John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Berlin has moved from its long-established view of Russia as a country that it should embrace to one whose great power ambitions it must resist.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a press conference during an International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, on 21 June 2013. Photo by Getty Images.Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a press conference during an International Economic Forum in St Petersburg, on 21 June 2013. Photo by Getty Images.

Germany’s policy towards Russia has undergone a profound shift since the start of the crisis in Ukraine. The upending of the old consensus is a striking example of how Russia’s actions in Ukraine have changed its relations with Europe.

Among EU countries, Germany has by far the most developed political and economic relations with Russia. In 2013, bilateral trade was worth €76.5 billion, split roughly equally between imports of raw materials from Russia, chiefly oil and gas, and German exports in the form of finished goods, in particular from the machine-building and automotive sectors.

After meticulously cultivating relationships in Russia for decades, Berlin has unexpectedly found itself at the forefront of Western efforts to find a solution to the crisis. In view of its history of relations with Russia in the last century, this is not a position with which it feels naturally comfortable. However, a mitigating factor is that Warsaw shares a common view of the crisis in Ukraine and the German-Polish axis is an important pillar of EU policy for addressing it, one that makes it hard for Russia to split the EU on the issue.

The pressure for a re-evaluation of Russia policy in Germany had been growing since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin because of increasing disillusionment among Christian Democrats and Greens about Russia’s overall direction and, in particular, the muzzling of civil society.

The Social Democrats’ traditional Ostpolitik instincts date back to the days of détente and became West Germany’s − and later united Germany’s − default position for handling Moscow.

A decade ago, German diplomats could speak of Berlin having the best relations with Russia for 100 years. In their view, a German-speaking Russian president with affection for Germany provided an opportunity to deepen relations and secure the long-term inclusion of Russia in Europe.

A sign of the new times is that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are firmly aligned on Germany’s response to the Ukraine crisis. This reflects a broad consensus in their parties’ grand coalition that Berlin’s efforts to pursue a ‘modernization partnership’ with Russia can no longer be the goal when the Russian leadership does not share this vision.

Seeing the tireless efforts of the chancellor to continue dialogue with Moscow, German business leaders have accepted that on this issue, politics trump economics. The president of the Federation of German Industries, Ulrich Grillo, recently said that the damage from sanctions would be more than offset ‘if we can succeed in giving force to international law in Europe as well as our legal principles’.

Official statistics indicate that German exports to Russia will be down by as much as 20 per cent this year and the influential Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations has warned of 50-60,000 jobs lost as a result if exports cannot be re-directed to alternative markets. 

Speaking on the margins of the G20 Summit in Brisbane after several hours of reportedly fruitless talks with President Putin, Chancellor Merkel used her sharpest language yet to condemn Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine. She said that “old thinking in spheres of influence together with the trampling of international law must not be allowed to succeed.” 

Echoing earlier statements about the need to view the crisis in a long-term perspective, the chancellor added that such an approach would not succeed no matter how long it would take, however difficult this might be and however many setbacks it might bring. At the same time, she declared the EU’s political and economic support for Ukraine and its readiness to keep sanctions in place against Russia for as long as necessary while maintaining the commitment to seeking a political solution to the crisis through dialogue with Russia.

Steinmeier’s visits to Kyiv and Moscow last week yielded no progress. He said that while he took Russia at its word that it did not want to destroy the unity of Ukraine, ‘reality speaks another language’.

This was explicit recognition that Berlin’s mantra of the need for Russia and Ukraine to fulfil the terms of the Minsk Agreements to defuse the conflict in south-east Ukraine has been overtaken by events.

Without Berlin’s newly found position of principle on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the EU could never have imposed sectoral sanctions on Moscow. The test for Germany’s leadership of the European response to the crisis is what more it can do if talking to the Russian side remains as unproductive as it has in recent months. 

Amid increasing signs of economic collapse in Ukraine, it is clear that persuading the German taxpayer to dig deep for Ukraine as part of a European aid package to stabilize the country may prove to be an even bigger challenge.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback