The post-war division of Germany, and West Germany’s overwhelming dependence on the US, created a very different context for relations with the Soviet Union from that of France, which viewed its relationship with the USSR as an opportunity to counterbalance the US and assert its autonomy.
Relations between Germany and Russia, and between France and Russia, are deep and extensive, rooted in the history of the three countries. At least in recent decades, however, the German–Russian relationship has been the more complex and developed of the two. This is due both to historical developments connected to the Second World War and the ensuing division of Germany, and to the extensive economic and energy-related ties between the two countries, as well as intensive civil society cooperation. The difficult phase both relationships are currently experiencing represents an exception rather than the rule with regard to the past few decades.
The significance of the Cold War
Since the 1960s, France has not shied away from its reputation as the West’s ‘troublemaker’. Determined to assert the sovereign independence of France and to carry out ‘a policy of grandeur’, President Charles de Gaulle (1958–69) rejected the Cold War status quo and the domination of the US. In 1966 he removed France from NATO’s integrated military command structure and travelled to the Soviet Union for a momentous two-week visit. The following year, he vetoed the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) because he doubted Britain’s commitment to continental Europe and its independence from the US. From that point, de Gaulle sought to go beyond the concept of two blocs and to put an end to the division of Europe. To promote East–West dialogue, this right-wing figure – who had absolutely no sympathy for communism – developed relations with the Soviet Union, but also with Poland and Romania.
De Gaulle’s successors continued his policy of independence, albeit in a less intransigent manner, and remained committed to the detente, including during the Euromissile crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. François Mitterrand (1981–95) was more concerned, in his early years in office, about the heightened threat arising from the Soviet Union. No doubt he also wanted to allay the fears that the election of a Socialist French president aroused in Washington. While valuing the Western alliance, Mitterrand nonetheless refused to follow the US sanctions policy and resisted US pressure to prevent the construction of a Soviet gas pipeline. In short, France defined its relationship with Moscow during most of the Cold War on the basis of objectives that went beyond bilateral concerns, trying to ensure a balance in international relations and to preserve its autonomy of action, which was seen as an end in itself, rather than a means.
Relations between Germany and Russia, and between France and Russia, are deep and extensive, rooted in the history of the three countries.
Similarly, the German relationship with today’s Russia did not begin in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather, there were important relations not only between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the USSR, but also between the latter and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) over several decades. At the same time, the FRG was clearly and unquestionably embedded in both Western European and transatlantic structures, being dependent on the US for its economic renewal and its security arrangements.
Two positive developments in the West German–Soviet relationship stand out, and both have had significant consequences for the post-Soviet period. First, the Ostpolitik implemented under the chancellorship of Social Democrat Willy Brandt (1969–74) is considered by many to have been a success in terms of both improving relations between the FRG and the GDR and paving the way for successful negotiations with the Soviet Union on the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 – and even for the eventual collapse of the USSR. This perception explains in part more recent attempts, especially by the SPD, to return to the premises of the earlier Ostpolitik and adapt them to the relationship with Russia.
Second, cooperation in the energy sector – dating from the 1970s, when the Soviet Union and the FRG agreed to exchange natural gas from the USSR for German pipes and steel – has left an equally lasting mark on the relationship. This cooperation was pursued notwithstanding US objections, thus echoing the situation with Nord Stream 2 today. Despite being firmly anchored in Western political and security structures, and to some extent under the tutelage of the US, the FRG still managed to develop successful forms of cooperation with the Soviet Union. The latter’s reputation as a reliable supplier of natural gas has carried over into the post-Soviet period, and networks of actors established during the 1970s have proved durable and influential even decades later.
The GDR’s relationship with the USSR was clearly of a very different nature, since it was a satellite state within the Warsaw Pact and depended politically, economically and for its security on Soviet support. It was thoroughly permeated by communist ideology and Soviet-style methods, and included a strong Soviet military presence. Many personal networks from that period continued to play a role after the reunification of Germany, and a certain form of emotional or psychological attachment to Russia (often linked to an accompanying anti-Americanism) persists among a significant segment of the East German population.
The European reconciliation
Following the ‘velvet’ revolutions in 1989, Mitterrand was concerned with the consequences of German reunification for the balance of power in Europe, and eager to promote a new architecture of security on the continent. Although initially suspicious of Mikhail Gorbachev, the French president eventually gave him his full support, launched a project for a ‘European Confederation’, and actively participated in the conclusion, in November 1990, of the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, which proposed a new kind of relationship for all countries involved. The transition phase between the deterioration of the state structures in the GDR and the formal reunification of the two parts of Germany was also important in shaping the German–Soviet and subsequently the German–Russian relationship. The most significant development resulted from the interactions in the Two Plus Four talks between the two Germanys and the four ‘occupying powers’ – the US, the USSR, France and the UK.
After initial resistance, the Soviet representatives, first and foremost general secretary and newly elected president Gorbachev and foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, agreed to a reunified Germany within NATO, as long as no NATO troops were stationed on the territory of the former GDR. Already politically weakened, Gorbachev nonetheless remained faithful to the principles of the ‘New Thinking’ and the ‘Common European Home’ that he had successfully promoted in order to alleviate international tensions, and then to help bring an end to the Cold War and the division of Europe. The Soviet concession was extremely welcome on the West German side, and gratitude for the gesture remains to this day. This gratitude also extends to the timely and complete process of Soviet withdrawal from the territory of the GDR, in particular the removal of military forces.
After the Maastricht Treaty entered into force, in November 1993, Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982–98) and President Mitterrand sought to give further momentum to the European project by accelerating European integration. Buoyed by the developments in Germany and the statements of Russian politicians following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, West German political and economic actors embraced the idea of the transformation of the Russian Federation into a democracy and a market economy. These assumptions led to the dismantling of various academic and policy advisory structures related to the (now former) Soviet Union.
Paris and Berlin both supported the entry of Russia into the Council of Europe in 1996 and into the G7/G8 in 1997, among other groupings and institutions. Both France and Germany adopted fairly similar stances on the issues of EU and NATO enlargement, which occurred rapidly and in parallel. Having achieved reunification within NATO, Germany could hardly oppose the aspirations of countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to join the alliance. Traditionally wary of US influence in Europe, France supported EU enlargement to the east but was more cautious about NATO expansion, to which Russian president Boris Yeltsin made known his opposition as early as September 1993. In anticipation of NATO enlargement to include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, the Founding Act of the NATO–Russia Council was signed in Paris in May 1997 to promote consultation practices.
A slow disillusionment
In the German context, the Putin era was above all defined by the new Russian president’s speech in the Bundestag in September 2001. Combined with his swift response and offer of cooperation to the US after the 9/11 attacks that same month, this speech – delivered mainly in German, and which earned him a standing ovation – convinced many Germans that Putin was not only sincere in his desire to cooperate in fighting terrorism, but also serious about reforming Russia and working together closely with Germany and Europe in both the economic and the security spheres. These assumptions were at the heart of the Russia policy of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1999–2004), characterized primarily by the pursuit of economic and energy-related projects, with a lesser but significant emphasis on foreign policy goals and civil society cooperation.
Putin also enjoyed a good and trustful relationship at this time with French president Jacques Chirac (1995–2007). The common position of France, Germany and Russia against the US-instigated war in Iraq in 2003 was a key reason for their belief in the potential for cooperation in foreign policy. At the same time, this policy was highly personalized and conducted in a top-down manner. In the case of Germany, it ended in a morally dubious role for Schröder in the structures of the Nord Stream pipeline that he had politically supported.
Undoubtedly, Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, in which he forcefully denounced what he perceived as ‘American unilateralism’, was the first warning shot. However, despite initial expectations that Schröder’s successor, Angela Merkel (2005–2021), would pursue a significantly different approach to Russia, her government’s goals and assumptions with regard to the economic and energy spheres remained broadly similar, and formed the basis for the ‘Modernization Partnership’ introduced in May 2008 by the then foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Not until 2013 did awareness grow that Russia and the EU might be working at cross purposes, and that Moscow might be seriously opposed to the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy.
At the NATO summit in Bucharest a month earlier, France and Germany had opposed the attempt to grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine and Georgia. Point 23 of the summit’s final declaration, however, specifies that these countries ‘will become members of NATO’ and will be granted an MAP at an undefined point in the future. The Russo-Georgian conflict broke out a few months later, in early August 2008. President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–12) energetically undertook to end hostilities within the framework of the French EU presidency. However, the agreement he reached with Putin was subsequently not adhered to by Russia.
Even in the context of the Russo-Georgian conflict, there was general optimism in Germany about the presidency of Dmitri Medvedev (2008–12) and the possibilities for cooperation on reforms that many German politicians and policymakers thought it offered. Nor did this brief war discourage Germany’s foreign policy elite from attempting to cooperate with Russia on questions concerning the ‘common neighbourhood’. The prevailing belief was that, while some interests might diverge, both Russia and Germany (as well as the EU) were in favour of stability in the countries located between them. This conviction was also widespread in France.
Not until 2013 did awareness grow that Russia and the EU might be working at cross purposes, and that Moscow might be seriously opposed to the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, launched at the initiative of Poland and Sweden in 2009 as a response to Russian military assertiveness and the French political project to establish a Union for the Mediterranean. In 2011–12, the popular protests in Russia connected to the Duma election fraud, as well as Putin’s decision to retake the presidency, led to disillusionment in both France and Germany, and to growing criticism of internal Russian developments, especially as the regime responded to the protests with increasing repression. However, it was only after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that German and French policies shifted radically.
In summary, the USSR played a very different role for France and Germany historically. For France it served as a counterbalance to the US; for the FRG it was the key interlocutor concerning the GDR. West Germany’s economic and security dependence on the US led to a much closer transatlantic relationship than was the case for France, and this shaped German perceptions of developments on the European continent. Despite these differences, Germany and France adopted similar approaches to the integration of Russia into European and international structures as well as to the question of EU and NATO enlargement, although for different reasons.