The tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in Russia and Germany came as the Polish government expelled a Russian diplomat, allegedly a member of Russian military intelligence, who was in contact with a Polish colonel now in custody on espionage charges. The Kremlin responded by expelling several Polish officials from Moscow. Interestingly, while diplomatic expulsions are far from rare in the region, Germany typically does not rebuke the Russian Foreign Ministry publicly.
Expelling foreign diplomats is a low-cost tool for governments to publicly express their concerns about other countries' actions. Host governments are aware that diplomatic missions organize foreign intelligence activities and often track specific individuals with diplomatic passports involved in covert foreign operations. The decision to expel diplomats takes place either when the host government wishes to send a public message to its foreign partner or when the foreign agent's activities become too flagrant for the host government to ignore. Diplomatic expulsions generally result in the foreign government retaliating with its own expulsions, which often mirror the original expulsions in numbers and rank.
Nevertheless, expulsions do not usually cause significant harm to bilateral relations. Germany and Poland's decision to reveal some of these activities and expel officials with diplomatic passports is intended as a low-risk public gesture, both to their domestic audiences and to the Kremlin, to demonstrate their opposition to Russia's overt and covert activities abroad.
Berlin values its highly pragmatic relationship with Moscow. Because of Germany's geographic position on the North European Plain, Berlin has historically formulated its foreign policy with both Russia and France in mind. Germany's relationship with these two powers shaped both major conflicts of the 20th century. Today, Germany's imperative includes maintaining its close relationship with its neighbors to the west and keeping European markets open to trade while also safeguarding its close commercial and political ties with Russia to the east.
As the leading power in the European Union, Germany must also balance the diverse security and economic concerns of the bloc's members. The Baltic states and Poland want a more assertive pan-European stance regarding Russia, while the European states farther from Russia geographically — and often with close business ties to the country — prefer a less confrontational stance and oppose further economic sanctions.
A new round of significant economic sanctions on Russia would harm German businesses and the European Union's economy as a whole. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel has blamed Russia publicly for facilitating some of the ongoing fighting in Ukraine, recently she has advocated adding separatist leaders to the EU sanctions list and opposed an extension of sanctions that affect Russia's economy.
In order to avoid any potential new economic sanctions on Russia, Germany is working to salvage the Minsk agreements that led to the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine in early September. Should the cease-fire officially end and Russian-backed forces choose to expand their territorial control to important towns such as Mariupol, Eastern Europe and some segments of the German population would increase their calls for Berlin to support new sanctions.
The success of the cease-fire hinges on the Kremlin's decision-making, as Russia continues to provide separatists with weapons, equipment and personnel. During the G-20 summit in Australia, Putin and Merkel had a lengthy bilateral meeting that focused mostly on the situation in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, during his visit to Kiev and Moscow on Nov. 18, Steinmeier worked to bring all sides back to the negotiating table.
Just as German leaders strive to preserve ties with Russia, the Kremlin is working to maintain a good relationship not only with German leaders, but also with the German public. On Nov. 16, German television channel ARD aired a taped interview with Putin in which — while occasionally adding phrases in German — the Russian president outlined his view of the Ukraine crisis. While comparing Crimea's referendum to Kosovo's independence and voicing concerns over an alleged potential for ethnic cleansing in Ukraine, Putin also presented several stipulations that the Kremlin wants to form the basis for a negotiation over the future of Ukraine, including federalization and the withdrawal of Ukrainian military forces from certain towns and villages. Putin alluded to the idea that while Russia is asked frequently to influence the separatists in Ukraine, Berlin should influence the government in Kiev in order for the sides to come to an understanding. Russia could be seeking Germany's backing in persuading Kiev to negotiate over issues such as federalization and withdrawal from some parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces — demands that the Ukrainian government has opposed thus far.
The German government is influential not only in the European Union, but also in Kiev. Berlin will play a central role in determining the level of much-needed financial aid and political support Ukraine will receive from the European Union. Moreover, key members of the pro-Western alliance in Kiev have longstanding ties to Germany and German institutions. Putin's suggestion that Kiev must be influenced to cooperate in future negotiations is an indirect reference to this relationship. The Kremlin is aware of Germany's ties to Ukraine and of Berlin's need to maintain good relations with Moscow. These relationships motivate Germany to continue acting as a mediator in efforts to alleviate tensions in eastern Ukraine.