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Mar 21, 2015 | 13:01 GMT

5 mins read

When It Comes to Russia, Germany's Hands Are Tied

When It Comes to Russia, Germany's Hands Are Tied

Germany is being pulled in multiple directions when it comes to handling Russia. Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany's lower house March 19 that the economic sanctions imposed last year on Russian companies should not be allowed to expire in July and September unless the demands of the Minsk agreement have been fulfilled. A day earlier, Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama discussed the need to keep sanctions in place. Meanwhile, U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges announced that a planned U.S. training mission to Ukraine would be delayed until it was clear how the Minsk agreement had played out.

Merkel's public emphasis on keeping sanctions in place and Hodges' statement on Ukraine come as Germany is facing a crisis within the eurozone, discord among EU members over the future of sanctions, and the possibility that the United States or Russia could drive an escalation in Ukraine. These concerns are tying Berlin's hands as it works to reconcile Germany's strategic priorities and the interests of its allies.

Germany's location at the center of Europe has historically led the country to formulate its foreign policy primarily with France and Russia in mind. Today, as the leading economic and political power in the European Union, Germany is working to maintain the cohesion of the bloc and to shape its collective foreign policy decisions. Germany wants to promote stability around EU borders, but it also wants to maintain strong commercial relations with Russia.  

Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, Germany played a central role in shaping the West's position. Germany rallied EU members to support sanctions against Russia in the hope that economic pressure from some of Russia's top trading partners would lead the Kremlin to change course in Ukraine. Merkel played a major role negotiating the February 2015 Minsk agreement, which led to a largely respected cease-fire and partial withdrawal of arms from the contact line in Donbas. Moreover, while the United States did not have a formal part in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, German leaders maintained close communication and cooperation with their U.S. counterparts throughout the crisis, especially on the issue of sanctions.

Divisions over strategy and priorities, however, threaten to undermine Germany's work. In early February, when the Obama administration raised the possibility of sending arms to Ukraine, Merkel flew to Washington to try to dissuade Obama from making the move. Moreover, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly raised concerns March 16 that NATO's estimates and statements regarding Russian activities inside Ukraine over the previous weeks did not match those of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Furthermore, in an interview published in Der Spiegel on March 6, unnamed German government officials said that some of the estimates top NATO officials publicly released do not match those of German intelligence and that what they believe are inaccurate statements from Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander in Europe, could threaten the West's reliability and prospects for de-escalation in eastern Ukraine.

From the perspective of the German leadership, the United States' actions and statements against Moscow threaten Germany's mediation efforts and diplomatic strategy in Russia. In this context, it can be assumed that Germany influenced Hodges' decision to delay the deployment of U.S. military trainers to Ukraine. But as the United States takes a step back, Russia is staging large-scale military exercises deliberately designed to send a warning to NATO and to highlight the potential consequences NATO countries face if the alliance pushes too far in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. These drills complicate Germany's position, as the NATO member works to limit a U.S. response that could provoke Russia.

Germany's real challenge when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, though, is with its European allies. The events in Ukraine have highlighted the bloc's divisions. The introduction of sanctions requires unanimity, which is hard to find in the continental bloc. Over the past year, countries throughout the European Union — from hawkish countries such as Poland and the Baltics to countries with a very different set of strategic priorities such as Spain and Italy — voted for a set of German-backed sanctions on Russian individuals and companies. Managing the divisions within the European Union, however, is becoming more difficult as Russia continues to court countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Hungary, promising greater cooperation in exchange for voting against extending EU sanctions against Russia. As separatists in eastern Ukraine begin fulfilling some parts of the Minsk agreement and Russia refrains from embarking upon a large-scale offensive in Ukraine, it becomes more challenging for Germany to convince some EU countries to make the expiration of sanctions contingent upon full adherence to the Minsk agreements.  

Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, Germany has successfully accommodated the very different interests among EU members while also maintaining close cooperation with the United States, managing to pass a sanctions policy that received unanimous support. Over the past year, Berlin has combined diplomatic pressure with slow but progressively more significant economic pressure on Russia. Germany is not interested in Russia's economic decline and will resist any moves from the West that could escalate the violence in Ukraine or give the Kremlin a pretext to set aside the Minsk agreements and boost its military activities inside Ukraine. Nevertheless, Berlin is ready for a long standoff and will continue to urge Moscow to stand down in Ukraine.

Berlin's main challenges over the next four months — ahead of the European Union's June meeting, when the bloc will decide on the future of sanctions — will be to prevent the union's internal disagreements from affecting its strategy on Russia and to continue moderating the U.S. position. Germany will have to balance its relationship with the European Union, the United States and Russia while working to fulfill its own strategic imperatives in the region. But as it does so, managing internal political and economic problems in the European Union, as well as relations between Russia and NATO, will further limit an already constrained government in Berlin.

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