Searching for a new foundation for German-Russian relations
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Stefan Meister

Stefan Meister is Head of Program for Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Relations between Germany and Russia have always been fundamental for (peace and stability) Europe — whether in a negative way, for example remembering the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on the eve of the Second World War, or in a positive way, as in the management of German unification, the end of the Soviet Union and the eastern enlargement of the EU. With US support, Germany was key to the stabilization of Europe in the 1990s; today it needs to build on this visionary and pragmatic tradition. But at least since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014, it has become clear that Germany’s partnership for modernization [1] with Russia has failed, and the special relationship between Moscow and Berlin is now in doubt.

Yet it is Berlin — not Brussels, Warsaw or Paris — that will drive Europe’s Russia policy in the future, even if in coordination with Brussels and other EU member states. It is only Germany that has the interest, power and resources to move EU’s Russia policy forwards. Many member states expect from Berlin to develop new ideas for the relations with Moscow. Germany needs to lead the EU into a new Russia policy especially in times of less US engagement in Europe and Russia and Germany need a new foundation for their relationship that does not ignore the past but is based on current realities and is guided by a vision for the future.

It is in Germany’s (and Europe’s) interest that Berlin rethinks and reconceptualizes a new Eastern policy of the EU on the basis of the reality of the relationship with Russia rather than how it wishes Russia to develop, as was the case over the past 30 years. With Angela Merkel remaining as chancellor and Heiko Maas as the new foreign minister, there is a much better chance than before that such a new realism will become German policy. In Maas, Germany has for the first time in the key foreign policy position a Social Democrat who has no emotional links to Russia, who is not first of all influenced by Germany’s guilt complex or its history, and who has a clear vision based on rule of law and democratic values. Merkel and Maas will not pull in different directions with regard to Russia, unlike when she had to work with previous Social Democratic foreign ministers. They might even be able to develop a truly common approach, despite the ongoing criticism from within the Social Democrats’ leadership and party base on Maas’ pragmatic and realistic rhetoric.

Maas embodies a generational change in Germany’s foreign policy elite when it comes to Russia, but this change also carries the risk of a decreasing interest in the country and Eastern Europe more generally, with new policy-makers having no ties or networks in the region and no understanding of its dynamics. Nonetheless, it is clear that the former Russlandversteher approach has failed when confronted with the Putin system. For example, after the start of the Ukraine crisis nobody in Russia’s leadership took seriously former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s approach anymore based on compromise, as well as constant talk about cooperation and a gradual lifting of sanctions. The gap between opposing interests and the difference in political cultures was too wide. The alienation and loss of trust between Russian and German elites is too substantial. For a long time, Russia’s elites failed to understand the changing mood in Germany and kept hoping for the continuing “Schröderizaton” of its Russia policy, an approach based on the idea that relations should be guided by big infrastructure projects like Nord Stream, energy and economic cooperation for mutual benefits, and the personal relationship between leaders. Russia’s leaders did not understand that Merkel’s support for sanctions and clear defence of the sovereignty of Ukraine not only reflected her personal views but also that German decision makers have a completely different understanding than Russia’s about the future of the European security order and the role of international law and agreements in the international relations

The lack of mutual understanding and concepts in dealing with each other is the current reality of German-Russian relations. We are also in a transition period to a new relationship between Russia and the EU and sometimes patience is better than politicking without substance. If there are contrary interests in some areas you need to accept and need to be able to work in parallel on other issues where common interests are closer. This pragmatism is especially important in times, when the US leadership has no clear strategy in dealing with Russia. The main problem is that the current US policy towards Russia creates risks in the security field that can be dangerous for the security in Europe. Here it needs more German and other European member states leadership in NATO to minimize these risks.

What are the preconditions for a new relationship?

First, Germany’s policy towards Russia and Eastern Europe has to be within the context of the EU and NATO, which are both fundamental for its prosperity and security. It is not directed against any European state but is coordinated with its allies in both institutions. Growing differences with the United States will not lead to an alternative German approach to Russia but it will increase even more the importance of the EU when it comes to Germany’s foreign, security and economic policy.

Second, a new German (and EU) Russia policy can only be successful if it takes the countries of the common neighbourhood as seriously as it takes Russia. The countries between Russia and the EU will stay for both the key area of conflict in the foreseeable future. Therefore, what is needed is a simultaneous rethink of policy towards Russia and towards Eastern Europe, and an integrated approach between the two. As long as policies towards Russia and the EaP countries are on parallel tracks, the conflict with Russia over the common neigbhourhood will not end.

Third, a new policy needs to take seriously and realistically Russia’s society as well as its leadership. It should not be based on an idealistic wish list of how Russia’s leadership should develop the country (partnership for modernization meant also thinking that Germany knew how Russia should evolve and modernize) but on what is Russia’s actual vision of its future. If there is no vision by the current Russian leadership because of the lack of interest in a modernization of the country or a gap between the ruling elites and society, Germany has to learn from more exchanges with Russia’s society and its progressive elites, whether we like them or not.

Why a new foundation for relations?

Today’s world is different than the Cold War one, or even the one that lasted until the global financial crisis in 2008–2009. The United States’ position as a world leader and role model is declining. In middle term Washington will more or less withdrawn from Europe and focus first of all on Asia (China) and the Middle East. The current order does not have answers for crucial questions in international relations like digitalization and cyber, globalization, the growing role of non-state actors, and the disappearance of differences between domestic and foreign policy issues of states. We are in a transition to a new order, which can lead to disorder and the dominance of the strong over the weak. Russia and Germany have a fundamentally different ideas about this future order. While Russia’s elites want one in which great powers make decisions about war and peace, Germany’s elites aim to strengthen multilateral institutions and international law. While for Russia’s elites war is a legitimate way to enforce interests, for Germany’s elites (and even more so for German society) force or military solutions do not belong in the foreign-policy toolbox. While protecting an open and liberal society is the ultimate goal of Germany’s policy, for the Kremlin Russian society is not the beneficiary but the audience of foreign policy.

With Germany’s ongoing Energiewende, the growing role of LNG in a more flexible global gas market and the politicization of oil and gas in dealings with Russia, energy will remain important in the Russo-German relationship in the medium term but it is no longer the basis for a long-term joint project for prosperity. Furthermore, as long as Russia’s leadership has no interest in opening the economy, establishing the rule of law and developing a competitive market economy, the growth in trade between the two countries will remain limited. Neither history nor the current state of energy and economic relations can remain as the foundation of the relationship. Furthermore, when it comes to security Germany is not a relevant player from Russia’s perspective, but it is only the US who is from Moscow’s perspective relevant in this field.

What can a new foundation look like?

Germany and Russia have to accept that they have different interests but also that they cannot ignore each other. Even if there are limits to their relationship in the economic and security spheres, Russia and Germany are important powers for each other and an important reference point for the elites and for society alike. Both will also play a key role in shaping the future of Europe. Therefore, there should be no preconditions for the relationship. The situation in eastern Ukraine is an important obstacle, and sanctions will remain in place if there is no progress with regard to the Minsk Agreement, but this is not the only issue that has to be managed. It is necessary to develop parallel tracks for the relations, without any track being dependent on deals being struck in other ones. No Ukrainization of all relations with Russia and no Donbassization of all relations with Ukraine.

Sanctions mostly do not lead to the desired results. Those imposed on Russia have had two effects. First, they helped to make the EU credible with regard to Russia’s action in Crimea and Donbas without having to take military actions. Second, they helped President Vladimir Putin to distract the Russian public’s attention away from the weaknesses of his economic policy and to stabilize his public support. Further sanctions, such as the recent US ones, would impact the economic situation in Russia much more but they would also strengthen the siege mentality in the country. In targeting different Oligarchs and private companies, they may even increase the role of the state in the economy and the Kremlin towards more independent economic actors. Sanctions that are not agreed between the United States and the EU and that above all want to punish Putin and his entourage are counter-productive. The whole sanctions approach should be rethought, without lifting the sanctions related to the conflict in Ukraine if there is no progress in the conflict there.

The new foundation of the relationship should be based above all on the society. There is nearly no country in the world, with whom Russia and Germany have such a broad range of social contacts, be it in the context of youth and student exchanges, town twinning or cultural exchanges. Easing visa processes or even visa-free travel for a broader part of societies in Russia and in the EU would be crucial to meet what should be the ultimate goal of Germany’s policy — increasing contacts with Russia’s society at a time when Russia’s regime has severely closed social and civic space.

It is important to open new areas of cooperation between Germany/the EU and Russia in Eurasia, where China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union project will compete increasingly. The EU has to define its role in Eurasia beyond its existing China, Russia and Central Asia policies; it has to be more active in terms of a strategic shift into the region to impact decisions various countries will make about norms and standards, infrastructure investments, border management and security, and good governance. There will be overlaps of interests as well as conflicts with China and Russia but a growing EU role in the region can open new spaces for engagement with Russia beyond the common neighbourhood.

The EU’s engagement in conflict-affected Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova is limited compare to that of Russia. However, its role has been growing with regard to Association and Free Trade Agreements as well as Partnership and Cooperation Agreements. The EU is already impacting these countries substantially, but its goals of prosperity, stability and the export of its standards can only be successful when the conflicts do not challenge the security situation there. More EU and German engagement in the conflicts will create more conflicts with Russia but are also the precondition for conflict resolution.

Germany and the EU have to play a bigger role in the Syrian and Iraq conflict zones in terms of military engagement, reconstruction and post-war scenarios. This must not be about funding the stabilisation of the Assad regime with money, but instead about working on a solution for the Kurds, fighting Islamic State and playing a role in the stabilisation of the Middle East. Only if the EU and its member states become a relevant security player in the Middle East can it find solutions for a post-Assad Syria and to give the people of Iraq and Syria a future in their countries. Russia is weak in terms of the civilian goals of peacebuilding, reconciliation and economic prosperity in the region. Germany and the EU are strong in this field but they need to be able to develop their own strategy towards stabilization and reconciliation — but one that is also backed militarily so as to be taken seriously by Russia.

Finally, Germany can help to create platforms for arms-control and confidence-building talks between Russia and the United States. It can help to prepare solutions for new deals and the improvement of communication channels between Russia and NATO. Russia and Germany played an important role in the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran, and both have an interest in protecting it as well as in supporting Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Therefore, they should work on the prolongation of the agreement or renegotiation and have a clear line towards the United States when it comes to Iran.

All of the above requires the new German government leaving the comfort zone of the past and taking more responsibility in the EU’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods. This will create more risks and more need to invest in analytical, diplomatic, civil and military capabilities, as well as requiring the government to be more honest with the public on where money has to flow and what is possible to achieve in relations with Russia’s current leadership. Having a long-term vision on a Russia in Europe is the precondition for putting forward a positive message towards society in Russia and Germany. Beyond the current confrontational approach, both Russia and Germany need to work on a long-term vision for a common economic, political and social Europe which includes Russia and Eastern Europe.


1. The main idea of partnership for modernization was, a cooperation between Germany and Russia on the modernization of the Russian economy which will help to support democratic and social change. This concept was based on Germany’s New Ostpolitik from the 1970s which wanted change through interweavement with the Soviet Union.