Germany’s Russia Policy: Comparative Perspectives and Consequences for Transatlantic Relations

German reactions to Russia’s annexation of Crimea under President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s support for separatism in eastern and southern Ukraine have resurrected suspicions and concern about the content and direction of German-Russian relations.  Questions are being asked as to whether “a new Berlin-Moscow axis” is about to develop[1] and whether Germany is “drifting away from the West” and keen to occupy a “middle position” between NATO and Russia.[2] Readers are told why Germans “admire” and “love” Russia.[3] Chancellor Angela Merkel is criticized as “a chancellor who—regardless of Germany’s participation in new sanctions […]—has spent much of her time since Russia’s annexation of Crimea waiting on the phone to Moscow for positive signals from Mr. Putin.”[4]

This line of argument sees alleged German anti-Americanism and pro-Russian attitudes as merely two sides of one and the same coin. Public opinion polls reflected the “pro-Russian” attitudes and their correlation with “anti-Americanism.”

Another major interpretation holds that the essence of German Ostpolitik, Russia policy included, is profit over principle; that German attitudes and policies were determined by economic interests; and that decisions by the government were but a response to pressures exerted by German industry and commerce. The Germans, moreover, were acutely conscious of their dependency on Russian natural gas and also for that reason did not want to make Putin cross.

The evidence advanced for such views, however, is quite selective, and the portrayal of poll results faulty. What is to follow is, in a first step, to present an assessment of the attitudes and policies of the German government, including the mainstream of the coalition parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the conservatives (CDU/CSU).

The second step looks at political parties, organizations, and public opinion leaders criticizing the government in its reactions to the crisis as too weak,” “not tough enough,” and inadequate to cope with what they see as a fundamental challenge by Russia to the established post-Cold War order.

In a third step, criticism and critics of the government from opposite perspectives will be analyzed, that is, the charges that the government exaggerated the challenge posed by Russia and that sanctions were the wrong way to deal with Russia.

A fourth step is an attempt to gauge the strength of the respective positions; their influence on future German government policy; and their likely impact on transatlantic relations.

German Government Perceptions and Policy

First and foremost, previous assumptions about a possible conflict between a “more realistic” approach to Russia by Chancellor Merkel and a more accommodating, appeasing, or “naïve” attitude by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have failed to come true. German government perceptions and policy on Russia are more coherent and consistent than might have been expected.

As for perceptions, in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Chancellor Merkel unequivocally stated that “Russia again is turning to the old thinking in spheres of influence. This is not in accord with the current [realities] of international cooperation and accommodation of interests formed since the end of the Cold War.” She called the “annexation of the Crimea contrary to international law” and chided Russia for the “destabilization of parts of Ukraine.” The German government “completely disagreed” with certain domestic developments in Russia. Furthermore, she averred that the crisis in Ukraine was about “values, specifically about the right of a country to freedom and self-determination and reliability of the legal order.”[5] In accordance with such views she has defended the utility of sanctions.

Steinmeier has been specific on that issue. He has clarified that sanctions should not be Selbstzweck, an end in itself, but should be applied as part of a strategy to increase pressure on Russia. Significantly, he asserted that “in our policy toward Iran, sanctions were an important element in order to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.” Yes, he admitted, sanctions could have a negative effect on the national economies of weaker European countries, but this was in the nature of things. “Whoever wants to take the road of economic sanctions must know that they will carry costs for us, too.”[6]

However, after the evidently quite inappropriate designation of Russia as a “strategic partner,” what was that country to be called now—a “strategic rival”? Or even an “adversary”?  To Merkel, the relationship with Russia was still, “despite severe differences of opinion, a close partnership that should be continued in the medium- and the long term.”[7]

What about policy? Based on the above classification of Russia as a partner, she did “not see the necessity of a completely new political approach.”  Bearing in mind that we lived in the globalized world of the twenty-first century, she had “no intention to return to the outdated structures of the nineteenth and twentieth century.” In other words, no policy of containment was to be pursued—also for the reason that, in her view, “the crisis in Ukraine cannot be solved militarily.” Equally consistently, she objected to the view that neither the war in Georgia nor the current crisis would have occurred if Georgia and Ukraine had been offered a membership action plan by NATO. “A country has to be ripe for accession to NATO. For me, a decisive role was played by [the fact that] in Ukraine itself there were, on that issue, deep divisions.”

Finally, she rejected calls for NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in view of the crisis, to increase defense expenditures. Skirting the fact that Germany, among most other European member countries, fails to meet the agreed-upon alliance target of 2 percent of the gross domestic product to be spent on defense, allocating only 1.3 percent, she stated that
Germany is “keeping its defense expenditures stable […] and will continue to do so in the framework of its medium-range financial planning.” She flatly ruled out the idea of reintroducing conscription in Germany. In any case, she continued, the principles of burden-sharing and intra-alliance cooperation, including such forms as surveillance of the Baltic air space, had to be separated from measures aimed at managing the crisis over Ukraine. In the latter case, above all, “diplomatic efforts count, such as those undertaken by the OSCE.”

“Hard-line” Perceptions—and Policy Prescriptions?

Rejection of the classification of Russia as a “partner,” let alone a “strategic partner,” predates Putin’s annexation of Crimea. One reason for the rejection is the postulated linkage between Russian domestic politics and foreign policy: “A country that does not want to have anything to do with democracy,” the advocates of a tougher view argue, “cannot be a partner for Germany.”[8]  A second reason concerns the foreign policy dimension per se. It is expressed in the conviction that “A country that wants to dominate [others] is incapable of being a partner.”[9]

Contrary to conventional wisdom, notably abroad, Russia’s image in Germany has fallen precipitously. Several times every year, pollsters commissioned by public German television ask the same question: “Do you consider Russia to be a trustworthy partner?” In November 2009, almost 40 percent of respondents still said that they did. Since then, consistently, that figure has gone downhill. In February 2014, it stood at 18 percent and in May of the same year it reached 14 percent; conversely, 81 percent thought that Russia was “not trustworthy.”[10] Equally contrary to international perceptions, 48 percent of Germans thought that the sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia after its intervention in Crimea were too weak; 34 percent considered them to be adequate; and only 18 percent too strong.[11]

What is the reason for the collapse of Russia’s image in Germany? First and foremost, public perceptions are very much shaped by national television, in Germany by the main public television corporations (ARD and ZDF) and the German-French channel (Arte). Putin’s turn away from the European model of development and toward a stridently anti-American and anti-Western stance, and his appeal to nationalist and chauvinist sentiment and his cooperation with the Orthodox Church as well as the extreme European Right for the defense of “traditional” Christian values, have extensively and, in this writer’s view, objectively been reported by their  Moscow correspondents. The same applies to the critical reports by the Moscow correspondents of the leading German newspapers and journals; Russia specialists at research institutes and university departments; the authoritative and prestigious Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde (DGO) and its journal Osteuropa; and the German political foundations active in Russia. With some exceptions, the members of the coalition parties support the government perspectives and policy on Russia. Finally, perhaps surprisingly for the uninitiated observer, some of the most outspoken critics of the Putin system and the Kremlin’s role in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus have been present and previous leaders of the Green party.

The Putin and Russland-Versteher

In view of the dominant narrative as outlined above and Russian tanks rumbling through the Crimea and along the eastern borders of Ukraine, the adherents of alternative interpretations are very much on the defensive. In what has become an increasingly vitriolic debate, with invectives being traded on both sides, the critics of the Putin system and policies have referred to their opponents as Putin-Versteher or, more broadly, Russland-Versteher, that is, people who not only, literally, claim to understand what Putin and Russia are all about but who show understanding and invariably find excuses and rationalizations for Russian arguments and actions.

The proponents of alternative viewpoints argue that the government exaggerated the challenge posed by Russia; Putin had been “demonized”; the annexation of the Crimea was not such a big deal; the United States, the EU, and NATO were at least in part to blame for the course of events; the West had promised not to expand NATO “one inch” eastward  of unified Germany but had reneged on its promise; Moscow’s proposals such as the establishment of a all-European system of security and a free-trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok had been turned down; concerning the current crisis, any “militarization” should be avoided; economic sanctions were ineffective, useless, or “counterproductive”; Russia had special interests in Ukraine and elsewhere on post-Soviet space that needed to be respected; Ukraine was not really a nation; the way out of the crisis lay not in the rupture of contacts but their continuation and the inclusion of Russia and representatives from eastern Ukraine in a process that would lead to the federalization of the country.

The camp of the Putin-Versteher is extremely diverse, and there are steep gradations as to the understanding they show for the Russian arguments and actions. It consists of previous SPD chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt; previous members of the SPD leadership such as Egon Bahr, Erhard Eppler, Klaus von Dohnanyi, und Matthias Platzeck as well as current leading members of the party, including the German government’s special representative for relations with Russia, Gernot Erler; the leadership and many rank and file of the extreme Left, the Linke; disgruntled anti-EU activists of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Freie Wähler; and the extreme Right, the NPD. Finally, they can be found among leading representatives of German Industry and Commerce, including the Ostausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft, and the Deutsch-Russische Forum, whose leadership and membership, too, harbors many industrialists and businessmen.

The main reason why views persist internationally of German accommodation and deference to Russia probably lies in the fact that the Putin-Versteher are the darlings of talk shows. It is precisely because of the fact that they represent alternative, at times outlandish, points of view that they continue to be invited.

Consequences for Transatlantic Relations

Germany’s Ostpolitik, including assumed or real Sonderbeziehungen (special relations) with Russia, have recurrently been a source of suspicion and concern in the United States. Whether or not the Ukrainian crisis will (1) lead to a deterioration of transatlantic ties, (2) essentially change nothing, or (3) serve to improve the relations hinges on two major factors. The first is the evolution of events in Ukraine. If separatism in eastern Ukraine can be contained, a further destabilization of the country prevented, Putin’s aim at its dismemberment (the Novorossiya project) defeated, and the new president and a new parliament and government in Kiev were to succeed in moving the country closer to the EU, much of the criticism of Merkel’s alleged “embarrassing weakness of leadership” and Berlin “being governed by the industrial complex” would largely evaporate.[12] Relations could even get better. This could also be the result because the Ukrainian crisis appears to have reminded many Europeans, including Germans, that without U.S. military power, Russian challenges to European security cannot be met.

Second, the future direction of transatlantic relations depends on United States domestic politics. There is good reason to believe that the neo-conservatives’ attacks on President Barack Obama for his “shameful” inaction in the Ukrainian crisis and proposals such as sending arms to the Ukrainian military and expanding NATO to include Georgia have more to do with U.S. electoral politics and posturing than with U.S. foreign policy. At present, the policies of the Obama administration and the Merkel-Steinmeier government toward Russia are fairly similar. If U.S. policies were to change toward a more confrontationist or containment approach, trouble in the transatlantic relationship would be brewing.

Dr. Hannes Adomeit was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in April and May 2014. 


[1] Jacob Heilbrunn, “Why Germany Admires Russia,” The National Interest, 6 May 2014,  http://nationalinterest.org/blog/jacob-heilbrunn/why-germany-admires-putin-10385. Heilbrunn is senior editor of the journal.

[2] Clemens Wergin, “Why Germans Love Russia,” New York Times, 6 May 2014. Wergin is the foreign editor of the German newspaper group Die Welt.

[3] See the preceding two footnotes.

[4] John Vinocur, “The Chancellor’s Choice,” Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB40001424052702303939404579529341282445718 .

[5]“Russland wendet sich wieder altem Denken zu,” interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 May 2014, p. 3.

[6] “Außenminister Steinmeier weist Kritik an seiner Ukraine- und Russland-Politik zurück,” Presseportal.de, 16 May 2014, http://www.presseportal.de/pm/110133/2739101/thueringische-landeszeitung-vorab-meldung-aussenminister-steinmeier-weist-kritik-an-seiner-ukraine.

[7] “Russland wendet sich wieder altem Denken zu,” op.cit. [fn. 5]; subsequent Merkel quotes ibid.

[8] This is the argument made by Marieluise Beck, “Russland ist kein Partner für uns — Grünen-Politikerin verurteilt Vorgehen gegen Opposition,” Radio interview, Deutschlandradio Kultur, 23 April 2007, http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/beck-russland-ist-kein-partner-fuer-uns.1008.de.html?dram:article_id=161049. Beck is one of the leading politicians of the Greens and an active participant in German-Russian civil society activities.

[9] This is the view expressed by General (ret.) Klaus Naumann, “Warum Putin kein Partner sein kann, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14 March 2012, p. 2, as applied to the NATO-Russia relationship. Naumann was Generalinspekteur, the highest ranking officer of the federal German armed forces, from 1991 until 1996, and chairman of NATO’s military committee from 1996-1999.

[10] For analysis of the data until February 2014 see Hannes Adomeit, “Collapse of Russia’s Image in Germany: Who Is to Blame?” Carnegie Moscow Center, Eurasia Outlook, 18 February 2014, http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=54540; for the period until May 2014 see ARD-Deutschlandtrend, Vertrauenswürdige Partner Deutschlands, http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend2238.pdf.

[11] “Meinungsumfrage vor der Europawahl,” http://www.harrisinteractive.de/aktuelles/news-und-presse/alle-news/meinungsumfrage-vor-der-europawahl.html. The poll was conducted by Harris Interactive in five European countries between April 23 and 28.

[12] Senator John McCain shortly before Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington on May 2, 2014.  If he were to meet her, McCain said, “I would tell her that I am not surprised but embarrassed at their failure of leadership. They’re the leaders, they’re being governed by the industrial complex from Germany.” “The NSA shadow over President Obama’s Ukraine discussion with Angela Merkel,” Eurojournal, No. 2 (May 2014), http://euro-journal.tumblr.com/.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.