Why Germany’s relations with Putin’s Russia are a problem for Ukraine
When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 12, they will find much in common in their analysis of Russia. German-Russian relations have deteriorated sharply over the past year after Merkel offered medical treatment to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Berlin’s revelation that he had been poisoned with novichok provoked a furious reaction from Moscow.
This happened against the backdrop of previous cyberattacks against the German parliament as well as the country’s foreign and defense ministries, and the murder of a Chechen fugitive in a Berlin park by someone with intelligence links. Russian military.
Merkel had already shown considerable courage in 2014 when she led the EU’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the establishment of separatist regimes in eastern Ukraine. Outraged by Moscow’s contempt for international law and its willingness to risk a wider destabilization of Europe, she built a consensus both in Germany and in the EU for sanctions against Russia.
This relatively uncompromising stance represented a radical shift in Germany’s policy towards Russia, which for years remained in denial of the path followed by Russia after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.
As a relatively young German-speaking Russian leader, Putin wowed German policymakers into believing that Russia envisioned its future in close cooperation with Europe on the basis of common values and aspirations. The friendship between Putin and Gerhard Schroeder symbolized this new level of relations that German diplomats have called the best in 100 years.
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In the early years of her chancellery, Merkel largely stuck to the Russian policies of her predecessor, although she did not hesitate to meet with opposition leaders and maintained a detached personal relationship with Putin himself, despite their frequent meetings and phone calls.
Left largely alone by the Obama administration to deal with the situation in Ukraine in 2014, Merkel was instrumental in launching the Minsk peace process aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. However, the poorly drafted Minsk accords led to few predictable results. Importantly, Berlin never officially contested Moscow’s claim to be a peace facilitator when it was, in fact, a party to the conflict.
Nonetheless, EU sanctions remained in place and a large part of German companies resigned themselves to the fact that political interests outweighed economic gains in relations with Russia. From the early 1990s to 2014, Germany consistently argued that expanding economic relations with Russia would help modernize its institutions and improve the rule of law.
The reality was very different. Russia has developed its own brand of crony capitalism that has strangled political and economic competition and relied on docile prosecutors and judges to enforce its will. Instead of modernizing its institutions, it has invested money in modernizing its army and security forces.
German policymakers were so lost in their wishful thinking that they missed the alarm bells in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and signaled that some countries in its “zone of privileged interests” had to keep their distance from it. NATO or suffer the consequences.
In 2013, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych played at signing an association agreement with the EU, it was clear that Moscow viewed Ukraine’s closer alignment with Europe as intolerable. Despite increasing Russian pressure on Yanukovych, Germany turned a blind eye and did not intervene to defuse the growing crisis.
If the German political class today has fewer illusions about Russia, many of its reflexes have remained. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a monument to Germany’s unwavering desire to use economic relations as a tool to stabilize Europe’s ties with Moscow and to prevent Russia’s isolation. Although Merkel privately hoped that the pipeline violated EU competition law and would not move forward, she made no effort to oppose it.
Merkel belatedly accepted that Nord Stream 2 is not just a commercial project, and the German government is now trying to agree a formula with the United States that will encourage Russia to continue gas transit through Ukraine and limit the Kremlin’s ability to use the pipeline. for geopolitical purposes.
Germany’s instincts towards Russia are largely shaped by the contradictory and violent history between the two countries in the 20th century. Germany fears Russia but admires it at the same time. He feels that Europe is incomplete without Russia firmly anchored in it, but cannot come to terms with the fact that the current version of Russia is not compatible with today’s Europe.
At the same time, Germany is trying to avoid confrontation and is struggling to resist Russia’s aggressive behavior. He cannot agree to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons. His historical account of “the East” leaves little room for Belarusian and Ukrainian lands, a reflection of his unease at the murderous devastation that Hitler’s armies have wrought there. Instead, Germany transfers its sense of guilt for the Nazi crimes inflicted on the peoples of the USSR exclusively to modern Russia. His academic expertise on Belarus and Ukraine is surprisingly underdeveloped compared to that on Russia.
With her East German origins, Merkel has a clear understanding of Russia and is far from indifferent to Ukraine. Despite all her limitations, she has provided vital support to Kiev since 2014. Her successor is unlikely to bring the same insight and confidence to dealing with Germany’s eastern neighborhood.
John Lough is an associate member of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. His new book Germany’s Russian problem released July 13.
Wed Jul 7, 2021
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