Germany-Russia: from 'strategic partnership' to alienation

After the unification of Germany hopes were high that a new phase of cooperation between the Bundesrepublik and Russia would start. But in stead of the hoped for strategic partnership relations quickly soured. Why did the dreams not come true? Russia says the West is guilty as it refused the open hand offered. But according to analyst Hannes Adomeit Russia already during Yeltsin's reign refused cooperation as it didnot fit in to its security strategy.  A ‘patriotic consensus’ was born that stressed the Eurasian character of Russia. It appeared a game changer and was corroborated by the Putin system. 

by Hannes Adomeit

How did it come about that all the hopes and expectations associated with the Moscow Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany and the Paris Charter for a New Europe, signed in 1990, have been shattered and why the vision of a German-Russian ‘strategic partnership’ and its corollary, the ‘modernization partnership’, failed to come to fruition? Is the crisis in the relations between Berlin and Moscow unintended collateral damage of the demise of Russian-American relations or are there other reasons for it?

How accurate is the narrative spread by the Kremlin and its supporters that Russia stretched out its hand to the West, including Germany, but that it had arrogantly been pushed aside? How important was NATO's eastward enlargement for the downturn in the relationship? And finally, what possibilities are there to bring about a fundamental and sustainable improvement in the German-Russian relationship, and would it be feasible to return to the Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and its architect Egon Bahr, and the détente policies of the 1970s?

Bahr Brandt Moskau 1988 Foto JH Darchinger Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Gorbachev (left), Brandt (m) and Bahr (r) in Moscow, 1988. Dutch socialist politician Pronk next to Bahr. Picture Friedrich Ebertstiftung.

Answers to these questions can be found primarily in the development of Russian domestic politics. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, president Boris Yeltsin, with Andrey Kozyrev as foreign minister, initially adhered to the principles of Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking (novoe politicheskoe myshlenie) and the Common House of Europe (Evropa, nash obshchiy dom). In the foreign policy practice of the New Russia this meant a firmly set course towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

In Russian military doctrine, the traditional precedence of strategic offense over defence was abandoned. Armament policies were conducted in due consideration of international conditions and what the country ‘reasonably’ could afford (razumnaya dostatochnost ’). In relations with the newly independent countries the principle of Freedom of Choice (svoboda vybora) continued to be applied. Russia was to develop towards a democratic, liberal and pluralistic system (demokratizatsiya), a market economy with fair competition (perestroyka) and an open society (glasnost).

However, Kozyrev’s European and Euro-Atlantic orientation came under massive domestic pressure as early as 1992. A ‘patriotic consensus’ began to be formed that stressed the ‘Euro-Asian’ or Eurasian quality of Russia. The development of the Russian governmental system did not, as the West had hoped, follow transformation processes towards democracy, market economy with fair competition, the rule of law and civil society but led to the restoration of old thinking and the construction of a system sui generis, the Putin system.

In this system, the ideological glue of Marxism-Leninism was removed but essential structural elements of the Soviet system were reintroduced. The return to thinking in terms of power politics, spheres of influence, the correlation of forces and power vacuums, as well as the image of the Euro-Atlantic world with NATO as a perennially hostile spearhead against Russia ultimately had to lead to nothing but the frustration of Germany's hopes and expectations for the establishment of a ‘strategic partnership’ with the country.

Concept of  ‘Strategic Partnership’

The basis for the building of a solid partnership was what came to be known in Western political science circles as ‘transformation theory’. Its idea was that the transition of Soviet-type authoritarian and centralist systems with a command economy to democracy, a market economy and civil society would proceed more or less the same way in all post-communist countries, including Russia. After a phase of dissolution of the centralist command structures and contraction of the economy, new and more efficient institutions would be created and the economy would move forward again.

In satellite countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary as well as the former republics of the Soviet Union, like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, these transformation processes were completed relatively quickly. Ofcourse this would take longer in Russia, because of the tsarist and Soviet heritage, but common wisdom held it that this course was predetermined.

German policy makers by and large subscribed to such ideas and expanded them by concepts that underlay the Ostpolitik of the social democratic party (SPD) such as bringing about changes in Russia’s domestic and foreign policy by ever closer relations (Wandel durch Annäherung), an expansion of trade and economic exchanges (Wandel durch Handel) and constructing transnational networks of people and interlocking institutions (Verflechtung). In accordance with integration theories, it was assumed that ‘spillover’ effects would be created from ‘low politics’ and economic and social levels to the ‘higher’ levels of the system of government.

Jeltsin Kohl 1994 Auteurl
President Yeltsin and chanchelor Kohl in Berlin, 1994. Picture Bundesamt

On the basis of these ideas Germany continuously offered the Russia of both Yeltsin and Putin close partnership and extensive cooperation. This approach was put into practice in the framework of the EU-Russia Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), signed in June 1994 and implemented in December 1997. The best summary, however, of both the theoretical foundation and the practical measures for the development of German-Russian relations can be found in the European Union's Common Strategy on Russia, adopted in June 1999 at the EU summit conference in Cologne.

The document clearly bears a German signature. The main reasons were that Germany at that time chaired the European Council and, more broadly, that EU's policy on Russia, before the accession of the Central Eastern European countries, essentially followed German ideas and guidelines.

EU-strategy: 'Offering a solid partnership based on shared democratic values ​​will help Russia maintain its European identity and open up new opportunities for everyone on the continent'

The European Council adopted this Common Strategy ‘to strengthen the strategic partnership [sic] between the Union and Russia at the dawn of a new century. The European Council recognises that the future of Russia is an essential element in the future of the continent and constitutes a strategic interest for the European Union. Offering a solid partnership based on shared democratic values ​​will help Russia maintain its European identity and open up new opportunities for everyone on the continent.’

Interestingly enough the EU here portrays the ‘strategic partnership’ not as a distant vision but as an established fact – which failed to take into account current and future Russian realities. This is true also for the Council’s idea about enlargement of the EU. The ‘advantages and opportunities’ for all of Europe, it asserts, would ‘expand with the enlargement of the EU’. Whereas this may have been a fair statement in principle, it failed to reckon with current and subsequent Russian realities.

However, these optimistic formulations are followed by a comprehensive, extraordinarily detailed enumeration of possible joint projects and programmes like ‘consolidating the economic reform process’, ‘strengthening the rule of law and state institutions’, ‘integrating Russia into a larger area of economic cooperation’ and ‘strengthening civil society’. The gist of the proposals for partnership is clear: transformation processes should be 'bottom up’ and horizontally by means of close social and economic cooperation, with the EU and individual member states providing adequate financing. This approach produced significant results at least in the German-Russian relationship.

The EU portrayed the partnership as an established fact – which failed to take into account current and future Russian realities.

Interim results

In the one and a half decade after the adoption of the Common Strategy contacts between Germany and Russia at political, economic and social level were considerably broad and dense. Bilateral Regierungskonsultationen were held annually, in which the representatives of the most important ministries and offices took part. Apart from the embassy in Moscow, Germany maintained consulates in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk. Officials and officers from the ministries on both sides took part in numerous bilateral conferences and discussion forums, including the Petersburg Dialogue under the auspices of the German chancellery and the Russian president and the annual Dialogue with Russian Generals of the general staff organized by the German Institute for International Politics and Security (SWP) in cooperation with the German defence ministry.

Concerning ​​economic cooperation, Germany initiated an intergovernmental Strategic Working Group for Economics and Finance (SAG) to foster investment projects. German-Russian trade and economic cooperation was substantially advanced by the influential Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft, the Eastern Committee of the German Economy, representing German business interests in Russia and other countries from the Baltic to the Pacific; the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (AHK) in Moscow; and specialized organizations such as the Russian-German Energy Agency (RuDEA) for cooperation on energy and energy efficiency.

This fundamentally complemented trade and economic cooperation between the two countries: Germany needed raw materials, notably oil and natural gas, and Russia required products of the manufacturing industry to restructure and modernize its economy.

Thus, in the one and a half decade after the adoption of the Common Strategy, Germany obtained around a third of its imported oil from Russia, which accounted for almost 20 per cent of Russian oil exports. Around 40 per cent of German natural gas imports came from Russia, which corresponded to approximately 25 per cent of Russian natural gas exports.

Trade was given a boost by German Hermes export guarantees, with Russia topping the list of recipients profiting annually by several billion euro's a year. The Hermes system contributed to the fact that the German-Russian trade volume increased from 13.5 billion euro's in 2000 to around 80 billion euro's in 2013. Up to that year, German investments in Russia totalled around 20 billion euro's. More than 6,400 German companies had branches in Russia.

Aussenhandel Statistisches Bundesamt

However, the German presence in Russia went far beyond company representations and included a large number of business associations and foundations. Germany engaged itself in the solution of environmental problems in Russia, including the destruction of chemical weapons and, together with the USA, in the disposal of the nuclear-powered submarines of the Russian North Sea Fleet.

For the development of democracy and a market economy, as part of the German government’s TRANSFORM programme, Russia received funds of around 350 million Mark's and 1.2 billion euro's from the EU’s TACIS program. Russia became the main focus of German foreign cultural policy. In addition to the main offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Goethe Institute opened a branch in Novosibirsk. More than 80 cities maintained partnerships with cities in Russia, whereby not only large cities like Berlin and Moscow or Hamburg and St. Petersburg embarked on joint projects but also cities and towns in the regions.

Scientific exchanges increased significantly. More than 500 university partnerships and exchange programmes were concluded between German and Russian universities. More than 300 German non-governmental organizations committed themselves to social, cultural and ultimately also political cooperation, including the German-Russian Forum (DRF), a civil society initiative that, according to its website, pays special attention to the ‘connection between social and entrepreneurial concerns’; the German-Russian Exchange (DRA); and the foundations of the political parties, that is, the Konrad Adenauer (KAS), Friedrich Ebert (FES), Friedrich Naumann (FNSt) and Heinrich Böll Foundations; and other public and international affairs institutions such as the Bertelsmann and the Bosch foundations.

A large number of conferences and workshops were held by German institutions with both official and non-governmental Russian and often also international participation, including the German Society for Foreign Policy (DGAP); the German Institute for International Politics and Security (SWP); the German Society for Eastern European Studies (DGO); and the annual Schlangenbad conferences organized by the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (HSFK) with the Moscow representation of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

The limitations

Impressive as this inventory of Verflechtung, the close economic and social German-Russian ties and connections, may be, it is also evident that there were significant deficiencies and failures.

The insufficiencies become apparent in comparative perspectives. Thus, in 2013, Russia's share of total German exports amounted to only 3.2 percent. Russia was positioned only 11th on the list of German export destinations. In terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) to Russia, Germany – after Cyprus, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, China and Great Britain − only occupied 6th place. The 20 billion euro's of German FDI accumulated by 2013 represented only a small part of the overall German direct investment abroad (369 billion euro's). The net transfer of capital from Germany to Russia this year was negative and amounted to 113 million euro's, meaning that Russia invested more in Germany than vice versa. In comparison with Central European countries, the net German capital transfer to the Czech Republic was 3.2 billion euro's and to Poland 2.1 billion euro's.

More importantly, the expansion of trade and the manifold institutional and personal connections and cooperative ventures did not ‘spill over’ into the basic structures of the government system and Russian foreign policy. To find the explanation for this, it is necessary to consider the domestic developments in Russia under Yeltsin and the transition to Putin’s presidency. 

Moscow’s response 

Russia’s attitudes and its answer to the German and EU approaches can best be reconstructed by reference to its Strategy for the Development of Relations between the Russian Federation and the European Union in Medium-Term Perspective (2000-2010). The disarmingly frank 'statement of purpose' essentially constituted Moscow’s response to the EU’s Common Strategy conveyed to the EU ‘troika’ of EU council presidency, head of the commission and high representative of the CFSP by then prime minister Putin at the EU-Russia summit in Helsinki in October 1999.

Russia's strategy amounted to a rejection of any semblance of supranationality and integration into the EU

Russia's Strategy for all practical purposes amounted to a rejection of any semblance of supranationality and integration and what the Germans referred to as Einbindung (‘binding’ of Russia into European and international institutions and processes). Russia’s strategy vis-à-vis the EU, the document bluntly stated, was aimed at ‘insuring national interests and enhancing the role and image of Russia in Europe and in the world’.

It demanded that ‘Russia, as a world power situated on two continents, should retain its freedom to determine and implement its domestic and foreign policies, its status and advantages of a Euro-Asian state and the largest country of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States], and its independence of its position and activities in international organizations’.

It did mention the term ‘integration’ but in a sense entirely different from what the EU had in mind: Russia wanted ‘to use the positive experience of integration in the EU with a view to consolidating and developing integration processes in the CIS’.

Putin's speech at Security-conference 2007 in Munich

This position was directly linked to the idea of the whole post-Soviet space (the 'Near Abroad') as a Russian sphere of influence. Russia as the ‘largest country of the CIS’ should be recognised as having a special ‘status and the advantages of a Euro-Asian state’; EU enlargement would have an ‘ambivalent impact’ on EU-Russia cooperation; Russia claimed ‘the right to refuse agreement to the extension of the PCA’ to EU candidate countries; it would ‘oppose any attempts to hamper economic integration in the CIS’; and it opposed the establishment of ‘special relations by the EU with individual CIS countries to the detriment of Russian interests’.

As it was obvious that Moscow would define what was harmful to its interests, it was clear that the eastern dimension of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Eastern Partnership (EaP), would be regarded as exactly such an attempt to establish ‘special relations’ and to create a EU ‘sphere of influence’, as Foreign Minister Lavrov stated afterwards.

Recognition of spheres of influence

The de facto assertion of the post-Soviet space as a Russian sphere of interest was not new. Four years earlier Yeltsin had turned to the United Nations with the demand to grant Russia ‘special rights’ to safeguard ‘peace and stability’ in this area. There is, however, a big difference between the claims and demands of the 1990s and the 2000s, between the era's of Yeltsin and Putin: as Russia’s military intervention in Georgia and its recognition of the separatist entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the annexation of the Crimea and its undeclared war in eastern Ukraine have shown, Putin not only has the will but also the power to act unilaterally and by using military force.

The return of the Russian power elite to thinking in terms of ‘spheres of influence’ was evident also in what may be considered as an attempt to claim the Balkans. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Russian power elite with broad popular support sided with Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević, asserting Russia's ‘historically founded’ ties’ with this Slavic and Christian Orthodox country. It decried the NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets after the Srebrenica massacre and the shelling of the Sarajevo market square in August-September 1995 as ‘aggression’.

Unlike Yeltsin, Putin not only has the will but also the power to act unilaterally and by using military force

Yeltsin accused NATO of perpetrating ‘genocide' against the Serbs and fanning the ‘flames of a new World War I over Europe’. The outcry and verbal outbursts in response to NATO's air war against Yugoslavia in 1999 were even sharper. The emotionally charged word of NATO ‘genocide’ of the Serbs (!) was disseminated once again, this time also by foreign minister Ivanov. A defence ministry spokesman announced that the Russian armed forces would be placed on high alert, and the Duma chairman said Yeltsin told him that Russian nuclear warheads would now be aimed again at targets in the West.

Red lines NATO should not cross

The Strategy handed to the EU in Helsinki in 1999 is noteworthy also for the Kremlin's departure from Euro-Atlanticism and the idea of creating a community of values ranging from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Rather than endorsing policies directed at the creation of ‘common spaces’ including Russia, Europe and the United States, the document stated that the purpose and promotion of cooperation in the security area was ‘to counterbalance U.S. and NATO dominance’ and ‘NATO-centrism’ in Europe.

To that extent, the Kremlin de facto made no difference between EU and NATO eastward enlargement and endorsed the warning Yeltsin had issued at the G7 summit in Birmingham in May 1998 that the borders of the former Soviet Union were ‘red lines’ that NATO enlargement should not cross.

This warning, in turn, was consistent with the return to the Cold War images of NATO. Whereas Yeltsin, at the beginning of 1992,  declared that Russia regarded the Western countries not merely as partners but as ‘allies’ and declared the country's membership in NATO as a ‘long-term goal’ of Russian foreign policy, less than one year later such ideas were no longer en vogue. In November 1993, the foreign intelligence service (SVR) headed by Yevgeny Primakov (later Foreign Minister and Prime Minister) produced an authoritative report that again referred to NATO as the ‘largest military grouping in the world with enormous offensive potential’ and an organisation that remained ‘wedded to the stereotypes of block thinking’. The alliance was strongly warned not to enlarge eastwards. Yeltsin's press spokesman even claimed that expanding NATO into areas in close proximity to the Russian borders would lead to a ‘political and military destabilization of the region’.

Results first Duma-elections, 1993. The presidential party Choice of Russia got 15,5%

Why the shift?

What were the reasons for Yeltsin’s Russia to turn away from New Political Thinking, European integration and Euro-Atlanticism? Russian domestic politics provide the answer: the adherents of the Old Thinking had successfully reasserted themselves: representatives of the institutions that considered Russia a ‘Great Power’ according to the size of its military power (the military, the internal and external secret and security services, and the military-industrial complex).

The dismantling of the image of the West as perennially hostile to Russia with NATO as an instrument of political pressure and military threat posed a grave risk to their interests. It threatened to undermine the very rationale of their existence and claims to the allocation of resources. In particular, it put into question the alleged necessity of preparing for a ‘large-scale war’ (krupnomasshtabnaya voyna), in plain language, war with NATO.

The dismantling of the image of the West as hostile to Russia with NATO as an instrument of military threat was a grave risk to the interests of the Russian military.

The interests of the military, the security agencies and the military-industrial complex interacted with what in the public discourse was called the ‘patriotic consensus’. That consensus fanned anti-Western currents and forces, supporters of ‘Great Power’ visions (derzhavniki), a separate Russian ‘Euro-Asian’ or ‘Eurasian’ identity (evrazisti), neo-imperialists, nationalists, chauvinists, and communists. They were represented, among others, by the neither liberal nor democratic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), both of which lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and the pernicious role the Western secret services had allegedly played to bring about its demise.

In the December 1993 Duma elections, these parties had emerged as winners. The LDPR achieved its best result with 22.92 percent of the votes cast, the KPRF 12.4 percent and the Agrarian Party allied with it 7.99 percent. This meant that the ‘red-brown’ opponents of democracy and Euro-Atlantic orientation received a total of 43.29 percent of the vote.

The results were reminiscent of the circumstances and fate of the Weimar Republic: the destruction of democracy and the western orientation of the post-war German democracy by a de facto coalition of nationalists, fascists and communists, the Querfront. Like the members of the Russian ‘patriotic consensus’, they engaged in vicious revisionist agitation and propaganda, according to which dark forces working with western countries were responsible for the collapse of the country. Among the politically astute German public, but particularly among experts on Russia, this raised the question as to how Russia at the threshold to the new millennium was to be understood: as an actual or possible partner, or as a risk factor.

In the 1993 elections the ‘red-brown’ opponents of democracy and Euro-Atlantic orientation got a total of 43.29 percent of the vote

In retrospect, for the development of Russia and German-Russian relations it proved fatal that Yeltsin, celebrated as a pro-Western democrat, who climbed on a tank to courageously oppose the putschists of August 1991, not only did not try to stop ‘national-patriotic’ activities but was actually supporting them. Because of that the image of Yeltsin in German public opinion suffered a blow, especially after the disastrous war in Chechnya. It deteriorated with his contradictory policies, drunken bouts and slurred speech. But this all was soon forgotten as the Yeltsin ‘family’ brought Putin to power.

Putin, ‘our man in Moscow’

Putin’s transfer to the Kremlin was greeted by large parts of the federal government, political parties and the public in Germany as providing new impetus to the elusive Strategic Partnership. This illusion was based on the assumption that the new Kremlin chief, due to his German language skills and his work as a KGB agent in Dresden in 1985-1990, had a soft spot for Germany and therefore would be receptive to German interests – assumptions which were epitomized, for instance, by German Putin biographer Alexander Rahr in an article entitled Unser Mann in Moskau (Our man in Moscow) and in the subtitle of his book about Putin, Der ‘Deutsche’ im Kreml (‘The German’ in the Kremlin). Such perceptions got a tremendous boost during Putin’s first official visit to Germany and by his speech in the German Bundestag in September 2001.

Speech Putin in German parliament, Berlin 2001.

Except for a short introduction, Putin delivered his speech entirely in German. Its gist was a characterization of post-Soviet Russia as a country fully committed to European values and embarked upon comprehensive and irreversible reform policies. In contrast to the rejection of pan-European integration in the Medium-term Strategy of Yeltsin with its emphasis on Russia as a ‘Euro-Asian’ and world power, he assured the members of the Bundestag that ‘Russia is a European country with friendly disposition. […] Concerning the processes of European integration, we not only support them but regard them with hope.’

Putin in the Bundestag in 2001: 'We not only support the processes of European integration, but regard them with hope.’

As if to underline his European commitments, Putin declared himself convinced that ‘today we are opening a new page in the history of our bilateral relations and thus make our common contribution to the construction of the European house'. The credibility of this assertion was enhanced by his failing to reiterate the standard Russian formula of the ‘liberation’ of the Central and Eastern European countries by the Soviet army but assuring his audience that Russians supported the European integration project as a people who have learned the lessons of the Cold War and of the ‘pernicious occupation ideology’. Concerning Russia’s domestic policies, Putin declared that ‘the main goal is above all to guarantee democratic rights and freedoms and to improve the standard of living and the security of the people.’

Putin’s speech received an enthusiastic response in parliament and was honoured by a standing ovation. The policies toward Putin’s Russia as conducted by Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998-2005, corresponded to the enthusiasm. Concerns that Putin was consistently pursuing a course towards building an authoritarian system and that this would have serious repercussions on German-Russian relations were swept aside.

Schröder agreed with the view suggested to him that Putin’s Russia was a lupenreine Demokratie, a flawless democracy; that the Kremlin carried out ‘reform policies’ consistently and with great determination; and that, for instance, there was no evidence that the expropriation of the Yukos oil giant and the transfer of its assets to one of Putin’s cronies violated the law.

How widespread are such views, what institutions can be said to share them and what is their likely impact on German-Russian relations?

Nordstream Schroder Putin PhotoPremier RF
Chancellor Schröder with Gazprom ceo Miller and president Putin. Picture Kremlin

German Putin-Versteher

Ex-chancellor Schröder may have used his euphemisms deliberately and provocatively, but the notion of Putin as a rational actor well disposed towards Germany, as having offered broad cooperation but been rejected by the West and forced to respond to the ‘threat’ of NATO eastern enlargement, is widely accepted in Germany.

  • On the political spectrum, this accounts in particular for the Social Democratic Party (SPD). A significant part of its leadership and rank and file share the illusion that Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the policy of rapprochement with the former Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact countries, could be applied today, that is, that an Ostpolitik-2 could be conducted.
  • As strange as it may appear, there is also a strong Putin-friendly current in the Christian Democratic (CDU) Bavarian ‘sister party’, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU). For example, former party chairman and Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber is one of the initiators of the second of three Aufrufe (appeals) to the German government to fundamentally re-evaluate its Russia policy and re-ignite détente.
  • To the surprise and notwithstanding criticism from within the party, the chairman of the Liberals (FDP) Christian Lindner – presumably for electoral reasons in the 2017 parliamentary elections – voiced the views of the Russland-Versteher, who profess to ‘really’ understand Putin and Russia.
  • The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the left-wing Die Linke, as a present-day reconstitution of the Weimar Republic’s Querfront of sorts against democracy, more or less without any dilution share the Kremlin’s explanations of its policies no matter how implausible they may be. They also help to lend credibility and legitimize them. Examples of this include visits by AfD and Die Linke party officials to Crimea and their participation in Moscow-organised observation missions on the peninsula and in the separatist areas of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transnistria). AfD members of parliament have even visited Damascus and claimed that the capital was ‘peaceful’ and that it was ‘safe’ for Syrian refugees to return to their country.
  • Outside the party political spectrum and foremost among the institutions accepting the Kremlin’s rationalisations and advocating a ‘soft’ line towards Moscow is the above-mentioned Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft, its membership and influence recently expanded by a merger to form the Ost-Ausschuss - Osteuropaverein der Deutschen Wirtschaft (OAOEV). Its membership includes 400 economic associations and enterprises and it is linked to five top representations of the German economy, including the German Federation of Industry (BDI).
  • The most prominent Putin-friendly NGO is the Deutsch-Russische Forum (DRF) which claims to occupy the ‘leading position in the framework of German-Russian relations’. Economic interests are prominently, though not officially, represented in the Forum.

The point of this overview of political parties and institutions beholden to the Kremlin’s narrative is to underline that the domestic political and public opinion basis for the German government to conduct a ‘hard’ policy towards Russia is practically non-existent. This is an astounding paradox: the Kremlin’s increasing proclivity since the war in Georgia to use military force in the pursuit of political objectives and to justify it by the glorification of Russia’s military history has not led the Russland-Versteher to carry out a fundamental review of their ideas but on the contrary to intensify their criticism of the federal government’s Russia policy.

A domestic political and public opinion basis for the German government to conduct a ‘hard’ policy towards Russia is practically non-existent.

This phenomenon is evident despite the fact that the views and policy prescriptions of the Putin apologists are fundamentally at odds with those of the overwhelming majority of Russia and Eastern European experts at the German foreign ministry; major and international relations research institutes and foreign policy associations like the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (DGAP), the German Institute for International Politics and Security (SWP), the Berlin branch of the European Council on Foreign Relation (ECFR) and the Zentrum Liberale Moderne (LibMod); the association representing research on Russia and Eastern Europe, that is, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde (DGO) and its journal Osteuropa; the (few) chairs and departments at universities dealing with the area; the political foundations (except to some extent the branch affiliated with the SPD) active in Moscow, Kiev and other capitals on post-Soviet space; and last but not least the correspondents of major German newspapers and journals and television accredited to the capitals in the area.

Nordstream Ceremonie Merken Rutte FotoKremlin
Nordstream-ceremony (2011) with chancellor Merkel (left), Dutch prime minister Rutte (m) and president Mededev (r). Picture Kremlin.

Disappointments and Alienation

At an early stage after Putin’s assumption of power, experts were sceptical whether Putin’s alleged soft spot for things German would result in a productive and sustainable relationship covering all aspects of policy. An example of this is Wolfgang Ischinger, currently the chairman of the Munich international security conference. In July 2000, the then Staatssekretär, the highest official in the German foreign ministry, delivered a keynote speech entitled ‘What Berlin Expects from Moscow and Moscow Expects from Berlin’ at the Evangelische Akademie in Tutzing.

Ischinger expressed ‘grave concern’ about developments in both Russian domestic and foreign policy. One cannot criticize Putin’s 'Great Power’ objective, he said, but referring to the Kremlin’s explanations, he warned that Greatness in the 21st century was not to be based on geographical extent and the number of nuclear warheads or soldiers. What makes a country great is ‘economic strength, human capital, a dynamic social order and an internationally attractive education system. […] Greatness today isn’t so much to be measured by [‘hard’] but by [‘soft’] power, the power to design and shape. It is more important to be able to persuade than to threaten, to engage rather than to control, and to win partners than to keep opponents at bay. Such are the requirements of the 21st century.’

Warning by Wolfgang Ischinger: 'Greatness in the 21st century is more about to be able to persuade than to threaten' 

As the developments in the two decades after this warning have amply demonstrated, Putin’s Russia has not fulfilled these requirements. The German government, traditionally reluctant to call a spade a spade when it comes to Russia, therefore recently has not minced words about the Kremlin’s policies. Thus, speaking in the Bundestag on 13 May 2020, chancellor Angela Merkel deplored that ‘Russia is pursuing a strategy of hybrid warfare. We cannot push that aside. That’s warfare in the form of a [campaign of] disorientation and disinformation in cyber space. It is a [deliberate] strategy, not some random occurrence. I nevertheless try to maintain good diplomatic relations with Russia but it isn’t easy.’

Similarly, Heiko Maas (SPD), shortly after his appointment as Foreign Minister, in an interview with Der Spiegel, deplored that Russia’s international behaviour had become ‘increasingly hostile’. Evidently referring to the poison gas attack against the Skripals in Salisbury, he noted that for the first time since the end of the Second World War a European country had ‘used chemical weapons.’ Cyber attacks appeared to have become an ‘integral part’ of Russian foreign policy. Concerning the war in Syria, he decried that Russia had ‘repeatedly blocked’ the UN Security Council and prevented a political solution. It had carried out ‘aggression’ in Ukraine and he warned that sanctions would only be lifted after Russia had fulfilled all of its obligations under the Minsk agreements.

The fact that the scathing criticism of the Kremlin’s foreign policy came from a member of the SPD is somewhat surprising in the light of the party’s generally equivocal attitudes and euphemistic rhetoric in relation to Moscow. Indeed Maas was almost instantly after his interview criticized by the party leadership.

Less surprising, in line with the chancellor, have been the unequivocal statements by CDU leaders. Thus, Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of parliament referred to the Russian air attacks in the north of Syria − as did Maas in the UN Security Council on 27 February 2020 − as gross violations of international law and ‘war crimes’. For the West to ‘look the other way’ and remain silent was ‘shameful’. Such behaviour ‘violated our security interests’, and if the crimes continued, ‘sanctions should be imposed’ on Russia.

Nevertheless there is a wide gap between the realistic diagnoses and characterizations of Moscow’s domestic and foreign policies, on the one hand, and the Russia policy of the German government, on the other. There is an evident disconnect. The Kremlin’s ‘increasingly hostile’ behaviour, its ‘strategy of hybrid war’ against the West, its ‘war crimes’ in Syria and ‘aggression’ in Ukraine have, beyond some economic sanctions, elicited only mild responses. No counterstrategy has been developed that would significantly raise the political, economic and military costs to the Kremlin. 

One of the prime examples of this failure has been the German government’s constant refusal to consider the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as anything but a ‘commercial project’. Or, to use another example, parliament could agree to the delivery of defensive weapons to the Kurds in their fight against ISIS, whereas a serious debate inside or outside parliament as to whether or not the Ukrainian armed forces should be accorded the same privilege seems impossible.

As the apt descriptions by Merkel, Maas and Röttgen underline, the trends viewed by Ischinger ‘with great concern’ in 2000 were reinforced over the next two decades and reached their grim apex during Putin’s third term in office as president. One of the milestones of this development was provided by the ‘tandem’ period of Russian politics, the castling of Putin and Medvedev, changing their positions of president and prime minister in 2008-2012. 

It was during this period that the illusions of ‘strategic partnership’, change of Russian domestic and foreign policies by means of ever closer contacts and exchanges, ‘spillover’ and ‘interlocking’, finally came to an ignominious end. Its main cause was prime minister Medvedev’s ill fated ‘modernisation’ campaign.

National-patriotic mobilisation and anti-Western confrontation

Shortly before the start of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009, Putin warned: ‘If we were to continue on the current path, we will not [. . .] be able to ensure the security of our country or its normal development. We will even jeopardize our existence.’ In the midst of the crisis, Dmitry Medvedev, in his new role as president, repeated the warning: ‘We have to draw conclusions from recent events. As long as oil prices were rising, many were under the illusion that structural reforms could wait. [. . .] But we can’t dawdle any longer. We need to start modernizing and improving our entire industrial sector. I consider this to be a question of our country's survival in the modern world.’

Medvedev criticized not only the excessive dependence of the Russian economy on high oil prices but also the social and thus implicitly political conditions. He lamented the ‘culture of legal nihilism’, which in its cynicism had no equal on the European continent. His fellow citizens had compatriots to understand that ‘if we want to overcome the semi-Soviet, [...] archaic social system’ and the ‘centuries-old backwardness’ and build a ‘civilized state, we must first of all introduce the rule of law’.

In order to bring about meaningful change he launched a campaign for the ‘modernisation’ of the country. The transformation of the Russian economy to a modern, innovative and competitive industrialized state should be accomplished by social and economic liberalisation, encouragement of private initiative, removal of bureaucratic obstacles and protection of entrepreneurs from state arbitrariness.

Significantly for the further development of the German-Russian relationship, Medvedev considered the models and partners for the modernisation of the society and economy in the West. He consequently willingly took up the idea developed by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in his speech in Yekaterinburg in May 2008 to establish a German-Russian ‘modernisation partnership’ that was to supplement the (still not existing) ‘Strategic Partnership’. The German forerunner was replicated by other European countries and also by the EU.

Merkel Hond Merkel 2007 DIA GuidoBergmann
Who's afraid of dogs. Chancellor Merkel visits Putin in the Kremlon. Picture DIA / Guido Bergmann.

But not only Europe should contribute to the country’s modernisation. The United States, too, was called upon to do so. This the Russian president clarified during a three-day visit to America, including California and Silicon Valley in June 2009. Upon his return from the journey, he announced the establishment of an ‘innovation centre’ in Skolkovo just outside Moscow which should be based on the ‘Silicon Valley model and other foreign centres’.

Like so many campaigns launched centrally from Moscow in the Soviet era, this contemporary Russian project also fizzled out. The reason for this lay in exigencies of power as perceived by the Russian establishment. Medvedev's radical criticism of the economic and social situation, the endemic and systemic corruption of state officials and their collusion with organized crime, had met with a broad response. This was shown conclusively in the context of the parliamentary elections in December 2011 and the presidential elections in March 2012. The Kremlin affiliated United Russia party suffered heavy losses, and Putin's results in the presidential election also lagged behind those he had achieved four years ago.

The important thing about the elections, however, was not the results themselves but the mass demonstrations against electoral fraud and manipulation that took place after both elections. In contrast to previous occasions where only a few dozen or hundreds of people had dared confront the police and internal security services, now tens of thousands of people marched in protest. On placards and banners they were branding United Russia as the ‘Party of Thieves and Crooks’ (partiya vorov i zhuligov) coined by anti-corruption blogger and politician Aleksey Navalny, and demanded ‘Russia without Putin’.

The main problem for the Kremlin was the fact that the demonstrators largely came from an emerging civil society: members of internationally well connected Russian NGOs, managers of small and medium size enterprises, teachers and educators, and well-trained specialists in information and other technologies relevant for the future development of Russia. From the Moscow power elite’s point of view, the ‘colour revolutions’ supposedly instigated, organised and financed by western governments through their secret services and ‘so-called’ NGOs in Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine, had begun to spill over into Russia.

The conclusion the Kremlin drew, whether genuine or instrumental, was unambiguous: the dangers had to be countered vigorously in Russia itself and in the neighbouring countries. Accordingly, at the beginning of Putin's third term as president, now for six instead of four years, the term ‘modernisation’ practically disappeared from the official discourse. When it was used, it was almost exclusively in connection with the armed forces. The propaganda machinery and policies fundamentally shifted gear.

Socially and politically active NGOs receiving financial support of any size from abroad were and continue to be obliged under threat of severe penalties to register as ‘foreign agents’ with the ministry of Justice. Various foreign and international government-supported or non-governmental organizations operating in Russia were and continue to be declared ‘undesirable’, their activities legally banned. The aim of comprehensive social and economic reform with the help of ‘modernisation partnerships’ was abandoned and replaced by a new campaign and policies of national-patriotic mobilisation and anti-Western confrontation.


The failure of the German-Russian and EU-Russia ‘strategic’ and ‘modernisation’ partnerships is to be explained by internal factors of development in Russia. To the extent that external factors influence Moscow’s foreign policy, including towards Berlin, it is essentially in the interest of the Russian power elite that the regulatory model and the socio-economic attractiveness of the West continue to pose a threat to the legitimacy of its rule at home and undermines its influence and control in its self-declared sphere of interest.

For the eradication of this perceived threat, the Kremlin is running two major campaigns: one inward, which portrays the United States and European countries, including Germany, as torn apart by irreconcilable social and political contradictions, the second is waged abroad with ‘active measures’, and attempts to adjust reality in Western countries to the distorted propagandist image.

On his question ‘What is the Soviet Union?’ Putin himself answered: ‘It is Russia under a different name'. This observation pertains to both structural features of the system of government that Putin has built in Russia, and to its foreign policy. Like in the Soviet era, the challenge to the legitimacy of the political system domestically and in the self-declared spheres of influence in Eastern and Central Europe is not a military rollback but rather a rollback of values such as those enshrined in the Paris Charter for a New Europe.

German or more generally Western policy towards Russia, therefore, must take into account this paradox: the Kremlin does not consider the current crisis in its relations with the West as the unwelcome collateral damage of its anti-Western policies but uses it as a means of legitimizing its system of government and its foreign policies. As in the Soviet era, Western efforts to relax tensions and willingness to compromise tend to be interpreted by the Kremlin as weakness and confirmation that the course of confrontation it has chosen is quite sustainable.

So how can the crisis in the relations between Germany (and the West in general) and Russia be overcome and sustainable improvement be achieved? New political thinking or, if one wants to put it that way, the return to Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking would be necessary. This should include changing the image of the West as an enemy who is forever trying to bring Russia to its knees; restoring the primacy of international law over Russian legislation and returning to the recognition and application of universal values; moving away from oil and gas, arms exports and military power as tools of foreign policy, that is, from ‘hard’ means of power, to ‘soft’ instruments; and abandoning the notions of limited sovereignty and ‘rights’ of intervention and restoring the principle of the Freedom of Choice for the conduct of relations with neighbouring countries.

Such changes in policy can only be achieved if Germany − because of its relatively important influence in Moscow − and the West in general consistently voice these demands to the Russian leadership. Apologetic attitudes and policies of appeasement are unlikely to move Putin’s Russia in the desired direction. In the meantime, notwithstanding the tremendous obstacles the Kremlin is raising with its campaigns against ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable’ international organizations in Russia, it is necessary to continue investing in people-to-people networks in the hope that eventually some ‘spillover’ into the attitudes and policies of the leadership will occur.  

A full version of this article with documentation of the sources and references to the citations will appear in German in the No. 3/2020 issue of the journal Sirius – Zeitschrift für strategische Studien.

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