Russia's Complicated Relationship with Western Europe

5 MINS READOct 31, 2012 | 03:18 GMT

Russia has been attempting to strengthen its relationships with France and Germany. But several developments — including a recent war of words between Moscow and Berlin and an upcoming visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Paris on Wednesday — are highlighting why Moscow's enthusiasm is unlikely to be matched by either European power.

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Strong relationships with Germany and France give Russia much-needed flexibility in its attempts to build a sphere of influence in Europe that can be solidified with energy assets. There is no love lost among these Eurasian powers, but they have pursued mutual economic interests while avoiding stoking age-old frictions. Underlying state visits and business deals has been a delicate political understanding, which Moscow has relied on to mitigate challenges such as the U.S.-led effort to expand NATO membership and ballistic missile defense and legal challenges against Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Russia's attempts to strengthen economic ties with France and Germany went more or less according to plan until the economic crisis hit Europe in 2008. Since then, however, Moscow has found it difficult to compete for the attention of Paris and Berlin, both of which are seemingly far too preoccupied with the future of the eurozone to follow through with the array of strategic deals that Russia has had in mind.

In France, for example, Lavrov willbe visiting in part to check on pending energy and military deals. Due to geographic reasons, France imports very little natural gas from Russia, relying instead mostly on liquefied natural gas imports from North Africa and elsewhere. This has not stopped Russia from trying to deepen its energy relationship with the French. Earlier in October, Russia sent an LNG tanker to France for the first time through a route crossing the Arctic Ocean, a breakthrough feat demonstrating that Russia can deliver the commodity through icy waters. Still, it remains to be seen whether Paris will ask for such shipments in the future or stick to its current options.

On the military front, Russia will soon begin production of helicopters for a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship that France is producing for Moscow. Paris has been criticized by other NATO members wary of a fellow ally supplying Russia with such strategic weaponry. Thus, Russia now has reason to doubt France's commitment to the deal. Moreover, Russia and France have been at odds over issues in the Middle East, such as the crisis in Syria. Moscow has been hedging its bets in the Levant while France has been trying to build momentum for regime change.

Historically, the relationship between Russia and Germany has been more straightforward. Economic interdependency between the two countries is substantial; Russia supplies roughly a third of Germany's energy needs, and Germany has been Russia's biggest economic client. Earlier this month, a second line opened in the Nord Stream pipeline, which connects Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea, indicating that the fundamentals of the Moscow-Berlin relationship will not shift any time soon. Lacking energy alternatives, Russia and Germany will remain close economic partners.

Whether Germany is willing to elevate the relationship is another question. Russia has hoped that its energy links with Germany would lead to economic partnerships with Berlin in other strategic areas. The Russian vision had German investors, dismayed by limited opportunities in Europe, heading east to deliver technology and capital to Russian firms sorely needing to modernize. Russia's vast natural resources and sizable consumer market seem to ideally complement Germany's robust high-tech, export-oriented economy, and German investment would help Moscow insulate Russia from the volatility of energy exports.

However, Germany has had only limited interest in investing in Russia's high-tech industry and infrastructure. European investors have questioned the economics of such projects in the current environment and demanded that Moscow relax investment regulations and limit alleged political heavy-handedness in business deals. This is understandable given the ongoing economic crisis, but Russia is on a tight timetable. The longer its much-touted privatization effort stalls, the more difficulty Moscow will have remaining a competitive economic and political player in Europe over the long run.

Overt tensions resulting from this stalemate have begun to emerge. For example, Andreas Schockenhoff, Germany's special envoy for Russo-German cooperation and a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, has been leading a blatant campaign against Russia, criticizing Moscow for failing to create a suitable business environment for European investors and calling on fellow German officials to re-examine dealings with Russia. The Russian foreign ministry has tried to discredit Schockenhoff, claiming that he had no right to speak for the German government. A German government spokesperson skirted the issue by curtly responding that Russia could not say who speaks for Berlin. Understandably, France has so far stayed out of the spat.

While it makes for good headlines, the rhetoric does not accurately reflect the current state of Russian-German relations. Germany may have an interest in looking for economic alternatives, but the two countries' economic interdependence would deter either from distancing themselves under present circumstances. Berlin is facing significant uncertainty in Western Europe, which Germany needs to sustain its export sector. Without any clear alternatives, Berlin cannot alienate an eastern neighbor with as much energy leverage as Russia. 

Berlin is facing the same dilemma it has faced since 1871 in trying to define its relationships with other countries on the North European Plain. The country needs to maintain a strategic understanding with France as much as with Russia, with little room or need for bold moves in either direction. Thus, Germany's constraints carry far more weight than any political statements made in Moscow, Berlin or Paris.

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