Merkel faces Russia: Dialogue with limited results
Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this fourth episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Center) argues that Merkel has kept communication channels with Vladimir Putin open but without real results: “Germany’s relations with Russia are now more adversarial than they have been for a very long time.”
When Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, German-Russian relations were at their post-Cold War peak. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had arguably become the Western leader with the closest ties to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, whom he described as a “flawless democrat”.1
It was during Schröder’s tenure in October 2001 that Putin gave a speech in the German Bundestag in which he proclaimed Russia’s European vocation. Tellingly, Putin gave the entire speech in German. This gesture was followed up by a series of practical measures designed to bring Russia and Europe closer together, including setting up cross-ownership of Russia’s material resources and Germany’s industrial assets.
A year and a half after Putin’s Bundestag speech, Germany and Russia, together with France, even formed a so-called ‘new entente’ to demonstrate their shared opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. This inevitably raised concerns in Washington D.C., whose policymakers have always remained suspicious of anything that smacked of a ‘special relationship’ between Germany and Russia.
Now, as Merkel is set to leave office after 16 years, relations between Berlin and Moscow are at their lowest point post-Cold War. Admittedly, this is not all her fault. Domestic changes within both Russia and Germany; NATO and EU enlargement to the east; successive US administrations’ foreign policies and the resultant fluctuations in US-Russia relations; and military conflicts and/or political crises in Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia have all had a decisive impact on the state of relations between the Bundeskanzleramt and the Kremlin.
Yet, Merkel’s handling of that evolving relationship has undoubtedly been a key factor. Her successor would do well to seriously evaluate Merkel’s policies vis-à-vis Moscow. Although no longer crucial to the fate of Europe, the German-Russian relationship is still important, and remains the chancellor’s responsibility.
Merkel’s rich but mixed record
Seen from a Russian perspective, Merkel’s record is rich but mixed. The fundamental reality is this: under Merkel’s leadership German foreign policy has become firmly embedded in collective policy-making within the NATO alliance (read: following the US’s guidance) and the European Union (read: taking account of the interests of the new members of the EU).
To formulate it differently: Germany is now even less free to take on foreign and security initiatives than it was during the 16 years that have elapsed between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification, and Merkel’s arrival at the Chancellery.
One reason for Germany’s self-constraint may be that Merkel – as a former East German citizen, an ex-member of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR’s) communist youth organisation, and a fluent Russian speaker – has always had to prove her total commitment to NATO and the United States. In that sense, Merkel has made a serious contribution to Germany’s Atlanticism and European integration.
The trade-off also required Berlin to limit its own freedom of manoeuvre which had been so carefully crafted by her predecessors, starting with Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s. Merkel has accomplished this feat with flying colours: during Donald Trump’s troubled US presidency, she was informally lauded as the ad interim leader of the Western liberal world2 , a title she gave back to Washington after the inauguration of Joe Biden.
There are, of course, two sides to the German-Russian story. During the last decade and a half, Russia has abandoned its quest to integrate itself into ‘the West’, a futile process that began with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Over the years, the Kremlin has understood that ‘the special privileged terms’ were not on offer from the West, while Russia never accepted American claims to global leadership.
In 2007, Putin made his other famous speech – this time in Russian – on German soil (and in Merkel’s presence) at the Munich Security Conference, lashing out at American global hegemony.3 After the war in Georgia (in 2008) and the Ukraine conflict (since 2014), Russia has pivoted away from the West and turned not so much to Asia/China, as to itself.
The partnership between both countries that was born at the time of German reunification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has fizzled out
Today, Russia is guided by the image of a self-sustained Great Power in the north of the Eurasian continent. Putin, a German-speaking former KGB officer hailing from St. Petersburg, once called “a German in the Kremlin” offering German business audiences the prospect of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, has turned himself into the standard bearer of a new, Russian Wiedergeburt. Today, Russia sees itself as a ‘solitary Great Power’ founded on a separate civilisation, distinct from the Western one.
Against this general background, the scope for strengthening German-Russian ties has severely narrowed since the 1990s. The partnership between both countries that was born at the time of German reunification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has fizzled out. Its last gasp was the EU-Russian ‘Partnership for Modernisation’ of June 2010, ushered in after the famous US-Russian ‘reset’ in February 2009.
By 2011, Merkel made it clear that Russia’s modernisation should also include a political dimension, with the ultimate aim of turning the Russian regime closer to the current European model. Merkel pinned her hopes on then-president of Russia Dmitry Medvedev and even publicly called him “her candidate” in the presidential elections that were scheduled the following year.4 It was little surprise that Putin, who decided to return to the Kremlin in 2012, resented such overt German interference.
What happened next?
In the difficult decade that followed, Merkel has been credited with keeping the communication channel with Putin open. This is true, but it is also true that the tangible results from this top-level dialogue have been limited.
For example, the conflict-settlement agreement produced by the tripartite German-French-Polish mediation in Kiev in the heady days of February 2014, was dismissed by the Maidan radicals – and this dismissal was accepted by Berlin and the other two capitals. Such connivance with those who the Kremlin accused of being the leaders of a coup has resulted in a lasting breach of trust in Germany, at least from a Russian perspective.
The Kremlin was equally surprised by Merkel’s strong, negative reaction to the referendum in Crimea on joining Russia in March 2014. In the eyes of Russian leaders, this showed a total lack of gratitude for Gorbachev’s historic acceptance of Germany’s reunification – complete with subsequent German NATO membership.
Russian complaints of German ungratefulness fell on deaf ears: Merkel publicly complained about Putin living “in another world”5 , suggesting that the Russian president was essentially lying to her regarding Moscow’s real intentions and actions vis-à-vis Ukraine. By that time Putin had realised that his hopes for Merkel understanding (and ultimately agreeing with) his Ukraine policies were unfounded.
Yet, even in this atmosphere of mounting mutual distrust, contact was not lost, and even produced some results. For example, Chancellor Merkel – together with French president François Hollande – was instrumental in hammering out a deal in Minsk in September 2014, which effectively halted severe armed conflict in Donbass and offered a pathway to a peace settlement in the region.
However, implementing the follow-up Minsk-II accords of February 2015, in which Merkel had personally invested so much, turned out to be virtually impossible for the German-French tandem. Essentially, this was because the Ukrainian leadership never fully trusted the Europeans, or saw them as its principal mentors, beholden as it was to the United States.
Merkel has long been critical of Russia’s domestic politics, in tune with the prevailing negative attitudes in the German media
Kiev never warmed to the Minsk agreement, which was signed from a position of weakness when the Ukrainian military was being decimated. Ukrainian nationalists even called it an “act of high treason”.6
Despite Kiev’s lacklustre commitment to the Minsk agreement, Berlin has consistently supported Ukraine’s policies, and initiated numerous EU sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea and Donbass which upended Europe’s post-Cold War order. The only area where Merkel – supported by France – always expressed strong reservations was the issue of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, which both Berlin and Paris still consider too dangerous given Moscow’s likely reaction.
Merkel has long been critical of Russia’s domestic politics, in tune with the prevailing negative attitudes in the German media. It was probably her active and personal engagement in the case of Alexei Navalny in 2020 that gave the coup de grâce to three decades of deteriorating German-Russian relations.
In August 2020, Kremlin critic Navalny ended up in Berlin’s Charité hospital, where he had been evacuated for emergency treatment after being poisoned in Siberia. At the hospital, Navalny received a visit by Merkel, who backed the Bundeswehr laboratory finding that he had indeed been poisoned with a nerve gas agent. To the Kremlin, this episode was the breaking point. As a result, Berlin finally ceased to be Moscow’s privileged political interlocutor in Europe.
German-Russian relations today
In June 2021, Merkel’s surprise attempt to organise an EU-Russia summit (together with French president Emmanuel Macron) – set to follow the Putin-Biden meeting – fell flat due to the opposition of East European leaders. To Moscow it was now crystal clear that Germany no longer had national flexibility in how to deal with Russia, but that the key decisions were made within NATO and the EU.
This not only applied to a major Russian concern like Ukraine, but also to the future of arms control where Germany had failed to raise its voice in support for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. These both squarely belonged in the sphere of US-Russian relations.
Energy remains one area where Germany continues to rely – for now – on imports from Russia
With German-Russian relations thus largely shorn of geopolitical and ‘hard security’ issues, a reality which Merkel’s successor will not change, future bilateral cooperation is due to focus on affairs such as trade (particularly energy), tackling climate change, and coping with the COVID-19 crisis.
Here Merkel’s attitude towards the contentious Nord Stream II gas pipeline project is telling and, to Russia, in a rather positive manner. While critical of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies, and sensitive to the fears and concerns of her East European neighbours, Chancellor Merkel has demonstrated her tenacity and stamina in defending Germany’s business interests. Eventually, she managed to get President Joe Biden to reach a compromise deal with her on the pipeline.7
True, Germany’s trade with Russia is now less important to Berlin than it has been for more than a century. Still, energy remains one area where Germany continues to rely – for now – on imports from Russia.
Despite domestic political pressure and equally harsh criticism from her European counterparts, Merkel has stood firm and managed to recalibrate the Nord Stream issue into a transatlantic concern. This was subject to negotiations with Germany’s main ally, the US, which has deflected criticism away from Berlin and bought Merkel time to finish the project.
Merkel’s transformative legacy
To sum up, Merkel’s legacy in the area of German-Russian relations has been truly transformative. Under Merkel’s guidance, Germany has experienced a generational change where policymakers who remembered World War II, who were active during the Cold War, and who were focused on relations with Moscow for the sake of German unity and European security, have gradually left the political stage.
Today, Germany’s new generation has a different agenda, focused on economic and financial matters, technology and climate change, and ideology and values. To this new generation of German politicians, Russia has become a matter of secondary concern, and relations with Russia have moved far down Berlin’s policy-agenda.
More worryingly, Germany’s relations with Russia are now more adversarial than they have been for a very long time. They are marked by a sincere lack of trust and are thus at best pragmatic and mostly transactional.
Yet, even if ‘hard security’ no longer dominates the German-Russian agenda, this bilateral relationship should be considered of central importance to both countries. Merkel’s successor will inherit not just Nord Stream II but also the legacy of personal contacts with the Kremlin leader. While there is still uncertainty about the new chancellor’s name and the composition of the new coalition government, one might hope and expect that Germany’s new leadership will deal responsibly with both issues.
Finally, there is an issue in this defunct German-Russian partnership that remains central to all Russians, and that needs to be absolutely preserved by Merkel’s successor: the historical reconciliation between Russians and Germans following World War II. This is no small miracle, as the reconciliation after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that claimed over 26 million Soviet lives was achieved outside of any alliance structure or any EU integration project. If that is lost, all is lost.
- 1‘Gerhard Schroeder’s Dangerous Liaison’, Der Spiegel, 1 December 2004.
- 2Sunny Hundal, ‘Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world, not Donald Trump’, The Independent, 1 February 2017.
- 3Vladimir Putin, 'Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy', February 2007.
- 4John Vinocur, 'Merkel is Dancing With a Bear', The New York Times, July 2011; David Cadier and Margot Light, Russia's Foreign Policy: Ideas, Domestic Politics and External Relations, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015, p. 30-41.
- 5Marvin Kalb, ‘Is Putin in “Another World?”’, Brookings, 4 March 2014.
- 6‘Russialink: “Calling Minsk Agreements treason will deal blow to Zelensky, entire Normandy format – Poroshenko’s lawyer”’, Interfax, 12 December 2019.
- 7Amanda Macias, ‘U.S., Germany strike a deal to allow completion of controversial Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline’, CNBC, July 2021.