Both France and Germany push for more engagement with Russia while upholding sanctions against it, but eastern EU member states do not support the balance advocated by Berlin and Paris.
It was the behaviour of the Russian leadership that led to a significant change in the EU’s Russia policy. From 2014, Moscow’s clear breach of international law convinced all EU member states to coalesce around a policy of sanctions. This had three stages: diplomatic sanctions; individual sanctions against particular people and legal entities, such as travel bans and asset freezes; and sectoral economic sanctions. Over time all three types were introduced. Surprisingly, considering the prevailing level of disagreement among the member states before 2014, these sanctions have been preserved up to the present day, with additional ones being implemented in response to the treatment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny by the Russian authorities. Germany was instrumental in advocating for the various levels of sanctions against Russia to be introduced, and has been active in keeping them in place despite opposition from some EU member states. This represented a major departure from Berlin’s previous approach to Russia, in which sanctions would have been unthinkable. However, finding an acceptable and effective balance between sanctions and engagement has proved difficult for the EU. Germany in particular has been condemned for insisting on continuing its cooperation with Russia on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, thus undermining both its criticism of the Russian regime and the efficacy of certain sanctions.
Nord Stream 2: overstepping the boundaries of engagement
In the energy domain, Germany remained true to form in its overall approach, combining clear criticism of Russia with a continued focus on cooperation. The Nord Stream project originally seemed to fit well with Germany’s plans for a new energy mix that included more natural gas, and meshed with its intentions to cooperate more intensively with a reforming Russia. However, the fact that former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder took over the chairmanship of the Nord Stream consortium in 2005 – shortly after leaving the Chancellery, where he had been instrumental in ensuring a state guarantee of €1 billion for the pipeline – has tainted his reputation to this day. The criticism of his personal behaviour has mixed with more general concern about the continued insistence of his party, the SPD, on the relevance of the legacy of Ostpolitik for contemporary relations with Russia, as evidenced by the introduction of the principle of ‘rapprochement through linkage’ (Annäherung durch Verflechtung) by then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after Schröder’s departure. This drew on the slogan ‘change through rapprochement’ (Wandel durch Annäherung) advocated decades earlier by Willy Brandt.
Contrary to initial expectations, the successive governments led by Angela Merkel continued to pursue this focus on energy-related cooperation with Russia, including a second Nord Stream pipeline, which will double the supply capacity from Nord Stream 1 (55 billion cubic metres per year). This project has provoked enormous (and originally underestimated) controversy within Germany, among EU member states, and with the US, as well as in Europe beyond the EU. In particular, Ukraine has made its opposition clear, since it eventually stands to lose its status as a transit country for natural gas.
When push comes to shove, Paris tends to side with Germany on Nord Stream 2, although more criticism has been voiced recently. France has always been interested in the Nord Stream projects while remaining in the background. Notably, Gaz de France Suez (later Engie) entered the Nord Stream 1 project at the last moment, once the controversies surrounding the scheme had largely blown over. Engie is one of the six companies that formed the consortium to build Nord Stream 2. This unusual low-profile approach conceals an ambiguity, if not a contradiction. On the one hand, there is French interest in Russian gas owing to its price and reliability, as well as Engie involvement; on the other, there is some reluctance stemming from awareness that the project contradicts EU policy – notably the third energy package – while giving significant redistribution powers to Germany and weakening Ukraine’s gas transit. Moreover, the energy transition and the increasing importance of LNG and hydrogen gas complicate the market and make EU gas consumption in the medium term difficult to predict, thus casting doubt on the relevance of the whole project.
Berlin and Washington reached an agreement in July 2021 on the completion of Nord Stream 2. They embedded their accord in the framework of their cooperation on climate change. In this context, Germany agreed to set up a ‘Green Fund’ for Ukraine, to help Kyiv advance in the fields of energy efficiency, renewable energy, hydrogen development and carbon neutrality. Germany also reiterated its commitment to energy security and diversity within the EU. Finally, the two sides agreed to strengthen their measures against malign Russian actions and Moscow’s potential weaponization of energy. Berlin in particular pledged to use ‘all available leverage’ to extend the existing Russo-Ukrainian gas contract beyond 2024. However, Moscow’s clear desire to avoid transiting gas through Ukraine in the future, together with the upcoming change of government in Berlin, leave some question marks with regard to the agreement. In fact, Berlin has no reliable sources of leverage that could induce Moscow to continue to route its natural gas via Ukraine in the future, unless Germany is willing to restrict the flow of gas through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This is unlikely under an SPD-led government, even if the Greens have come out in favour of stopping the project and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) has advocated a moratorium on it.
Despite certain structural differences between the two countries, there seems to be a certain potential for France and Germany to find a common agenda concerning energy issues related to Russia.
Overall, despite certain structural differences between the two countries, there seems to be a certain potential for France and Germany to find a common agenda concerning energy issues related to Russia. Germany is much more dependent on Russian oil and gas than France, which has managed very well to diversify its gas supplies – thanks notably to Algerian gas – and thus has no critical need to import gas from Russia. French officials have expressed some reservations about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline over time. Nevertheless, the country has an economic interest in maintaining energy cooperation with Russia given Engie’s participation in Nord Stream 2, and the significant involvement of Total, another French flagship, in gas liquefaction projects in the Arctic, including its holding of a direct 20 per cent share in Yamal LNG. In the energy sphere, therefore, large French and German enterprises have overlapping interests as well as government support. The same is true for a few other economic sectors as well.
Engaging while pushing back and constraining
Although the EU member states were able to reach agreement on the five guiding principles in 2016, significant differences remain concerning how to deal with Russia. In February 2021 the Foreign Affairs Council proposed a threefold approach that attempts to keep the principles relevant in the context of a rapidly deteriorating EU–Russia relationship. The three elements involve ‘pushing back on infringements of international law and human rights, containing disinformation and cyberattacks, but also engaging on issues of interest to the EU’. This approach demonstrates that the EU is motivated to focus ever more strongly on countering Russia’s continued problematic behaviour through a form of containment. But within the EU27 there is still an important faction – to which both France and Germany belong – that insists on preserving the idea of engagement with Russia.
All the same, since Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020, France seems to have partially reversed its previous course. The use of a chemical weapon against the most visible and fearless Russian political opposition figure, two years after the Skripal poisonings in the UK, certainly dampened the hopes nurtured by President Macron of finding common ground with Russia, especially as Putin assured him in a telephone call that Navalny had poisoned himself to gain personal attention. These statements subsequently leaked into the French press, provoking the ire of the pro-government Russian media. After the attempt on Navalny’s life, the Franco-Russian 2+2 dialogue was suspended. It was not, however, officially interrupted, and the dialogue resumed in November 2021 with a meeting in Paris. The 13 working groups have continued to meet, but less regularly owing to the pandemic. The talks had not progressed much meanwhile anyway, as the Russians displayed little effort or enthusiasm. Revelations regarding corruption patterns and the lifestyle attributed to the Russian president released by Navalny’s team after his arrest on his return to Moscow in January 2021, as well as his subsequent prison sentence, were widely publicized and the behaviours harshly criticized in the French media space.
Nevertheless, Berlin and Paris do not seem inclined to give up the idea of selective engagement yet, for three main reasons. First, economic interests and lobbying capacities remain strong. Second, the role that Russia plays in a number of conflicts and in strategic affairs cannot be ignored, and implies the need to maintain some discussion channels. Third, in the case of Germany, part of the political elite still firmly believes that isolation of Russia must be avoided at virtually any cost. The idea of selective engagement goes beyond the current political interaction with Russia on international issues such as the situation in Syria and Libya or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. It involves cooperating with Russian actors on new topics or intensifying existing cooperation. In Germany, possible areas of discrete engagement that have been discussed include a higher-level dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, questions related to 5G development, common issues concerning the Arctic, or cooperation on a transition from the regime under President Aliaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. Currently the most promising topic in the relationship is believed to be climate change, since it is clear this already has a severely negative impact on Russia. This emphasis is likely to be preserved under the next German government, since all potential coalition parties have clearly pointed to tackling climate change as a major priority. Indeed, the coalition agreement reached by the SPD, the Greens and the FDP mentions four areas in which stronger cooperation with Russia is desired: hydrogen, health issues, climate-related challenges and the environment.
This engagement with Russia goes hand in hand, however, with a clear determination in Paris and Berlin to counter and contain harmful Russian behaviour. A joint Franco-German approach to hybrid threats appears possible, the aim being to make the EU and its member states less susceptible to such threats coming from Russia in a variety of areas, including disinformation and cybersecurity. The EU already has an Action Plan against Disinformation, and NATO is fully engaged in fighting hybrid threats, so there are existing formats to which Berlin and Paris can contribute. As for cybersecurity, awareness of the need to take additional precautions in this domain has risen exponentially in recent years as a result of the large-scale and sophisticated hackings that are believed to come from Russia. On these challenges, which are high on the EU–NATO cooperation agenda, France and Germany can potentially find a common language and agree on a strong joint approach with other EU member states – and possibly with the UK – that will complement and reinforce existing efforts.
Another promising area for such a common agenda would be the field of money laundering and other illicit financial transactions. On both economic and financial issues, French and German businesses are confronted with similar challenges when working with or inside Russia. These are frequently connected to the lack of rule-of-law-based institutions and to the corrupt judicial system in the country. From an EU perspective, dubious financial transactions coming from Russia pose an even greater threat, undermining democratic institutions not only in many EU member states, but also in the Balkans and in the Eastern Partnership countries. The European Commission recently proposed to combat its internal money laundering and corruption problem more effectively by establishing a financial investigative unit. This may put pressure on businesses and institutions inside Russia to alter their practices, thus contributing to a more transparent business environment. France and Germany can provide an important impetus to such a project at the EU level.
Although this is a matter that affects both Germany and France, the primary concerns regarding funds originating in Russia to be laundered in the EU have related to the Baltic countries, and more recently Poland. Thus this sphere could provide a welcome opportunity for practical cooperation with EU member states in the east, and thereby increase interaction in the area of Russia policy. This in turn could potentially prepare the ground for greater trust between the Baltic states and Poland on the one hand, and France and Germany on the other, with regard to acceptable approaches towards Russia. Furthermore, it would offer another chance to work with the UK post-Brexit. Since kleptocratic proceeds emanating from the Eurasian region are clearly a serious problem affecting the City of London, involving the UK would make the fight against this more effective. So far, however, interest in tackling this problem remains limited.