It was one of the milestones of the Neue Ostpolitik – Bonn’s policy aimed at normalizing relations with the USSR and its East European satellites. On the day of this anniversary, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote the following: “Unlike Brandt, we no longer have to go via Moscow to talk to our eastern neighbors nowadays. Many partners in Eastern and Central Europe now view Russia very critically – and German foreign policy must take our neighbors’ concerns seriously. In addition to offers of dialogue, clear German positions vis-à-vis Moscow are therefore important for maintaining trust in Eastern Europe.”
A clear testimony to the fact that, compared to other Eastern European states, Russia is now of secondary importance to Berlin. This is perhaps the first time it’s been stated so explicitly.
A day later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made several important statements about relations between Russia and the EU, including the EU’s locomotive, Germany. At the annual meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council, Lavrov pointed out that “apparently, the European Union has given up any attempts to become one of the centers in the emerging multipolar world order and is now simply taking its cues from the US. Germany’s policy on a number of issues tells us that this is the course Berlin has chosen, as it reaffirms its intention to preserve Germany’s undisputed leadership within the EU. France’s position is somewhat different. The prevailing notion is that the European Union is now giving up any ambitions of becoming a center of power in a multipolar world. And if France itself decides to compete for this role… well, we’ll see how it goes.”
Lavrov also mentioned the concept of a “sham multiculturalism that the Germans and the French concocted,” which they “are promoting, presenting the EU’s policies and initiatives to the world as beyond reproach, a shining example for everyone to see.”
Right after that, Russia’s top diplomat headed to a meeting with members of the Alternative for Germany parliamentary party. Lavrov sent a clear message, basically saying that this visit was his response to the political steps taken by official Berlin. “As for us, we don’t have any objections when German politicians communicate with the Russian opposition, and we never get in the way of such contacts. Interestingly, Berlin officials prefer meetings with opposition activists who work outside the system and do not represent parliamentary parties…” Obviously, a nod to the red carpet welcome that Alexey Navalny, a comparatively marginal opposition figure back home, received in Germany.
While the meeting with a right-wing German party was more of a symbolic gesture, the Foreign Minister’s statement about the EU giving up its independent voice and Germany being the main driver in this process reflected Moscow’s official stance.
There is little hope that this connection will be restored in the foreseeable future, since Angela Merkel’s potential successors are even less likely to promote these special ties. The Navalny case was just the last straw, with the Kremlin astonished by the irrational nature of Berlin’s actions.
Viewed from Russia, it seemed absolutely unnecessary to go against the pragmatic interests that both countries seemed to have shared in the past. However, the Moscow-Berlin axis, once viewed as something special, began to deteriorate a long time ago. Now it’s over, along with Russia’s dreams about continental Europe changing its allegiances in the new world order and moving away from its Transatlantic identity towards a more independent role.
And Germany has become the main obstacle for this hypothetical emancipation. That’s why France was mentioned, although the remark was also somewhat sarcastic.
Two months ago, Sergey Lavrov said that Russia was prepared to suspend its dialogue with the EU, because it wasn’t yielding any results. But he was talking about European institutions, not the continent itself. Now relations with separate European countries are being revised, based on their stance towards Russia and their role within the European Union. This concludes a very important phase in Russia’s foreign policy that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union (or, to some degree, even before that) and signifies a transition to a different, probably a lot less Eurocentric, approach.
All the talk about common values, which has been a focal point ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has accomplished nothing. Back then it was believed that the whole of Europe, including Russia, was a space of shared values that rested on the foundation of Western liberalism.
Since the 1990s, Russia has been publicly accused of departing from these values, which was interpreted as evidence that Russia is, overall, unprepared for meaningful cooperation with the rest of Europe. There are various assessments of the changes Russian politics has undergone in this period, but it is apparent that it has moved away from the ideological commitments of 30 years ago. And Russia will not go back to them: not just because its own evolution as a state has made this impossible, but because the old value system is growing obsolete and is no longer perceived as universal.
In this respect, Russia would gladly return to the time when internal political mechanisms of individual states were not brought up as talking points in negotiations with their foreign partners. Ideally, Russia would want to go back to the start of the Ostpolitik era – the first half of the 1970s, before the Helsinki Accords and its “third basket” provisions, which made respecting human rights and freedoms an integral part of all international discussions. Back then, it was unthinkable for an expensive and strategically important project, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to be jeopardized because of the personal history of a single political figure – no matter how well regarded he is by Western leaders.
For 30 years after the end of the Cold War, relations between Russia and the West have been determined (to a lesser and lesser extent with every passing year) by the principles established during the confrontation period – principles that were to be transformed into a new form of international cooperation. However, this project has been abandoned, as have been all attempts to adapt international institutions created in the second half of the 20th century to the realities of the 21st century.
Stability and cooperation in the late Cold War period were dictated primarily by the need to strengthen global security and prevent open confrontation. This was perceived as an absolute priority. Today, Russia and the West no longer attach such importance to their relations (although the perception persisted for a time, on both sides, even after the Cold War).
The EU is now busy dealing with its own issues. The United States also has problems to tend to at home, on top of its efforts to contain China. Thus, Russia needs to redefine its priorities and work out a proper new model of international relations – one that would have Asia at the center and China as Russia’s new key partner.
Simplified, the model of Russian-German relations in 2020 looks like this: Germany, as the de-facto leader of the EU, no longer views promoting the ‘European model’ eastward as a priority. And Russia, which had long viewed its relationship with Western Europe as intrinsically valuable, has ceased to do so and is seeking closer cooperation with the nations of Asia.
So, the specific circumstances that brought about the current crisis are just the trigger, not the underlying causes of the change. Russia and the West are growing increasingly apart in terms of their priorities. This is happening for objective reasons, but is also compounded by subjective perceptions.
All of this does not mean, however, that the trend cannot be reversed. Russia, as the largest country in Eurasia and a bearer of European culture, and Germany, as the strongest European economy and a country that will have to redefine its identity in the coming years, will have need of each other again, some day. But this cannot happen until a new world order is fully formed – one that has little in common with the ways of the last century. The notion of Ostpolitik was an integral part of the old model, and as one faded away into the past, the other followed.