Many in Russia believe that the EU sanctions appeared as a result of the Ukrainian conflict and pressure from Washington. But the reasons for the current deterioration in Russia’s relations with Europe are far more profound. Germany, the only EU leader at this time, is assuming responsibility for the entire European space and reviving long-forgotten geopolitical realities—even at the expense of its own economy. What is Russia to do under these new conditions?
Relations between Russia and the European Union remain frozen, with no prospects for improvement in the foreseeable future. The sanctions that were imposed this spring are most likely to be extended, and possibly tightened, in March 2015. Despite vacillation on the part of certain countries and disagreements within some coalition governments—for instance, in Germany—the European Union demonstrates amazing unity on questions of Russia.
Russians tend to interpret this unity as “Atlantic” discipline, the pressure from Washington that Europe is unable to withstand. This is largely a misconception. Of course, in its attempt to pressure the Kremlin, the United States is interested in the support of its NATO allies and will take all the necessary steps to this end. However, there are also some purely European factors that sustain the sanctions’ policy despite the losses for the European economy.
Mainly, it is the German position on Russia. This position has materially changed in the past three years, mostly due to the deep disillusionment with the prospects of developing relations with Russia. The hopes that Berlin and personally Chancellor Angela Merkel invested in Dmitri Medvedev were dashed. The course for Russia’s gradual Europeanization has come to an impasse. Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin called for a different approach.
The harsh campaign to discredit Russia’s and Putin’s apologists among the politicians and analysts which swept the German media in the past two years has laid the ideological foundation for this approach. Berlin has increasingly become a public and unrelenting critic of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, shedding the image of Moscow’s advocate and conduit into Western institutions that it enjoyed at the time of Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl. The German businesses that have stakes in the Russian market are displeased but unable to resist the new trend. The pragmatic Ostpolitik that the Social Democrats formulated half a century ago has been replaced with the politics of moral principles and geopolitical interests.
Another reason can be described as the “peaceful rise of Germany.” In the course of the recent Eurozone crisis, Berlin took charge of saving the European currency and the entire European project, largely succeeding in this endeavor. As a result, Germany has become the only leader of the European Union, while France, which had long been part of the EU ruling tandem, was reduced to the position of Germany’s senior assistant. Upon assuming the mantle of the European leader, Germany reassessed the relations with its main ally—the United States. The National Security Agency surveillance scandal was more of a pretext than the actual cause for the fundamental cooling of the German-American relations. At the same time, Berlin decided to rethink its relations with Moscow. The Ukrainian conflict was a catalyst but not the root cause for this decision.
From the standpoint of the German government, Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbas have violated the “European peaceful order” that Berlin seeks to uphold. Kremlin references to the expression of the will of the people in Crimea are being rejected as unfounded, and so are the parallels between the Crimean annexation and German reunification. It is also important to point out in this regard that both Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck come from the Protestant milieu in the former GDR, where moralism traditionally occupied an important place.
The European leadership, which Berlin is trying to advance, also assumes that the interests of junior allies are considered and represented. In regards to Russia, it means that Germany must take into account the approaches promoted by Poland, Baltic countries, and other states that are apprehensive of or even hostile to Russia. At the same time, Germany itself is being closely watched by these countries and their friends in the United States to make sure that “Molotov-Ribbentrop syndrome” does not repeat itself in any way. Washington, which entrusted the EU and Germany with the practical realization of the West’s collective policy in Ukraine, expects Berlin to earn this trust.
The leadership on behalf of Europe also calls for competing against the Russian influence in the zone of conflicting interests. This zone does not only include Ukraine but also Moldova, Georgia, and other states in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Merkel’s recent proposal to start dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is not as much about creating another channel to engage Moscow as it is an attempt to influence the development of the Eurasian project through dialogue with Minsk and Astana, whose interests and approaches do not always mirror those in Moscow.
In addition, Berlin keeps its eye on the candidates for the EEU membership—Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which are unduly influenced by Moscow in Brussel’s view. Germany also seeks to limit Russia’s influence in the Balkan sphere of the EU interests—primarily in Serbia, as well as Bosnia. Besides, Berlin is struggling against Moscow’s influence among the EU members—the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Hungary. The seemingly long-forgotten traditional geopolitics is being resurrected right in front of our eyes, albeit in a new ideological incarnation and in different spheres—primarily in economy and information. The German-Russian consensus that worried the Eastern European countries is being replaced by new rivalries.
A quarter century after the German reunification, the united Europe under Berlin’s leadership and Washington’s military and political patronage has become Russia’s ideological opponent and geopolitical rival in addition to being its economic partner. Thus, the anti-Russian economic sanctions did not just appear accidentally or result from external conditions like the pressure from Washington or the Malaysian Boeing disaster.
All this does not mean that another—European—front in Russia’s confrontation with the West has now been opened. We are dealing with both cooperation and confrontation in conjunction with an important geopolitical component. Berlin—single-handedly and via Brussels—will be putting economic pressure on Moscow to make it return to the international legal realm while also continuing a difficult dialogue with the Kremlin. Germany is also prepared to take Russia’s security interests into account—in particular, on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Therefore, Russia needs to pay increased attention to the EU and its individual member states. It is evident that the current confrontation between Russia and the United States cannot be reduced to Ukraine and will not cease even if the Ukrainian conflict is resolved. However, when it comes to Russia’s relations with Europe, even partial stabilization of the situation in Ukraine might play a positive role. The recent Donbas elections highlighted the need for modernizing the Minsk agreements, strengthening the ceasefire regime on that basis, and launching political dialogue between Donbas and Kiev. Berlin happens to be Moscow’s key partner in this undertaking.
Potential progress will raise questions about the principles and foundations of the European security under the new conditions, new norms and rules of behavior, confidence building measures and control. The 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act celebrated in 2015 may mark the beginning of the forward movement, which will gain further momentum during the German OSCE chairmanship in 2016. This prospect should be advanced and prepared for. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many in Russia treated Europe as an energy resource market, a place to deposit one’s fortunes, and as a vacation destination. This time has passed. Europe, and particularly Germany, requires attention again.