Merkel’s Russia Policy
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Alexander Rahr

Research Director, German-Russian Forum

Without a doubt, in her twelve-year stint as Chancellor, Angela Merkel has distanced herself from the Russia policies of her predecessors Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, and Gerhard Schröder. All previous German Chancellors respected the Soviet Union (later Russia) as a European great power and strove for a strategic balance between Moscow and Europe, even during the Cold War. The OSCE process was one such example. It was clear to all German Chancellors before 2005 that peace across the European continent could only be achieved together with Moscow and not in opposition to it. A historic rapprochement with Russia after the Cold War was the axiom of Germany’s Russia policy.

There are both objective and subjective reasons for Merkel’s deviation from the path of her predecessors. Some suspect that the reason is her East German background. Yet she did not go as far as ex-President Joachim Gauck, who demanded the same kind of repent from Russia for the crimes of Communism as had been demanded from Germany for the horrors of Nazism. Merkel became Chancellor supposedly at a time when there was no longer a German policy vis-à-vis Russia, but an all-European Russia policy.

Her chancellorship started at the time of Europe’s greatest institutional changes, with former Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the three former Soviet Baltic Republics joining the EU and NATO. The elites of these countries, strongly critical of Russia, impressed this attitude on the old members of the Western alliance. Instead of the rapprochement with Russia desired by the West, they wanted revenge for the 45-year-long Soviet occupation.

The start of Merkel’s Chancellorship also coincided with a new geopolitical conflict between the United States and Russia over the installation of American missile defenses in Central and Eastern Europe. 

To avoid jeopardizing Germany’s leadership role in the EU, the Chancellor accepted the critical view of the new NATO/EU member states towards Russia – this in order not to endanger the increasingly difficult search for consensus in foreign policy within the alliance. Despite an opposing Bundestag ruling, she allowed the Americans to keep their short-range nuclear missiles on German territory.  

Upon her entry to office, Merkel advocated 100-percent loyalty and fealty to the U.S. The precarious situation during the Iraq war, when Germany and France joined Russia in opposition to the U.S., must never be repeated; Merkel wished to avoid another internal split in the West over security issues at all costs. Today, at a time when transatlantic relations are increasingly strained due to the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump, Merkel wants to emancipate herself from that leading Western power and her earlier promise to stay by America’s side “regardless of what happens.”

Critical readers will point out that it is not Merkel’s fault that during her chancellorship Russia has changed from friend to foe. In reality, Merkel’s chancellorship began with a deterioration in the Russian-Ukrainian standoff. The gas conflict also affected the EU. Her predecessor Schröder may have found a diplomatic solution to the energy conflict between Moscow and Kiev, but Merkel left the issue to the EU Commission, which under the influence of the new Eurocrats from the Central and Eastern European member-states quickly took Ukraine’s side. After the gas dispute, other conflicts followed: a tiff over Polish meat or a wartime memorial in Estonia, a dispute over the military conflict in South Ossetia, American missile defenses, or Kosovo’s independence, “color revolutions” in the former USSR, the “Arab Spring” etc.  

When Democrat Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. with a new global human rights agenda, Merkel thought she would have a chance to work together on building a new universal liberal world order. Merkel’s foreign policy, in particular vis-à-vis Russia, was based largely on liberal values. Given that for her second term in office she targeted a government coalition with the Greens (whose politician would then become Minister of Foreign Affairs), Merkel made an attempt to walk in lockstep with the radical moral positions of the Greens. She silently rejected repeated SPD requests to rekindle Ostpolitik and a policy of peace with Moscow.

Germany even renounced its modernization partnership with Moscow because the Kremlin apparently had finally rejected the liberal ideals of the West. Moving forward, Merkel wished to cooperate with Russia only on the basis of shared liberal values, while the Greens even desired regime change in Moscow.

Instead of engaging in serious dialogue with Russia towards a common European security arrangement, the German elites internalized the worldview of the Central European states, which had suffered under Communism and according to which Russia would always be an “aggressor” while the states sandwiched between Germany and Russia would remain eternal “victims” of Soviet-Russian imperialism. Therefore, in their view, they were owed repentance.

German mass media and think-tanks lurched towards this position, while elder statesmen such as Egon Bahr and Hans-Dietrich Genscher warned, in vain, against turning Russia into an enemy, unnecessarily.  

There’s one thing though, for which to commend Merkel: she did everything to avoid a serious conflict between Russia and the West, which could have happened not in eastern Ukraine, but six years earlier. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest the German Chancellor argued against NATO enlargement into Ukraine and Georgia. When Vladimir Putin handed over the presidency to more liberal Dmitry Medvedev, she tried to work with him to end the raging post-Soviet territorial conflicts by way of the so-called Meseberg Process. However, an intended strengthening of the OSCE and creation of new mechanisms of consultation between Russia and the West never came to fruition, in part because other European allies did not support Berlin.

Merkel expressed reservations regarding a new “Eastern Partnership” with the EU, which had been founded by such Russia-skeptical countries as Great Britain, Sweden, Poland, and the three Baltic States in a bid to bind these countries and push Russia away towards Asia.

The misguided Eastern Partnership ended in 2013 with a total disaster in Ukraine, where suddenly, Russia and the EU faced each other as military adversaries. Merkel understood how dangerous the situation was and together with France took over the reins of the peace process in eastern Ukraine, without involving the architects of the Eastern Partnership. But for her efforts, there would have been no Normandy format or Minsk peace process.  She prevented an all-European war that would have had many more horrible consequences than the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.   

A solid crisis manager as she was, Merkel is still in the trap of a misguided view of Russia which causes considerable consternation. Instead of putting all her efforts into a project to create a common area between Lisbon and Vladivostok, which would include Russia together with a united Europe, she is constantly getting trapped in her own moralizing litanies. Instead of seizing the opportunity to work with Putin on global security matters, for example de-escalating the information war and negotiating cyberspace cooperation, she speaks the loudest among all Western heads of state about sanctions and lectures the Kremlin leader on human rights violations in his country. Putin feels reprimanded while Merkel wins applause at home, but no progress is made towards resolving the existential strategic issues vital to Europe’s security.  

German and Russian views today could not be farther apart. Merkel demands from Russia an unconditional return to the liberal principles of the Paris Charter. Given certain statements made by German and American politicians and media, one gets the impression that they are denying Putin his legitimate status in power because of democratic shortcomings in his country and that the West is only willing to work with a Russia that returns to the foreign policies of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. 

Russia wants Germany to free itself of the United States and focus on a continental rather than transatlantic Europe. A continental Europe would be more positive to Russia than a transatlantic one.  While Merkel still believes in Europe as an influential value model for the world, the world order for Putin changed long ago.  It is no longer the U.S. and the EU, but the new centers of power in Asia that are setting the tone and with which Russia now fosters alliances.

After the Bundestag elections Merkel will face a decisive turning point in foreign policy. Meanwhile, her opponents are not only in Moscow but also in Washington, Ankara, and some other European capitals. Unless he is impeached, Trump will change the West away from a liberal values orientation towards a pragmatic policy of national interest for individual countries. Two Anglo-Saxon powers, the United States and Great Britain, are leaving Europe, while a break in the EU’s relations with Turkey could occur at any moment. Merkel hopes French President Emmanuel Macron can become a new Obama, with whom she can salvage the community of shared Western values for a better future. Her desire for Europe to step up as an economic power and security policy bloc, if necessary without the United States, is understandable but unrealistic. There will be numerous EU countries unwilling to replace U.S.’ military leadership with a Franco-German model.  

The people of Europe have suddenly awakened to a changed geopolitical landscape. The U.S. as the traditional protector and foremost nuclear power is suddenly gone, while the world’s second nuclear power, Russia, is still present and more influential now than just a few years ago. Moreover, Merkel fears that Trump and Putin might strike a global security deal over the heads of the Europeans, such as in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East.  

This means that now for the first time since the end of World War II there will be nothing left for the EU to do but engage in dialogue with Russia on European security, separate from American national interests. However, such a dialogue will not work from a position of strength.

In all likelihood, Merkel will remain Chancellor following the Bundestag elections in September, after which she will have a lot to work on. Her foreign policy will have to be multi-pronged:

1) Agreeing to a common European denominator in security policy;  

2) Realigning transatlantic relations;

3) Creating an international anti-terror alliance in the face of increasing Islamist attacks on Western societies;

4) Strengthening economic relations with China as Asia’s superpower;

5) Conceiving a debate on a “Common Area from Lisbon to Vladivostok” as a continuation of the Minsk process in Ukraine.

The last point is the key to a European peace with Russia.