German Leadership toward Russia and the Challenge of Transatlantic Unity

On December 12, 2015, AICGS hosted a seminar with DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow Liana Fix, who presented her research on “German Leadership toward Russia and the Challenge of Transatlantic Unity.”

Germany’s leadership role during the Ukraine conflict and its principled normative stance toward Russia has been a surprise to many observers in Europe and the U.S. In a similar crisis situation, during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Germany left the leadership role to France.  Germany is also not known to be a traditional player in foreign and security policy within the European Union. Although surprising, Germany’s leadership role was highly appreciated and welcomed by the United States.

Based on interviews with experts and government officials in Washington, Ms. Fix elaborated on the differences and similarities of the U.S. and German approaches toward Russia during the Ukraine conflict and discussed perspectives for transatlantic unity, in particular in sanctions policy, in the short to mid-term future. While Germany and U.S. came from different points of departure in their general approaches toward Russia in terms of geographical proximity, historical baggage, and economic ties before the unfolding of the Ukraine crisis, they shared a common disillusionment about failed rapprochement processes with Russia after the return of Vladimir Putin to presidency (the U.S. “reset” on the on the one hand and Germany’s “Modernisation Partnership” on the other).

Despite initial differences in reactions to the Euromaidan protests, where Germany took a more restrained position than the U.S. State Department and left mediation efforts to the European Union until the escalation of violence in February 2014, the approaches of Germany and the United States grew gradually closer throughout the development of the conflict. Both Merkel and Obama adopted a tri-part approach where both countries shared the aspects of strengthening Ukraine and imposing sanctions. Germany, however, put a stronger emphasis on facilitating dialogue with Russia as a third aspect, in particular through the trilateral contact group under the auspices of the OSCE and the Normandy-format, while the U.S. approach included strengthening the eastern NATO allies. This difference in approaches is also partly a result of the different lessons drawn from the end of the Cold War, in which détente and dialogue takes an important role for Germany and strength and deterrence for the U.S.

In particular, the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014 brought European and U.S. positions on sanctions policy together and led to the adoption of European economic sanctions against Russia. Since then, the majority of sanctions has come into force in coordination with the United States. One of the biggest challenges to transatlantic unity was the question of weapons deliveries to Ukraine, which resurfaced at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015. Against the majority of the U.S. administration’s view, Obama sided with the German chancellor, who argued against weapons deliveries to Ukraine during her visit to Washington on February 9, and thereby maintained transatlantic unity.

In sum, German and U.S. positions have converged throughout the conflict, with the U.S. administration, despite internal disagreements, moving closer toward Germany’s position on the important question of weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Leadership during the Ukraine conflict was therefore not only “outsourced” to Germany by the United States, but Germany had an active role in taking on and shaping its leadership role within Europe and toward the U.S.

Examining the factors that can undermine transatlantic unity for the future, Ms. Fix focused in particular on domestic developments in Germany and the U.S. as well as dynamics within the European Union.

She presented three possible scenarios for transatlantic unity in sanctions policy throughout 2016 and 2017, when elections both in the U.S. and Germany will take place. The first scenario, “Last Woman Standing,” suggests that the German chancellor (together with the governments of Poland and the Baltic States) becomes isolated within the EU on its position to link the lifting of sanctions to the full implementation of the Minsk II agreement, which was adopted as common EU position in March 2015. This can happen against the backdrop of a general shift in the political climate, resulting, among others, from improvements on the ground in eastern Ukraine, the need of cooperation with Russia on Syria against possible further terrorist threats, the temptation for some EU member states to challenge the European consensus for domestic economic purposes, or a change within the German domestic public opinion. Although the German public supports sanctions, the debate on sanctions has not been finally laid to rest, especially from parts of the German business elite. Nevertheless, Germany is not likely to be the weak link in transatlantic policy due to the fundamental loss of trust toward Russia on all levels, which represents a fundamental paradigm shift in Germany’s Russia policy.

The “Trump Wild Card” scenario suggests a change in U.S. policy toward Russia after the election in 2016, either toward a man-to-man friendship in the case of a successful Trump candidacy (however unlikely) or toward a more assertive stance in case of most other Republican candidates, since Russia is the lowest hanging fruit to win foreign policy approval points from the American public. In this case, it would be particularly Germany’s responsibility to avoid a rift within the European Union, as happened in 2003 with the Iraq war, and to keep the European Union together, avoiding that Russia-critical member states follow the assertive positions of the U.S.

Finally, the “Status Quo” scenario suggests that both Germany and the United States maintain their current positions toward Russia. While at first glance a positive outlook, the adherence to Minsk II as the “only game in town” risks losing sight of the bigger challenge: The test for German leadership and transatlantic policy will be what else can be done if the Minsk II process does not lead to conflict resolution and eastern Ukraine becomes another micro-managed more or less “frozen” conflict in the European neighborhood.

December 15, 2015