Russian Reset Redux: Time for Berlin and Washington to talk
Chancellor Merkel’s upcoming visit to Moscow is, as usual, a business trip concerning Russia and Germany. Nobody in Europe does more business with Russia than Germany and Moscow wants even more of it. What Moscow doesn’t want is criticism about its human rights record. And that is exactly what prominent member of the CDU Andrea Schockenhoff served up this week in Berlin. Schockenhoff is the official coordinator for German-Russian relations, but he managed to anger Vladimir Putin and his colleagues by saying that Germany ought to pay as much attention to the crackdown on human rights in Russia as it does on business relations between the two states. He even got the Bundestag to pass resolution affirming that criticism just as Merkel was set to leave for Moscow.
While Merkel and Putin may not get along as personal friends, there’s no doubt that there is a huge interest on both sides of that equation to maintain the economic relations that have been booming between Russia and Germany for some time now. The size and composition of the German delegation being sent to Russia is evidence enough of that fact. Wrapped around the annual so-called Petersburg discussions, Merkel’s message to Putin and the Russian public will have to reflect both interests and concerns in Russia’s future course.
Defenders of those relations in the business community will often refer back to the use of the tactic that was employed by West Germany in bridging the boundaries over the East-West divide 40 years ago. Confrontation was to be balanced by dialogue to achieve any sort of change. Efforts to encourage Russia to not only modernize economically but also politically are derived from that experience.
Yet there seems to be a growing impatience in Berlin with a recalcitrant Putin who wants to focus on only one side of that dialogue. This may be a sign of the generational change going on in German political circles. The more cautious leaders of the past are being replaced by younger voices that are less restrained in their criticism of Russian autocracy and corruption, yet also more aware and openly supportive of the strengthening forces of protest and democratic aspirations in Russia itself. They are less willing to cut the Moscow elite some slack in the name of stability and economic investments. Such a shift could trigger a reevaluation of how German policymakers approach Germany’s business relationship with Russia, a development sure to not go unnoticed across the Atlantic.
For policymakers in Washington, a question worth considering is how the evolving German relations and leverage with Russia can be connected to the next steps taken towards Moscow when it comes to U.S. policy objectives.
In comparison to the U.S., Germany looks at Russia with a different set of interests in mind. For Berlin, those interests involve a good chunk of their energy imports as well as a significant export relationship defined by roughly $87 billion worth of business every year. The U.S., on the other hand, looks at Russia with an eye on the future of Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and of course the continuing dialogue over arms reductions. But there is also rising concern, particularly in Congressional circles, about the human rights violations Schockenhoff addressed in Berlin.
Neither Merkel nor Obama can afford to delink the human rights violations from economic or geopolitical interests. Their respective domestic debates will keep that connection alive. The question Chancellor Merkel and President Obama now need to address is: can there be more coordination to pressure Putin to demonstrate cooperation on issues Washington and Berlin hold as priorities, while also maintaining a common position that calls Putin out for the abuses and repressions of democratic freedoms?
While Putin seek relations with a reelected President Obama − having called to congratulate him after the election and extended an invitation to visit Moscow − he also looks on Berlin as the most important partner in Europe. He needs things from both Washington and Berlin at a time when he faces increasing domestic criticism at home and abroad. The Russians stalling on Assad in Syria will whiplash whenever that’s tyrant is gone. And his economic platform is brittle as long as it is so dependent on oil and gas exports − the lifespan of which may begin to decline as new resources emerge in North America.
The German policy toward Russia has for years emphasized the need to send a message to Moscow that Russia can and should be part of Europe. The question for Putin is: what message is he prepared to return?
Andreas Schockenhoff’s message signed off by the Bundestag − was unequivocally that Putin’s abuses will prevent possibilities of the bilateral relationship from developing further. The U.S. message should not be less clear.
More information on Russian-German Relations and its impacts: