More Than a Road Bump?
No. 1 2015 January/March
Hans-Joachim Spanger

Member of the Executive Board and Head of Research Department “Governance and Societal Peace”, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Germany.

The German-Russian Crisis Within the Crisis

The current chill in East-West relations has, according to perceptions on both sides, one prominent victim: the special German-Russian relationship, which has developed since the end of the Cold War and which in many respects started even earlier. Viewed from Moscow’s perspective, it may appear as if Germany has become an integral part of a unified Western front or, worse still, that Germany took on a leading role in the formation of this unified Western stance confronting Russia. According to this perception, a combination of moral principles and geostrategic interests has replaced the pragmatism that for decades prevailed in the German Ostpolitik.

This observation is not entirely unfounded as the West does indeed demonstrate unity in its current standoff with Russia. And Germany does in fact have a role in this, which, however, neither reflects the reasons stated above, nor marks a departure from long-held convictions that have guided German foreign policy in general and its policy on Russia in particular.

Characteristics of German Foreign Policy

Hardly any other pair of states sits as uneasily as Germany and Russia. And that fact extends well beyond Oblomov and Stolz. In light of this discrepancy it is quite surprising that these two states developed the closest relationship across the previous East-West divide in Europe. Conversely, it may appear much less surprising that this relationship has become jeopardized in a situation in which the two countries’ fundamental differences are becoming much more prevalent and pronounced.

Remember Angela Merkel’s remark, early on in the Ukraine crisis in March 2014, that Vladimir Putin was living in “another world.” From a German perspective this comment is easy to understand; and yet, the German perspective is on the whole much more peculiar than Merkel would have it. In a way Germany and Russia represent two counterpoints among the varieties of modernity with most of Germany’s Western allies being situated somewhere in-between. Russia is characterised by the supremacy of national interest, sticking to state sovereignty and the balance of power – “the greatest achievement of humanity,” as Vladimir Putin vaunted in an interview with Al-Jazeera in February 2007. By contrast, Germany is considered post-modern, relying on mutuality in surveillance, openness and vulnerability, as well as on transparency and interdependence.

Two paradigms have been employed to depict the characteristics of Germany’s international outlook and role: the “civilian power” (Hanns W. Maull) and the “trading state” (Richard Rosecrance). Both are intimately linked to the unconditional surrender and moral devastation of 1945 as well as to the Cold War, which facilitated a gradual rehabilitation within the framework of Western multilateralism and allowed Germany to turn the back on the East which, as Peter Bender, a leading German historian and journalist, once put it, up until the détente policy of the 1970s constituted a “great salvation.” The “civilian power” and the “trading state” mutually reinforce each other insofar as the former is predicated upon a focus on non-military, primarily economic, means to secure national goals, as well as on civil conflict resolution and multilateralism, whereas the latter is “committed to a cosmopolitan trading system and its concomitant, the desire that international relations reflect the ideas of the merchant and not the warrior,” as Richard Rosecrance once put it. Economic exchange and positive-sum calculations rather than military posturing and zero-sum calculations are thus the hallmark of Germany as much as its reliance on rule-based behavior and the willingness to develop supranational structures.

These basic objectives have been best represented in the framework of the European Union which on the surface was intended to become something akin to a French garden, but in fact resembles much more the image of Germany which prevailed behind the producer’s back and without making much national fuss about it. In this process Germany’s identity has evolved into something European and supranational which can no longer be adequately captured when solely focusing on Germany as a distinct national unit.

This is not to say that Germany does not have interests of its own – although it took some time and the German unification to admit this openly. Yet the expectation (or prescription) that the unification would lead to a more assertive great-power role along the lines of the re-emerged “Central Power of Europe” as the well-known biographer of Konrad Adenauer, Hans-Peter Schwarz, defiantly boasted, has not materialized. Since the unification, talk of assuming a “greater responsibility” has been a recurrent theme. However, this notion of “responsibility” has varied in content, ranging from taking particular care of Germany’s neighbors to the East to showing greater readiness for military engagement if multilateral peace enforcement operations call on Germany to do so. The latter most recently implied a departure from the enshrined principle of not selling weapons to areas of tension. Supplying Kurdish militia in their fight against the “Islamic State,” however, not only targets such tensions directly, but also implies military support for parastatal formations (which only became feasible by portraying IS fighters as sub-human). But here too, it remains absolutely clear: in the absence of multilateral consultation and coordination Germany would never ever employ military means.

Functioning multilateral regimes, along with respect for legal procedures and economic benefit are the prime interests which have turned Germany into a global export machinery of unique proportions. But contrary to popular belief, in many capitals around the world this development has not given rise to concurrent political ambitions, let alone a global geo-strategy. The reason for that is quite simple: reacting to demands on foreign markets and holding ground in the face of tough competition is inconceivable without flexibility and constant adaptation to externally induced conditions. But such an attitude also has a downside: focusing on rising exports abroad at the expense of rising living standards at home leaves many of its partners in particular in the European Union wanting. Whereas previously Germany’s active trade balance was cushioned by a constant rise in the exchange rate of the Deutsch Mark, the Euro monetary union puts adaptive pressure on Germany’s indebted trade partners with a view to emulating the German model which quite obviously causes a culture shock, in particular in the European south. Managing this crisis is the ultimate challenge with which Germany has been coping since the onset of the Euro crisis as it strikes at the very core of Germany’s self-concept. And this challenge is by no means over. Thus the crisis management of the European Central Bank is at least as controversial in Berlin as the crisis management of the Russian Central Bank in Moscow.

Moral principles and the way they are being pursued is an outgrowth of this self-concept and its related interests. Whereas the missionary zeal of the U.S. quite often leads to clashes between democratic values and national interests, and to uncomfortable trade-offs (including glaring double standards), Germany tends to merge the two, conceptualizing democratization as a gradual process that preferably involves as many actors from the political elite and civil society as possible. Implanting democracy from abroad or pressing for “democratic breakthroughs” are inherently alien to this very understanding. The concept of “modernization partnerships,” launched by Foreign Minister Steinmeier in 2008, is a perfect example of such comprehensive approaches as it took German and Russian economic interests as starting point and merged them with the aim of facilitating gradual change.

Moreover, promoting the rule of law, by definition in cooperation with the relevant regimes, is at least equal, if not foundational, to the promotion of democratic procedures. This logic is tightly connected to the peculiar role of the state in German consciousness. In Germany, what Russian statists dream of has become true: the voluntary and all-encompassing allegiance to the state. This attitude has become somewhat second nature to German citizens, constitutes an integral part of everyday life, and reflects the clear sequence between the rule of law and democratic accountability that existed in 19th century Germany. From that derives an emphasis on comprehensive dialogue and more specifically on rule of law dialogue (Rechtsstaatsdialog) as building blocks in German democracy promotion, and an equally strong emphasis on rule-based behavior (with not much negotiating space). This also implies that, contrary to Russia, in Germany allegiance to the state does not require many demonstrative symbolic acts.

However, the building blocks of civilian power are by no means free of inherent contradictions, which, from time to time, become salient. The German participation in the wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan on the one hand, and its refusal in the case of the Iraq war, on the other, demonstrated that the multilateral principle of loyalty to the allies and the principle of civilian crisis management can conflict to such an extent that uncomfortable decisions are needed. Coming to terms requires many efforts and in the case of the Kosovo war, for instance, it only became feasible by invoking irresistible memories such as German humanitarian responsibility in the face of alleged Auschwitz-style atrocities (whereas in the case of Afghanistan it lured the U.S. into an originally unforeseen – and in fact unwelcome and ultimately futile – exercise in nation-building).

The downside of this basic German attitude is that it sometimes appears pale, overly schematic and bureaucratic, standing in stark contrast to the Russian liking of grand designs and heroic acts. But there is also an upside which for quite a while has proved a valuable asset in what was meant to be crisis management in and around Ukraine: lacking flexibility notwithstanding this peculiar German attitude has displayed patience and a readiness for dialogue without which communication would have died out completely. Inadvertently this amounted to a leading role for Germany, but in the absence of any noticeable reciprocity even this seems to have run its course. And this points to the interactive element in the current standoff which we should not lose sight of.

The Ukraine crisis: contrasting the German and the Russian lenses

The facts that have led to the current crisis are well known and need not be repeated. But their reading has been vastly different and this has led to competing narratives – bordering on mythologies – that only serve to deepen the divide beyond recognition. This is all the more astonishing in light of the well-taken observation by Russia in Global Affairs Editor-in-Chief Fyodor Lukyanov that the “smallness of its beginnings” is almost laughable in light of the ensuing large-scale consequences. This, however, reveals the underlying issues at stake. According to my reading these are essentially the following:

From the Russian perspective, Western policy vis-a-vis Ukraine represents another and ultimately most threatening stepping stone in the eternal encroachment on Russia aimed at marginalization, or worse still subjugation, drawing a direct line all the way back to the Patriotic and the Great Patriotic Wars. From the German perspective, there is not much common ground with a Russia whose regime has become ever more autocratic and whose foreign policy is perceived as its direct continuation ready to upset established international norms and introducing zero-sum calculations based on power as the only relevant currency in international relations.

There are clearly variations of these themes on both sides, but it is obvious that not only in their extreme versions these narratives leave no room for common understanding or compromises – and sometimes one might get the impression that this is exactly their purpose. With respect to official representatives it is not surprising that both sides are trying to make sense of the confrontation without assuming responsibility; the blame is unequivocally put on the opposite side completely detached from the interactive nature of international relations. However, this also tends to dominate the political discourses on either side. And this has detrimental effects: it blocks thinking out of the box, and it obscures any rational calculation of costs and benefits.

One such example is the Germany-bashing that has recently become popular in Moscow. According to this reasoning Germany is exploiting the Ukraine crisis as a pretext for consolidating its leading position within and on behalf of the EU. It is allegedly aiming at a purely European Europe independent of the U.S. (which, however, regularly pops up as the ultimate mastermind) and in confrontation with Moscow whose zone of influence it is aggressively challenging. In this reading of the situation, Germany is shedding both its traditional Atlantic option under U.S. tutelage and its somehow stillborn Eurasian option of a cooperative venture with Russia. It is presumed to be exploiting the leading position it assumed within the EU in the course of crisis management for previously invisible geostrategic gains. From this perspective, a new Germany seems to have been born. However, neither a new nor a more assertive Germany exists. The above reasoning clearly misses the point.

It is true that we are witnessing the consolidation of blocs, but this is the inevitable byproduct of the deepening East-West divide in which those who feel most threatened dominate a discourse predicated upon confrontation as an indispensable means of reassurance and self-defense. But this phenomenon neither represents the German discourse on Russia, which is by no means uniform but highly divisive; nor is it the official German policy which has rather pursued a dual strategy from the very beginning: clear legal standards, occasionally defined as “red lines,” are complemented by offers of varying depth and quality which are aiming at ways out of the impasse. Preventing a new division of Europe has been the German rationale all along – at a time when most of Germany’s allies are at best envisioning managing the new divide.

The claim of a newly born German assertiveness falsely fuses the following elements into a coherent and conclusive whole, even though they are in fact unrelated: Germany’s economic weight and proactive international role (at least in comparison to the previous government and its inept foreign minister Westerwelle), the multifaceted crisis within the EU, the lingering anti-Americanism which has found an outlay in Germany in the wake of the NSA scandal, and finally the Russia-bashing in the German publicized opinion that has been on the rise since Putin’s return to the presidency (but admittedly started on an already fairly high level). Trying to make sense of German policy in such a way follows the logic derived from a world view that is, in the case of Russia, fundamentally different from the German, positing realism against liberal internationalism as outlined above.

Moreover, it misrepresents Germany’s core interests, which are still located within the EU and not beyond. Here Germany is confronted with a host of unfinished business and uncomfortable choices. Such a focus does not encourage but rather curtails inclinations to enter into foreign adventures. And it reinforces the German disposition to consensual decision-making by desperately holding together the centrifugal forces within the EU (and achieve a modicum of consent by the U.S.).

Nevertheless, the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions imposed on Russia in particular have once again confronted Germany with conflicting objectives which it usually tries to avoid as much as and for as long as possible. This time it had to choose between the economic interests of the trading state and the multilateralism and rule-based crisis management of the civilian power. The choice has not been between economic and geostrategic interests, since whatever might be considered geostrategic in the German self-concept rests upon economic exchange as its prime means of (cooperative) influence. Rather it has been the choice between short-term and long-term interests, between securing immediate economic gains and standing up for the legal foundations, which ultimately guarantee its economic well-being. The elements of a dual strategy to manage the crisis are indicative of the enduring efforts at bridging the gap between the two.

Getting out of the impasse

As outlined above, we are currently witnessing the juxtaposition of apparently irreconcilable positions in managing the Ukraine crisis and, beyond that, in looking for a new balance in mutual relations. The longer this lasts, the greater the estrangement and enmity towards each other will grow. Both the Ukraine crisis and the greater whole depend on each other. Obscured by the “smallness of its beginning” in Ukraine this link has by now become adamantly clear. This implies that the resolution of the Ukraine crisis will decide upon the shape of any new order on the European continent, which in turn means that there is no isolated solution to the Ukraine crisis that disregards its broader implications.

Essentially, both sides have to come to terms with admittedly uncomfortable truths. Germany has no conclusive answer to the question of how to deal with the fact that its presumably universal values are not universally accepted, that is, that there are political regimes at variance with Western values and models which can neither be ignored nor disregarded, in particular when they have the weight – and economic attractiveness – of the People’s Republic of China. Russia, conversely, has no compelling answer to the question of how to achieve recognition, that is, its problem that international status is neither a given nor inherited, but is to be earned. The “Chinese dream” is much more amenable – and based on a sound record of global integration – than mourning the demise of the Soviet Union and its international stature or portraying the current Western policy as a direct continuation of anti-Soviet containment. This not only evokes in a perverse way the “romantic period” of 1992, turned upside down, but also carries the very danger of repeating past mistakes.

Recognizing diversity on the part of Germany calls for rejuvenating its once cherished détente policy which is based on political rapprochement, multilayered interaction and long-term strategies of gradual change. Recognizing the prerequisites for achieving international status on the part of Russia calls for getting the priorities right and reverting to Vladimir Putin’s starting point upon assuming the presidency in 2000 meaning first and foremost comprehensive modernization of the economy, the state, the society and of their peculiar relationship.
Such recognition could be translated into a change of attitudes with practical implications. Going for the long haul, calculating costs and benefits more carefully and lessening ideological rigour not only means leaving the trenches on both sides but also injects a measure of rationality into conflict management in Ukraine. And a rational look at the situation reveals the unsustainable and thus transitory nature of the situation on the ground which in itself carries enormous costs and risks.

Within their current borders, the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have no prospect of survival. Transformed into other internationally isolated pariah entities, they are a drain on Russia’s resources and their geostrategic importance for Russia does not go much beyond having an instrument at hand to drive Kiev into the corner. This instrument, however, is a double-edged sword, as for the time being it renders normal relations between Kiev and Moscow illusionary and helps consolidate the Ukrainian society around anti-Russian sentiment. Only a grand bargain on a tripartite basis involving Kiev, Moscow and Brussels (and not necessarily Washington) could pave the way out. This also applies to securing the very survival of the Ukrainian state and economy, which the West as a whole is neither able nor willing to shoulder.

In sum, there is no unilateral solution to the Ukraine crisis: Kiev is not capable, Brussels not willing and easily blocked by Moscow, and Moscow possibly willing, but effectively blocked by Kiev. In other words, there is a mismatch of intentions and a mutual blockade that calls for a coordinated and therefore international solution. The sooner this is recognized the better.

This impasse clearly rules out an internal solution between Kiev and Donetsk plus Lugansk, which Moscow is still calling for. The same applies to the Minsk format, which only works for the line of contact and the situation within the separatist areas, but not beyond and not for Ukraine as a whole. And even here the limits are obvious, which has led to quite justified calls for an international peacekeeping force with a robust mandate that would have to be decided by the United Nations Security Council.

In order to not let ever more areas of mutual relations become infected by the Ukraine crisis, and as a means to circumvent possible blockades, it may also help to get onto new playing fields. The suggestion by German Foreign Minister Steinmeier to establish official contacts between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union is such a move. Officially welcomed by Foreign Minister Lavrov, it is certainly not another sinister German tactic to extend its influence right into Russia’s backyard as Russian pundits have hinted. Rather it demonstrates that Germany will not become the main adversary of Russia in Europe but remains its main interlocutor on the continent – and Moscow is well advised to make proper use of that.