Russian-German relations have hit a cold snap ahead of the upcoming summit in Moscow. President Putin’s relationship with Chancellor Merkel has never been warm, but this time the atmosphere could be described as a political ice age.
The conflict was sparked by Merkel’s commissioner on German-Russian relations, Andreas Schockenhoff, a prominent conservative politician and deputy head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party in parliament. His toughly worded report on Russia’s domestic and foreign policy embarrassed the German Foreign Ministry, which suggested he moderate it. The Russian Foreign Ministry then refused to deal with Schockenhoff, stating that it no longer recognizes his authority.
Not everyone in the German government and the CDU shares Schockenhoff’s views. Many believe that a financial and economic crisis is not the time for souring relations with Russia over Pussy Riot or other measures perceived as authoritarian. However, the commissioner cannot be dismissed immediately, because this would look like caving in to pressure from the Kremlin. The Chancellor’s office maintains that Schockenhoff will continue in his role as a coordinator in the St Petersburg Dialogue, because it is not up to Moscow to decide which German politician or official should do what.
The Schockenhoff report would have been unlikely to create such an uproar 12 or 18 months ago, especially since the German Foreign Ministry watered it down. The recent Bundestag resolution expressing alarm at the crackdown on Russian civil society would not have turned that many heads either. Russia would only have expressed resentment at their bias. However, at this stage the Russian authorities are quick to express outrage at such “defamation” and are even threatening to cease cooperation.
Germany is not the only example. Russia has openly disregarded PACE recommendations, closed down USAID, rolled back on the Nunn-Lugar programs and snubbed statements referring to internal political processes. This is no coincidence, but rather Russia’s new policy, aimed at eradicating the legacy of the 1990s. The overarching idea is to present Russia as a strong, confident state that is weeding out all elements of the past, when weakness forced it to accept unequal relationships and tolerate other countries criticizing the shortcomings of its political system.
What Russia is in fact trying to develop is the same relationship – albeit in a more advanced and modern form – which the Soviet Union had with the West during the periods of détente. Germany is the best example here. German big business became interested in the Soviet Union’s economic opportunities three years before diplomatic relations were established: the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations was set up in 1952. Business and political ties were developing very successfully in the 1970s, and no one thought of making them directly dependent on the Soviet political regime or society. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union was different, and that it was not a subject for debate, even after the Helsinki Final Act, which added the human rights issue to Europe’s geopolitical agenda.
The model that Putin would like to recreate is based on the West’s recognition of the fact that Russia has, at its core, a different ideology and set of values. This is not up for discussion. At the same time, Russia is part of the global economy, and is ready to continue to integrate into it. Despite deteriorating relations with political organizations, especially those that focus on human rights (the Council of Europe and the OSCE), Moscow has not stopped working to join economic organizations such as the WTO and the OECD.
Vladimir Putin believes that economic considerations will outweigh ideology, just as they did 60, 40 or 25 years ago. That is why he prefers to meet with business leaders, who talk about practical projects, rather than fellow politicians, of whom he has clearly had enough. The Russian president believes that a show of strength is ultimately justified, just as it was in Soviet times.
Germany, and some other Western European countries, carried on cooperating with the Soviet Union even after the Prague Spring and despite the clampdown within Soviet society. That is why he is waiting for Germany to pursue a New Eastern Policy, similar to the one that opened the door in the 1970s, without demanding the Soviet Union’s transformation. Admittedly that transformation came about all by itself, and spectacularly so, because its foundations were rotten. Willy Brandt, the founder of this New Eastern Policy, who died 20 years ago, lived to see the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.