France focuses more strongly on security questions in its relations with Russia, while Germany places greater emphasis on economic and energy-related cooperation.
Starting from the premise that state behaviour is not only constrained by the international order and defined by the quest for power and security, any analysis of foreign policy must take into account the domestic context of the state in which it is formulated, the perceptions and beliefs of the actors involved in its elaboration, and the distinguishing characteristics of the state’s decision-making process. This is all the more important when comparing France and Germany, not only because the two countries are very close in many respects while having very different political systems, but also because the structural factors that determine each country’s policy towards Russia diverge significantly.
Politics, diplomacy and society
A first fundamental difference between France and Germany is in the organization of power. Since the proclamation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the French head of state, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has enjoyed extensive prerogatives. The president, elected by popular vote, plays a dominant and almost exclusive role in defining the country’s foreign and defence policy, generally considered to be the ‘reserved domain’ of that office. While designing its own agenda on certain issues, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has as its primary responsibility the implementation of the vision expressed by the president. Neither the constitution nor institutional practice confers on the parliament, be it the National Assembly or the Senate, any particular powers in the foreign policy domain. Even though foreign affairs and defence committees are active within the two assemblies, French deputies and senators are generally not very involved in world affairs and do not benefit from the advice of dedicated research structures, as they do in Germany.
In Germany, by contrast, the head of state plays a primarily symbolic role, representing the country abroad at certain ceremonies and making important contributions to public discourse on controversial topics. The president is not directly elected, and stands above political parties. Real political power rests with the government, which is headed by the federal chancellor. The composition of the government depends on the outcome of parliamentary elections, since the governing party or (more often) coalition generally needs to command a majority of seats in the Bundestag. In the case of a coalition, the chancellor and the foreign minister usually come from different political parties. The former traditionally focuses on a number of subjects of their choosing, which sometimes leads to tension with the relevant ministry, and has the right to define the fundamental principles of German policy (Richtlinienkompetenz). The ministries can, however, shape policy within their own fields of activity (Ressortprinzip).
Germany’s federal system has important consequences for policymaking. Many policy fields lie within the competence of the German states, or Bundesländer. They are also represented in the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the German legislature, which has to approve all laws of local significance. This is usually not the case for laws concerning foreign policy and defence, however. The governing parties in the Bundestag play an important role in foreign and security policy discourse and decision-making, including decisions to send members of the German armed forces abroad to take part in multilateral operations. The Constitutional Court has also played a limited role in foreign and security policy, especially on questions of military interventions abroad.
A second difference stems from the respective diplomatic styles of France and Germany within Europe, and the purposes assigned to external action. Germany’s approach to Russia is embedded in the strategic culture of the country, which is closely tied to the history of the past century. Its politicians take German responsibility for the Nazi regime and the Holocaust extremely seriously. This has led to a strong inclination towards pacifism that runs through significant parts of society, as well as a clear preference for multilateralism on the part of German elites. These values are anchored in the German constitution (Grundgesetz), which emphasizes the importance of working together with other European states to achieve and preserve peace. Within Europe, Germany is generally perceived as active and serious in caring about the threat assessment of its eastern neighbours, such as Poland and the Baltic states, even if these neighbours often have the sense that their concerns are disregarded.
While similarly valuing peace and cooperation in Europe, French political elites generally adhere to what Christian Lequesne, in his Ethnography of the Quai d’Orsay, terms the ‘mental map of independence and rank’. They hold in high regard France’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and see the country’s nuclear deterrent as a guarantee of security and a pledge of independence, but also as a means of maintaining rank. In this respect, French leaders have no difficulty in understanding the drive for recognition and the postcolonial syndrome so characteristic of the present-day Russian authorities, even when they disapprove of the way this is expressed. However, the other ‘mental map’ identified by Lequesne, the so-called ‘Occidentalist’ one, is gaining in importance. Anxious to defend the Western order, its high-ranking adherents are more concerned about Chinese, Russian and Iranian actions, oppose nuclear proliferation, and often believe that the use of force is justified to ensure the prevalence of humanitarian law and liberal democracy.
A third – and less pronounced – difference is in the perception of Russia in public opinion. At the base of Germany’s security policy towards Russia lies, among other things, an unwillingness, particularly in the east, to contemplate the idea of Russia as a hostile actor. There are significant differences in support for sanctions and attitudes towards the Russian regime (and Putin in particular) between modern-day east and west Germany, with people in the former GDR tending to see Russia in a more positive light and to desire a closer relationship between the two countries. In Germany there are also up to 3 million ‘Russlanddeutsche’, emigrants from the former Soviet Union who are of German descent. Even if some of them are susceptible to Russian propaganda, surveys indicate that they are far from being a homogeneous group and that many are well integrated into German society. While unambiguously supporting NATO and advocating a strong transatlantic relationship, German elites and the citizens they govern keenly perceive the risks involved in a European security environment in which Russia is in the role of an adversary. Thus, despite the continuously deteriorating relationship, the inclination to openly designate Russia as an enemy is close to zero.
Germany also places a high value on people-to-people contacts between Russians and Germans, as well as between Russians and EU nationals more broadly. Berlin was thus very active in the dialogue with Russia on visa liberalization prior to 2014. Extensive contacts have been established in the two countries between actors in civil society, and these have strong political backing. The position of ‘Coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia, the Countries of the Eastern Partnership and Central Asia’ has existed in its current or a similar form since 2003. The holder is a member of the Bundestag who is also affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for this purpose. In addition, a special programme created in 2014 provides grants for civil society projects between Germany and the Eastern Partnership countries, in which Russian civil society actors can also be involved. Since 2001 the Petersburg Dialogue has been conducting annual meetings, and some of its working groups have over time become very active in between the yearly conferences. The extent to which this is a true civil society dialogue is debatable, and there have been some attempts to reform the format, at least on the German side. However, the Petersburg Dialogue was suspended by Berlin in mid-2021 after three German NGOs, two of which were represented on its governing board, were declared ‘undesirable’ by Moscow. Similarly, the Trianon Dialogue, set up in 2017, is intended to foster exchanges between French and Russian civil society on a given topic chosen annually, and to encourage common projects and knowledge-sharing, especially among young people. While useful, it retains an official character and has little impact on the two societies.
In France, Russia generally enjoys a certain capital of sympathy. Although difficult to quantify, this translates into a keen interest in Russian culture and history, but also, in a less harmless way, into a certain permeability to Russian discourses, even to Russian disinformation, within the political class and some politicized sections of the population. The absence of a well-constituted ideology allows the Kremlin to have an impact on several audiences at the same time: the radical left is seduced by its anti-American and anti-NATO discourse; the Catholic right is sensitive to the ‘defence of traditional values’; while the far right is attracted by the model of a strong and independent man as projected by Putin. This broad appeal became evident during the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, during which activists and sympathizers shared contents of Russian ‘alternative media’ on social networks. However, these differences of view have until now been strongly attenuated by the centralization of decision-making in foreign policy, and by the fact that the French mainstream media remain very critical of Russia. The outcome could be different if a far-right candidate were to be elected as president in these troubled times, however. This highlights the importance of contingent factors in the development of the relationship.
Security and strategy
Notwithstanding a gradual trend towards greater involvement in the military and security spheres internationally, and despite flourishing defence exports, Germany’s military culture – i.e. the place occupied by, and reputation of, the military in German politics and society – is underdeveloped relative to that of comparable states within Europe such as France and the UK. Much of German strategic debate over the past years has centred around the question of taking on greater responsibility within the EU and internationally, with a prominent focus on the type and extent of participation in foreign military interventions. After many years of decreasing defence spending, Germany has recently been investing more and confronting the inadequate state of some components of its armed forces. Within NATO, it has been central in developing the Framework Nations Concept, and has taken on the leadership of a multinational battalion in the context of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence on its eastern flank.
After many years of decreasing defence spending, Germany has recently been investing more and confronting the inadequate state of some components of its armed forces.
Prior to 2014, Germany based its approach primarily on cooperation and on the concept of Russia as a potential partner in designing and implementing European security. The idea of helping Russia to modernize and democratize, including in the military sphere, played a key role. Despite negative signals in this respect coming from Russian leaders since at least 2007, Germany pursued several forms of military cooperation. These included annual seminars for German and Russian officers, military education opportunities for a limited number of members of the Russian armed forces, discussions at the level of Inspector General/Chief of General Staff, and high-level meetings of the two defence ministries. Perhaps even more importantly, the German company Rheinmetall was commissioned by a Russian state agency to build a complex for simulating battle situations and training soldiers (Gefechtsübungszentrum) in Mulino, to the east of Moscow. The final handover was to be made in 2014. However, the project was cancelled by the German government following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, as were the other types of military cooperation.
France, by contrast, is a military power that has always invested in its defence apparatus and has participated almost continuously in external interventions since the end of the Cold War. According to the 2013 strategic review, or White Paper, France considers the ‘threats of force’ (coming from military powers) as well as the ‘risks of weakness’ (coming from failed states). The French army intervened in 2011 alongside the UK in Libya in an operation that Russia had authorized at the UN Security Council and during which it considers itself to have been betrayed. Since 2014 the French army has been fully involved in operations against Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in both Iraq and then Syria with Operation Chammal; and against jihadist militants in the Sahel with Operation Barkhane.
Following the major terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Nice in 2016, the hierarchy of threats evolved, with priority given to security interests in the Middle East and North Africa, and in sub-Saharan Africa. The dangers posed to the east by Russia and other major military players are far from overlooked, however. The 2017 White Paper, endorsed after Macron’s election, took stock ‘first of a deteriorating strategic environment with a rise in challenging threats and risks, and second of new forms of conflict and warfare’, with a full section devoted to the reassertion of Russian power. France also takes part in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. In several theatres, notably in Syria, the Central African Republic and the Sahel, French armed forces have been increasingly constrained in their actions by the direct involvement of the Russian army, by the subversion operations of Russian private military companies (especially Wagner), and/or by attempts at manipulation and disinformation by Russian actors.
Economy and energy
In Germany, an exporting country par excellence, Russia was long seen by both political and economic actors as a large emerging market that was attractive to German investors and which presented an opportunity to sell German products. Trade volumes tended to rise continuously, reaching their peak in 2012 at just over €80 billion. After 2014, it became evident that German involvement in the Russian economy was less significant than widely believed. While the German economy was not unaffected by the counter-sanctions imposed by Russia in 2014, their impact was significant on only a few sectors – particularly in east Germany. For some companies, the situation became extremely difficult. Since then, however, most businesses have reoriented their production towards other markets and are much less affected by the sanctions than previously.
After 2014, it became evident that German involvement in the Russian economy was less significant than widely believed.
Interest in Russia as an economic partner had in fact started to wane shortly before 2014. A combination of lack of structural reforms in the country, inadequate rule-of-law safeguards and growing localization requirements from the Russian government all contributed to a reduction in interest and involvement, which was then only exacerbated by the sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions. Despite the political crisis and the effect of sanctions, the trade relationship began to recover somewhat in 2017, but the coronavirus pandemic led to another significant dip in trade in 2020.
For both France and Russia, bilateral economic relations are less significant. France was Russia’s 17th largest customer in 2019, absorbing only 1.5 per cent of its exports; Russia was France’s 13th most important supplier in that year. Having chosen nuclear energy for purposes of autonomy, France has no energy dependence on Russia, even if it imports oil and gas. Bilateral trade, with a total value of $14.2 billion in 2019, is experiencing a structural deficit in Russia’s favour because of the weight of natural hydrocarbons and refined products in the mix. However, this trade deficit, at around $3 billion in 2019, has latterly tended to diminish as a result of increased French exports, the temporary fall in oil prices, and the coronavirus crisis.
There was a more or less continual rise in the number of German companies in Russia until 2014, peaking at about 6,200, but the number operating there then fell sharply to the current level below 4,000. Nonetheless, German investments in Russia reached record highs in 2017–19, although insecurity caused by the pandemic accounted in large part for the collapse of these levels in 2020. The primary beneficiaries of the relationship are large German enterprises, since companies such as Siemens and Deutsche Bahn have direct access to the Russian leadership and enjoy certain other privileges as well. Smaller businesses can profit as ‘satellites’ of the larger ones, but have been confronted with a more difficult political and administrative environment inside Russia. A strong lobby exists in Germany to support companies working in and with Russia, especially via the German Eastern European Economic Committee (Ostausschuss der deutschen Wirtschaft).
Only 500 French companies, including 35 of those listed on the CAC 40 index, are currently operating in Russia. They are well represented in the energy, automobile and agri-food sectors, as well as in transport, finance and aerospace. France is the leading foreign employer in Russia, with Russian subsidiaries of French companies employing some 160,000 people. France’s market share is increasing slightly, while Germany’s is declining and China’s is skyrocketing. French foreign direct investment (FDI) in Russia remains at a high level, thanks to the Total group, which is involved in the Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG projects. Russian FDI in France is insignificant, and only 30 Russian companies are present there. In France, too, the economic interests of French businesses in Russia are promoted by lobbying agencies.
For Germany, in the energy realm, the basis for continuing cooperation was created not only by the positive experience during the Soviet period, but also by existing networks between the GDR and the USSR, as described above. This applied to natural gas in particular, but oil imports also became significant, accounting for up to 40 per cent of all German oil imports in the past decade. Still, it is natural gas that has been the basis for most cooperation as well as the source of most controversy both within Germany and with its neighbours: under very different governments in Berlin, the Nord Stream pipeline has served as the primary symbol of Germany’s willingness to cooperate with the Russian Federation.
In short, as regards policy towards Russia, France is much more concerned with security-related issues, while Germany has been strongly focused on economic cooperation, including in the energy domain. In both France and Germany a certain understanding – even sympathy – for the Russian foreign policy approach can be found in some parts of society, not only among the elite but also within the general population.