Germany and the Russia-West Standoff

10 MINS READApr 27, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
German Foreign Policy and the Russia-West Standoff
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend an international ceremony in France.
(SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images)

Germany has long been a leading European power, but the Ukraine crisis has forced Berlin to become more active in Russia's standoff with the West. The German government is playing a key role in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet periphery. Although Germany has preferred to balance between Russia and the United States in its mediation efforts, Berlin is becoming increasingly willing to stand up to both Moscow and Washington and act independently in service of its national interests in the region, albeit within limits. 

Germany's foreign policy is shaped by the country's geographic location. The country's position on the Northern European Plain and lack of natural boundaries has led Berlin to constantly seek influence over the region through political, economic and military means.

After Germany's unification in 1871, Berlin based its foreign policy on preventing a Franco-Russian alliance, a situation that would trap Germany in a war with its two powerful neighbors. This proved to be the case in both world wars, when Germany fought on two fronts. During World War II, the Nazis sought to expand their dominance of Europe from France in the west to the Gulf of Finland in the northeast and the Caucasus in the southeast.

During the Cold War, East Germany served as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, while West Germany aligned itself with the West through a policy commonly known as "Westbindung" (which could be translated as "fixation with the West"). West Germany became a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community (the predecessor of the European Union) in 1951 and joined NATO in 1955. But this did not prevent West Germany from also looking east. Starting in the late 1960s the government in Bonn sought to improve its relations with East Germany and the other countries in the Warsaw Pact. This became known as "Ostpolitik" ("eastern policy").

The fall of the Berlin Wall helped Germany feel more comfortable with its foreign policy imperatives, since the reunified country no longer felt threatened by Russia and had become more free to pursue economic and political interests in the east. This led to stronger energy and business ties with Moscow; Germany now imports a third of its natural gas from Russia, and German companies have strong commercial and industrial investments in the country. Berlin's new orientation also blurred the lines between politics and business. For example, after leaving office in 2005, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder became the board chairman of Nord Stream, a natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany that he championed while in office and is majority owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom.

German Trade With Russia

The end of the Cold War also led to German support for the inclusion of many Central and Eastern European countries in the European Union. Between 2004 and 2007, countries from Estonia to Bulgaria joined the Continental bloc. In addition to opening new markets for German exports, the European Union's enlargement to the east allowed Berlin to build a prosperous buffer between Germany and Russia. This created overlapping areas of influence for Berlin and Moscow, but competition between them was less confrontational than that between Russia and the United States. Though Germany supported the expansion of NATO and the European Union to include former Soviet satellites and the Baltic states, it understood Moscow's red lines. For example, Berlin opposed the accession of Ukraine or Georgia into NATO. Germany's relationship with the United States was also mixed; Berlin reduced military spending and chose to confront the White House on issues such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which also played into Russia's interests.

As the main economic force on the continent, Germany is the natural leader of the European Union. The crisis in the eurozone, which reduced France's influence in the bloc, augmented Germany's power. This meant that Berlin had to find a balance between protecting its relationship with Russia and reassuring countries in Central and Eastern Europe that are wary of Russian influence in the region. Threats to this balance began emerging in 2008, when Russia resurged as a regional power and began pushing back politically and economically not only into Ukraine and the former Soviet periphery, but also into European Union and NATO countries like Hungary and Bulgaria. Germany became increasingly uncomfortable with Russia's political and commercial encroachment into Europe. As a result, Berlin decided to support measures to reduce the European Union's energy dependence on Russia and increase the bloc's economic presence in the Russian periphery, even if the Germans do not necessarily support the accession of these countries into the European Union.

Germany's Role in the Ongoing Standoff

Germany's balance was thrown off entirely by the Ukrainian uprising and the ensuing standoff between Russia and the West, in which Germany has come to play a pivotal role. Following former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to back out of signing the EU free-trade and association agreements at the November 2013 Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius at Moscow's behest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was caught on video telling the Ukrainian leader that "we expected more," referring to the expectations from EU leaders that Ukraine was going to sign the deals. These turned out to be inauspicious words. Yanukovich's suspension of the agreements spawned pro-EU protests in Kiev immediately after the summit. Following violent government crackdowns, these protests eventually morphed into much larger demonstrations that toppled Yanukovich's government in February 2014.

Germany played an important role in these demonstrations. German political parties and foundations, most notably the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party) and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (affiliated with the center-right Christian Democratic Union), have long worked to promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Ukraine. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation was particularly supportive of the Ukrainian opposition, most notably the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party led by Vitali Klitschko, which was one of the leading parties in the demonstrations in Kiev. Once Yanukovich was overthrown, Klitschko and his party became an important part of the new pro-Western and pro-EU political landscape in Ukraine, with Klitschko eventually becoming the mayor of Kiev.

Following Yanukovich's ouster, Germany also played a crucial roles in backing the new pro-Western government in Kiev and shaping the European Union's reaction to Russia. Germany supported new financial assistance packages to Ukraine via the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that were key to keeping the new Ukrainian government economically afloat. After Russia responded to the events in Kiev by annexing Crimea and supporting a pro-Russia separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, Germany played a leading role in drafting and lobbying for EU-wide sanctions against Russia.

The sanctions issue was a difficult one for Germany, as it forced Merkel's government to deal with a complex situation at home. Many members of the German government, particularly the Social Democratic Party, were wary of pushing a hard line on Russia, while business lobbies warned that sanctions against Russia would harm German exports. Merkel also had to deal with a skeptical public, since Germans are generally reluctant to see their country involved in foreign conflicts and, especially during the early stages of the conflict, many saw it as a bilateral issue between Ukraine and Russia. However, as violence increased — and as events such as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shocked the German public — Berlin supported increasing sanctions against Russia.

Berlin continues to play an important role in pressuring Moscow, with Merkel making it clear that EU sanctions will not be lifted until Russia and the separatists observe the Minsk cease-fire agreement. Germany has also enticed reluctant EU members such as Italy, Greece and Hungary to vote for sanctions, while resisting pressure from the more hawkish members such as Poland and Lithuania, which perennially push for tougher sanctions. At the same time, Berlin has made sure the communication channels with Russia have remained open and opposed moves by the United States and others, such as providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, that could escalate the crisis.

Germany's influence has not been limited to Ukraine. Berlin also has taken a more active role in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are all members of the European Union and NATO and find themselves on the front lines of the standoff. Germany, along with other NATO partners, has stepped up military exercises in the Baltic states. On April 15, Lithuania announced plans to buy howitzers from Germany to boost its defense capabilities against the Russian threat. During a recent meeting with Germany's defense minister, the Estonian prime minister said that "Estonia sees that a more long-term stationing of European allies in Estonia and the Baltic region could be led by Germany." Germany's already strong economic presence in the Baltic states — it is the largest trade partner for the three countries — appears to be increasingly spreading to the political and security realms as well. This shows that Berlin is growing more comfortable about exercising influence in its neighborhood, especially in countries that are already in the European Union and NATO.

Since the Ukraine crisis began, Germany also has become more diplomatically engaged with other countries in the former Soviet periphery, such as Belarus, Georgia and Turkmenistan, and German political foundations are active in Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. At the beginning of 2015, the German Foreign Ministry announced plans to launch a new institute devoted to the study of post-Soviet states. The institute is directly tied to the crisis in Ukraine; one German official said the think tank's function will be important "given the paradigm shift in our relations with Russia since the annexation of Crimea." Therefore, it appears that Germany is intent on maintaining an active involvement in the region for years to come, which could complicate Russia's efforts to align strongly with Germany and use that relationship to keep the Western alliance structure divided. In the meantime, Russia is playing its own game in Germany's sphere of influence, as Moscow is selectively building ties with EU members such as Hungary, Greece and Cyprus while supporting political parties that oppose European integration.

Germany's Limitations

Despite Berlin's increased assertiveness against Russia and more active role in Ukraine and the broader former Soviet periphery, there are still many limits to what Germany is willing and able to do within the standoff between Moscow and the West. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany is certainly more independent in its actions and will pursue its own national interests independently when needed, but Berlin still generally prefers to act diplomatically and in a multilateral context. This explains Germany's commitment to the Minsk talks, despite all the violations and setbacks, and Berlin's continuing role as mediator between an aggressive Russia and an aggressive United States. Germany also wants stability in its region, which explains why Berlin is pushing for the Minsk agreement as the solution and is wary of any provocations from either side. The cease-fire is important to Germany.

Germany is in a unique geographic and political position, and its foreign policy will continue to be shaped by numerous forces, some of them contradictory. On the one hand, Germany wants to lift sanctions against Russia because of commercial interests and its strong economic ties with Moscow, but it cannot do this until lifting sanctions aligns with the security concerns of Central and Eastern European states. Berlin wants to increase influence in the former Soviet periphery, limit the influence of external players such as the United States and challenge Russia's position, but it is not willing to be as aggressive with Russia as other countries, such as the United States. Germany is also first and foremost interested in preserving the integrity and stability of the European Union and maintaining its central role in the bloc. Finally, Germany's political elites are interested in avoiding entangling engagements abroad, even if events like the Ukraine crisis have a direct impact on Europe and pull Germany in. 

The Little Cold War will therefore force Germany to be more involved in the former Soviet periphery than in the past, but Germany's actions will remain constrained. While Berlin will continue to use diplomacy when possible to balance between Moscow and Washington, Germany is likely to become increasingly important in its own right within the standoff between Russia and the West.

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