German-Russian alienation: Kremlin is to blame

As the Siemens scandal has shown, relations between Russia and Germany deteriorate quickly. This ends a period of fruitful cooperation between centuries old partners. According to security expert Hannes Adomeit Russia is to blame. It can't accept Germany (and Merkel) as an example of rule of law, democratic principles and good governance. As in Ukraine, with Siemens Russia won a battle, but lost the war.

by Hannes Adomeit

In her contribution on Russian-German relations Lilia Shevtsova concluded that the ‘epoch of Russian-German love is coming to an end’. It is probably even more correct to say that it hás come to an end. It is also probable that the possibility for resuscitating it in the near future is slim. At present, all signs point to a continuation of the present estrangement. How did we arrive at this sorry state of affairs? And kto vinovat? (Who is to blame?), as the perennial Russian question goes when things have gone wrong.

Young Putin's applauded speech in the Bundestag in 2001: 'Damen und Herren: der Kalte Krieg ist vorbei!'

Sigmar Gabriel, vice-chancellor to Angela Merkel, until his appointment as foreign minister in january 2017 minister of economic affairs and energy (and chairman of the social democratic SPD), professed ignorance when he met Russian president Vladimir Putin on 28 October 2015 at his residence in Novo Ogaryovo. ‘If we look to the past, back to the year 2000, when Germany and Russia had excellent relations,’ he mused, ‘it is entirely unclear why the development of our two nations went in completely different directions.’ He did consider the war in Ukraine (‘the situation surrounding Ukraine’, as he euphemistically put it) a possible explanation for the  estrangement between the two countries, but at the same time dismissed it as a mere ‘symptom rather than the cause of the problems that have occurred’.

The vice-chancellor’s diminishment of Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and the war in Ukraine to a mere ‘symptom’ of the deterioration of German-Russian relations completely differs from the point of view of the chancellor, the vast majority of German Russia experts at research institutes and major newspapers, and public opinion. To them, the central reason is quite clear. It rests in the Kremlin’s shift from socio-economic modernization and cooperation with Germany to national-patriotic mobilization and attempts to discredit and destabilize the German government; the massive build-up and modernization of its armed forces after the war in Georgia in 2008; their resort to the annexation of the Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine; and, thereby, the abandonment of the post-Cold War European political and security order, codified in the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe.

From that perspective, the responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship squarely lies with the Kremlin and the deviation from principles Putin formulated in his memorable speech to the German parliament on 25 September 2001, rewarded by the deputies with standing ovations. ‘I can say with absolute confidence that the key goal of Russia's domestic policy is first and foremost to ensure democratic rights and freedoms, decent living standards and safety for the people of the country,’ he assured the Bundestag. ‘We are at the beginning of the road to building a democratic society and a market economy,’ he continued.

Putin acknowledged that ‘there are barriers and obstacles on that road that we are to surmount’, but seemed confident that Germany could and would help, because ‘Today's Germany is Russia's leading economic partner, our most important creditor, one of the principal investors and a key interlocutor in discussing international politics'. He spoke of ‘partnership and cooperation’ and was ‘convinced that today we are turning over a new page in our bilateral relations, thereby making our joint contribution to building a common European home’.

These commitments were in line with the German Ostpolitik of former chancellor Willy Brandt and his chief foreign policy advisor Egon Bahr in the 1970s during the Cold War, at the turn of the century adapted to new conditions by then chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), with his close associate, Frank Walter Steinmeier, as chief of the chancellery.

Wandel durch Handel

It was not surprising that Putin’s Bundestag visions bear a German handwriting, since the draft or part of the speech were written by Horst Teltschik, former foreign policy advisor to chancellor Helmut Kohl and one of the major architects of German reunification. The gist of the approach was Wandel durch Annäherung (‘change through rapprochement’) and Wandel durch Handel (‘change through trade’). The idea was that an ever expanding network of contacts and exchanges, ever closer Verflechtung (interlocking) of people and institutions between Germany and Russia (and similarly between the EU and its member countries, and Russia) would move Russia  towards liberal democracy, a law-based state, a market economy with fair competition and an active civil society. In foreign policy, the approach aimed at ‘integrating’ and ‘binding’ the country into European and Western institutions.

From the German perspective, this was a serious and wide-ranging effort, conducted at all levels of German politics, the economy and society. Until Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, the German and Russian governments held annual meetings at the highest political level, the Regierungskonsultationen. Under their auspices a Strategic Working Group for economic and financial cooperation (SAG) met twice a year to elaborate joint projects in industry, finance and commerce.

The Russian-German Energy Agency (RuDEA) dealt with projects for enhancing energy efficiency. Economic and commercial cooperation, including investment projects, were fostered by a number of institutions, first and foremost, the Eastern committee (Ostausschuss) but also the Eastern European Association (Osteuropaverein) of German Industry, and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (AHK). More than 6.000 enterprises maintained offices in Russia. The promotion of civil society in the country and cultural exchanges were part of the aims of the Petersburg Political Dialogue and the German-Russian Forum.

putin merkel in tomsk 2006Putin and Merkel in better days, during a German-Russian conference in Tomsk in 2006 (photo rights free)

The political foundations associated with the major political parties (Stiftungen) – Konrad Adenauer (CDU), Hanns Seidel (Bavarian wing of the CDU), (Friedrich Ebert (SPD), Friedrich Naumann (Liberals), Heinrich Böll (Greens) and Rosa Luxemburg (The Left) – organized workshops, conferences and training programs to stimulate German-Russian cooperation, build up democratic institutions and support civil society. A plethora of German cities and towns engaged in contacts and exchanges with partner cities and towns in Russia and attempted to strengthen local self-government. Sectoral associations of tradesmen, labour unions, lawyers and journalists embarked on twinning programmes to share their expertise. There was also an expansion of youth exchanges, university exchange programmes and scholarships for Russian students.

The German approach was made part of the EU’s Common Strategy toward Russia adopted at its June 1999 summit meeting in Cologne when Germany held the EU presidency. That document officially elevated the EU-Russia relationship to that of a ‘strategic partnership’. At the EU-Russia summit in St. Petersburg in May 2003 Moscow and Brussels ‘confirmed their commitment to further strengthen their strategic partnership [...] with a view to creating four EU/Russia common spaces’. To achieve similar purposes, based on a speech by then foreign minister Steinmeier in Yekaterinburg, Germany and Russia in 2008 launched a ‘partnership for modernisation’ that was replicated by the EU in June 2010.

German-Russian trade more than tripled in the period from 2001 to 2012 − from 24.9 billion Euros in 2001 to 80.3 billion in 2012. However, the assumption that the expansion of trade and the forging of a network of contacts and exchanges would serve to build up democratic institutions and set Russia firmly onto a European path of development failed to materialize. The correlation between Verflechtung and Wandel was actually negative.

In fact, in retrospect Putin’s assurance to the Bundestag that the central goal of Russia's domestic policy was to ensure democratic rights and freedoms sounds like utter cynicism. Practically from day one of his first presidency, he started dismantling those admittedly imperfect democratic institutions and newly gained freedoms in Russia and building up an authoritarian political system; a state characterized, as then president Dmitri Medvedev was to state ‘without exaggeration’, by ‘legal nihilism’ and ‘disregard for the law’ without parallel in Europe; a market economy without fair competition and controlled to a large extent by siloviki, former and current secret service and internal security officials; and a society with severely limited freedoms of the press and devoid of active non-governmental institutions.

As the Bundestag was to deplore eleven years after Putin’s speech in a scathing resolution, Russia had adopted laws and regulations that ‘in their entirety aim at increasing control of active citizens, criminalize critical engagement and signify a confrontational course toward [anyone] critical of the government’. It demanded of the Merkel government to insist in its upcoming talks in Moscow that the Kremlin honour its commitments.

The Kremlin narrative

In its own narrative, however, the Kremlin holds the West and Germany responsible for the deterioration of German-Russian relations. It claims that, after the end of the Cold War, Russia stretched out its hand for cooperation but that the West rejected it, continued its traditional containment policies and embarked on NATO expansion thereby moving NATO forces and infrastructure ‘ever closer to Russian borders’. Russia, therefore, had no other choice but to respond to these challenges to safeguard its security.

The Kremlin’s charge that ‘the West’ with NATO built up military capabilities to threaten and put pressure on Russia is plainly absurd. One only needs to remind oneself of the fact that post-Cold War military history was made in March 2013 when the US Army disbanded the last two of its Germany-based heavy brigades and thereby withdrew the last of its battle tanks, shipping them from Bremerhaven to South Carolina so that not a single US tank remained on German soil.

The threat of NATO moving ever closer to Russian borders has been used by the Russian power elite ever since the end of the Cold War in Europe to justify large armed forces and a wide-spread military-industrial complex. To that extent, the relationship between domestic and foreign policy has been the very opposite of what the Kremlin once asserted.

last american tank leaves germany foto US ArmyLast American tank leaves Kaiserslautern in Germany (picture US Army)

The current crisis in the relationship between Russia and the West is not the result of external military-security challenges and threats posed to Russia. It has primarily internal causes that have to do with the structure of power as perceived by the Kremlin. It is to be found in the demand clearly expressed by the Bundestag resolution that Russia lives up to its commitments and, with German assistance, embarks on the eradication of legal nihilism and pervasive corruption. If there is an external challenge, it lies not in the military and security dimension but in the systemic political and socio-economic realm.

The system Putin has built over the past seventeen years has to be understood as a kleptocracy. Therefore, for its beneficiaries from the top downwards to the regional and local levels, the construction of a democratic, law-based state and an active civil society is anathema. That is the real ‘threat’ to the Putin System. Consequently, notably after the large-scale demonstrations after the December 2011 parliamentary and the 2012 presidential elections, when outrage was expressed against the ‘rogues and thieves’ of the ruling party and calls for a ‘Russia without Putin’, the Kremlin abruptly stopped all the, from its point of view, damaging talk about modernisation at home and modernisation partnerships abroad. It shifted to nationalism and patriotism to give legitimacy to the system.

That shift had profound consequences for Eastern Europe and first and foremost for Ukraine. Since Moscow’s policies in its neighbourhood are closely connected with its domestic politics, any successful example of a country on the European path of development would, from its perspective, be a dangerous challenge to its own domestic power position.

To that extent, what we are witnessing today is a repetition of the very same dynamics of the Kremlin’s interventionism in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The main danger then, too, was not a sudden attack by NATO but processes of liberalization and emancipation that threatened to erode Soviet control. Today it is the ‘colour revolutions’ and their possible repercussions in Russia that the Moscow power elite is most concerned about.

In order to stave off the perceived dangers, the Kremlin has embarked on a vicious campaign to discredit ‘the West’, its democratic institutions and liberal policies, and to sow as much discord as possible in and between its countries. Its objective is to destroy once and for all the image of the West as a model for Russia and the countries in its self-proclaimed sphere of interest.

An especially important target in the context of that campaign is the Germany of chancellor Merkel. One of the reasons, of course, lies in the fact that she has been a staunch advocate of economic sanctions in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, making sure each and every time when the renewal of sanctions comes up in the EU that a corresponding decision will be taken.

It was unlikely, if only for gender reasons, that Merkel was to replicate the ‘sauna diplomacy’ between chancellor Helmut Kohl and president Boris Yeltsin or the Schröder-Putin Männerfreundschaft.  But as a person who grew up in the Soviet controlled GDR she is familiar with the system ex-KGB colonel Putin has constructed in Russia. She is, therefore, not to be fooled or cowed, neither by his macho attitudes nor by the torrent of disinformation – fake news − emanating from the Kremlin.

Germany as leading nation

As America under Trump has discredited itself far more effectively than any Russian campaign could ever have done, it is Germany that, by default rather than design, has become the most convincing example of effective democratic and liberal institutions, and free trade. It has become a bulwark against the damaging currents of narrow-minded populism, nationalism and right-wing extremism – the very forces that the Kremlin is courting and cultivating in order to sow discord in Europe.

In relation to Germany the most noteworthy even though patently absurd example is the case of ‘Our Lisa’. A 13-year-old girl, named Lisa F., in January 2016 told the police that she had been kidnapped in the eastern part of Berlin by Arab migrants who had raped her while she was held for 30 hours. The Berlin police was careful concerning the disclosure of information not only because it had serious doubts about the veracity of the allegations but also because it wanted to protect the privacy of the girl and her family.

The apparent opportunity for the Russian propaganda machine to try to discredit the Merkel government and German law enforcement agencies was provided by the fact that Lisa was the daughter of a Russian-immigrant family (Russlanddeutsche) with dual − Russian and German − citizenship. In what were extremely well organized and orchestrated demonstrations, thousands of Russian-speakers took to the streets across Berlin – with several hundreds of protesters gathering outside the chancellery − and other cities in Germany protesting against what they said was a cover-up by police.

Banners claimed that ‘Our children are in danger’ and demanded ‘Hands off our children’. The main nation-wide Russian television station Channel One disseminated the fake news by telling that Lisa had been abducted on her way to school and gang-raped by ‘southern-looking’ asylum-seekers.

Extraordinary was not so much that the Russian state-controlled media took up the case, always giving the Kremlin the possibility of a plausible or perhaps not so plausible denial, but that the government intervened and did so in the context of an ongoing police investigation. ‘It is clear that the girl did not disappear voluntarily for 30 hours’, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated unequivocally during a news conference in Moscow, accusing German officials of a politically-motivated cover up. Condescendingly, he hoped ‘that these problems are not swept under the carpet and that there will be no more cases like that of our Lisa’.

‘Our Lisa’ shows that the Russian government is not averse to use the flimsiest of opportunities to make life difficult for Merkel; it fails to comprehend that, unlike in Putin’s Russia, the German legal system and law enforcement agencies neither act according to political criteria nor are they prone to respond to politically motivated instructions from the government; wherever possible, is employing Russian compatriots or Russian-speaking minorities abroad in order to destabilize the host countries; in Germany is misinterpreting the still existing reservoir of good will among political forces and parties, notably the SPD, as weakness and using them as a lever to put pressure on the government; and, when faced even with incontrovertible evidence of serious mistakes or wrongdoing, is either incapable or unwilling to apologize and make amends. The very same conclusions can be drawn from the most recent example of Russian-German alienation: the Siemens case.

The Siemens case

The case concerns four Siemens gas turbines with a total capacity of 940 megawatt that Russian wants to install in power stations now being built at a fast pace in Sevastopol and Simferopol. The stations with their power generators are to meet Crimea’s acute energy deficit. Before Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the peninsula received 80 percent of its required energy from mainland Ukraine. Thereafter, Ukraine cut off the power supply, as a consequence of which Crimea experienced permanent blackouts.

Dampfturbine Laeufer01By delivering Siemens gas turbines to Crimea Russia according to Germany broke sanctions (foto Siemens) 

On 13 August 2014 Putin reportedly met with Sergei Chemezov, the chief of Rostec, the Russian state-controlled corporation in charge of projects in the fields of military and industrial technologies and dual-use goods. They decided that two power plants should be built in the above-mentioned cities and that the joint stock company OAO Technopromexport, a Rostec’s subsidiary, would be in charge of the project’s execution. (In response to these plans, Chemezov was placed under EU sanctions.)

On 10 March 2015 the Siemens subsidiary Siemens Gas Turbines Technology, bypassing the tender system required for all Russian state companies, signed a then secret contract to produce and deliver seven gas turbines for their use in a projected power station on the Taman peninsula in Krasnodar region, a mere 10 kilometers across the Kerch strait from Crimea.

Siemens obviously knew of the possibility, if not the likelihood, that the turbines were destined for the peninsula and that this would be in violation of the EU sanctions banning companies from participating in energy projects in occupied Crimea. Thus, the contract specifically prohibited the use of the gas turbines in power stations connected to the Crimean power grid, and Technopromexport even provided specific guarantees to that effect. Testimony to the treatment of the sensitive issue at the highest levels has been provided by the German newspaper Wirtschaftswoche which reported, based on its own sources, that at the end of September 2016, a meeting took place between Putin, his speaker, German vice-chancellor Gabriel, and the German ambassador to Moscow, Rüdiger von Fritsch. At that meeting, the Kremlin chief reportedly promised the German interlocutors that the Siemens turbines would not end up in Crimea.

Russia would have been able to create a fait accompli had it not been for the fact that, in late June and early July 2017, the first photos and a video of what were clearly two Siemens turbines on location in Sevastopol were published online and that the photos were replicated by Reuters from an independent source. Subsequently it transpired that the remaining two Siemens turbines were delivered to Crimea through the port of Feodosiya.

Immediately, on July 3, in an effort at damage control, the Russian energy ministry announced that it would limit access of foreign producers to data about the usage of their equipment in Russia. Official Russian sources denied any wrongdoing, pointing to a statement by the limited liability company OOO Technopromexport, another Rostec subsidiary, explaining that it had purchased four turbines for Crimea ‘on the secondary market’ and ‘modernized the equipment’ with the resources of Russian factories and engineering companies.

The case shows that Putin takes German good will for granted and probably entertained the comforting notion that Siemens and the German government would make some fuss but then, both in a literal and a broader sense, would return to ‘business as usual’. The net result of the deceit is much the same as that of Russia’s hacking and election interference in the United States. It won skirmishes and battles, Trump became president and the Siemens turbines are now in Crimea. Russia, however, lost the war. It failed to achieve its strategic objectives. It ended up stirring up opposing forces in Congress with practically unheard of majorities of 98:2 in the Senate and 419:3 in the House of Representatives for a significant expansion of sanctions and binding the president’s hand if he wanted to lift them without Congressional approval.

Similarly, in response to the Russian contract violation and recurrent fake assurances, Russia managed to erode even further the little confidence and trust it has left in Germany. In late July, the German government successfully pushed the EU to expand its existing sanctions list to four more Russian individuals and three Russian entities. Their identities have not yet been released but they are likely to include Russian firms and corporate leaders responsible for transferring the Siemens turbines to Crimea.

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