The reality was quite different. Russia developed its own brand of crony capitalism that strangled political and economic competition and relied on compliant prosecutors and judges to enforce its will. Instead of modernizing its institutions, it poured money into upgrading its army and security forces.

German policymakers were so lost in wishful thinking that they missed the warning signs in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and signaled that certain countries in its “privileged zone of interests” must keep their distance from NATO or face the consequences. 

By 2013, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych toyed with signing an Association Agreement with the EU, it was clear that Moscow saw Ukraine’s closer alignment with Europe as intolerable. Despite Russia’s increasing pressure on Yanukovych, Germany closed its eyes and failed to intervene to defuse the growing crisis.

If the German political class today has fewer illusions about Russia, many of its reflexes have remained. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is a monument to Germany’s undimmed desire to use economic relations as a tool to stabilize Europe’s ties with Moscow and to prevent Russia’s isolation. Although Merkel is believed to have privately hoped that the pipeline was in breach of EU competition law and would not go ahead, she has made no effort to stand in its way.

Merkel has belatedly accepted that Nord Stream 2 is not just a commercial project, and the German government is now trying to agree a formula with the US that will incentivize Russia to continue the transit of gas through Ukraine and limit the Kremlin’s ability to use the pipeline for geopolitical purposes.

Germany’s instincts towards Russia are shaped in large measure by the contradictory and violent history between the two countries in the twentieth century. Germany fears Russia but admires it at the same time. It senses that Europe is incomplete without Russia firmly anchored within it, but cannot reconcile itself to the fact that today’s version of Russia is not compatible with today’s Europe.

At the same time, Germany tries to avoid confrontation and struggles to resist aggressive Russian behavior. It cannot countenance supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine. Its historical narrative about “the east” gives little space to the Belarusian and Ukrainian lands, a reflection of its discomfort with the murderous devastation carried out there by Hitler’s armies. Instead, Germany transfers its sense of guilt about Nazi crimes inflicted on the peoples of the USSR exclusively to modern Russia. Its academic expertise on Belarus and Ukraine is strikingly underdeveloped compared to that on Russia.

With her East German background, Merkel has a clear understanding of Russia and is far from indifferent to Ukraine. For all her limitations, she has provided vital support to Kyiv since 2014. Her successor is unlikely to bring the same insight and confidence to dealing with Germany’s eastern neighborhood.

John Lough is an Associate Fellow with the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. His new book Germany’s Russia Problem appears on 13 July.

6 comments

  • Atlantic is a friend of Ukraine. Some decent analysis here, but as befitting a left-leaning site, Atlantic takes a far too benign position on Germany. In reality Germany is a terrible enemy of Ukraine and has strived, with France, to promote the interests of putlerstan. Stasi Merkel feels no compassion for Ukraine and has no sense of guilt for the savagery her vile country inflicted upon it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Worse than what Merkel did to Ukraine in 2014 was what Obama didn’t do, which was nothing. I doubt we could get much better from Biden. Despite all Biden’s past foreign policy mistakes, he’s still been known for foreign policy experience. It well could have been Biden’s call in 2014 to stand down while the Little Green Men took Crimea. Not to mention Obama had only been in the Senate for 2 years before announcing his run for president.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I read somewhere that Obama delegated the response to Crimea to Stasi Merkel, instead of taking the lead and putting together an action plan with the other Budapest signatory, as John McCain would have.
        Having said that, Dubya, who I rather like, also did the same thing to Georgia. A filthy, stinking criminal putlerite was delegated to ‘negotiate’ with putler. Sarkozy promptly gave 20% of Georgia to putler and incredibly; produced an EU report that blamed Georgia for starting a war! How the fuck it could do that without leaving its own territory is an absurd mystery. As if a tiny country like Georgia would attack a giant fascist state!
        Yet this is the narrative, which one of putler’s top shills in the UK; Peter Hitchens, continues to reference to this day.

        Liked by 3 people

  • “Outraged by Moscow’s disregard for international law and its willingness to risk the wider destabilization of Europe, she built consensus both in Germany and the EU for sanctions against Russia.”
    I think the following amendments would make the above sentence far more accurate:
    “Indifferent to Moscow’s disregard for international law and its willingness to risk the wider destabilization of Europe, she built consensus both in Germany and the EU to ensure that the sanctions against Russia were completely useless”.
    I think the corpulent Stasi quisling (and her likely successor) have a deal with the nazi rodent: “do whatever the fuck you want to Ukraine and Georgia, we literally don’t give a fuck. Just make sure our existing business arrangements remain intact”.
    Germany remains far and away putlerstan’s biggest investor. Heartless, soulless bastards.

    Liked by 3 people

  • onlyfactsplease

    This article reflects Germany’s complete political foolishness in dealing with mafia land. But, this is of no surprise. Germany’s gang of politicians are also complete political fools when it comes to other European affairs and in particular when it comes to internal matters. It will forever remain a mystery to me how an entire nation – a Western, supposedly free and democratic one – would tolerate such gross incompetence and this for so many years. Opening the borders for masses of third-world parasites should have spelled the end of the fat muslima’s political career. More, it should have brought her a prison term. It didn’t. She is still sitting on the chancellor’s chair with her fat ass. Putting a female gynecologist with zero military experience in office as the country’s defense minister should have upset each and every conservative voter. It didn’t. The result is a military joke. There are many other negative examples where this absurd government has acted like bloody beginners and which caused tremendous damage to internal and external affairs.
    After mafia land’s complete rejection of a number of international treaties, stealing Crimea and starting a war in Ukraine and murdering opponents across Europe, hacking and interfering in other countries at every opportunity and endangering crews on navy ships and aircraft whenever a chance presented itself, Germany still hasn’t awakened to the fact that mafia land under the runt’s reign is NOT what Europe needs. As a matter of fact, it is upset by the way certain countries act against the crime syndicate.
    The affairs of Liili-putin’s mafia land have made it is more than clear enough that Germany is NOT the political giant of Europe, where foresight, wisdom, sound judgment, integrity and courage are paramount. Instead, it has proven to have merely the biggest mouth and the biggest pocketbook and those are poor credentials for guaranteeing a successful foreign policy when dealing with a trash country like mafia land.
    It is a sad thought, knowing that there is a second Adolf Hitler in Europe but no Churchill to counter him. I don’t want to downplay Poland and the Baltics, but they simply don’t have the necessary weight to be major factors.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.