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Commentary | 13 December 2012

Is Germany changing its policy towards Russia?

Image of Ulrich Weisser

Ulrich Weisser |Former Director of Plans and Policy and former Military Advisor to the German Minister of Defence

Deterrence Economy Europe Germany Russia Security Euro-Atlantic Security

Even outsiders who are not familiar with the special conditions which determine German-Russian relations have noticed that these relations have worsened in recent months. The change is worrying, when seen in a wider economic, historical, political and strategic context. Germany needs to pause, reflect, and think about the longer-term interests and challenges that are at stake.

The country naturally wants to bring its economic power to bear in international affairs whilst underwriting this approach with a strong commitment to human rights. Whenever these two elements of policy come into tension however, the government in Berlin has to make crucial decisions which also have to take other factors into account.

Part of the wider relevant context is that postwar German security was highly dependent on functioning and credible deterrence of a threatening Soviet Union, with deterrence based on the conventional and nuclear capabilities of the NATO Alliance. Since the end of the Cold War however, Germany and Russia have enjoyed decades of excellent relations – based on broad bipartisan support in Germany.

After two bloody wars in which Russia lost far more than 20 million people, all postwar German governments felt deeply obliged to pursue a policy of reconciliation and close co-operation with Russia in all possible fields. It seems like a historical miracle that Russia responded more than positively.

Today Russian trust in Germany, and German ambitions, have led to a mutual trade relationship with more than 6300 German companies active in Russia. In 2011, bilateral trade rose to a record high of 75 billion euros with over 300,000 German employees now dependent on this trade.

Looking at what is going on in the world more widely, we see the prevailing conditions of a global economy in which wealth and influence are flowing to new economic powers, and in which Europe itself can only maintain international competitiveness and influence together with Russia and the US. We have become mutually dependent with Russia and if we fall back into a competitive or conflictual relationship with one another, both sides will suffer relative to the growing global competition.

There is not only an economic dimension to this argument but also a far reaching strategic one, for the most dangerous potential for crisis and conflict is located at Europe and Russia’s doorstep in the wider Middle East – threatening both Russia and the rest of Europe. One does not have to be a strategic genius to come to the pressing conclusion that a common threat requires a common response.

Many of the individuals who worked on deterrence and security strategy in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, and used to be real experts on such issues, however, are not available anymore and have not been replaced. This major gap is now having consequences.

We need more than ever before to have sober strategic analysis and imaginative concepts in order to stabilize regional and global security so that we can pursue common threats together and tackle global challenges like the danger from nuclear weapons. But German policy makers, both in parliament and wider political circles tend to think less and less in terms of geopolitics, defense and deterrence – and more and more only of internal Russian developments like insufficient rule of law, corruption and offensive acts against human rights.

These concerns are rapidly becoming the one and only yardstick for operating bilateral relations and this line of criticism of Russia is also almost exclusively focused on President Putin himself.

Instead of focusing solely on criticizing aspects of Russia’s domestic politics that it may not like, Germany now has to be capable of answering another overarching question, namely how can we pave the way for more, not less constructive cooperation with Russia in pursuit of our wider common security and economic interests?

By seeming to ignore this question today many of Germany`s key policy-makers are falling into the trap of short-termism while being blinded by aspects of President Putin`s increasingly autocratic leadership that they understandably do not like.

The conservative faction in the German Parliament even went so far as to release a critical resolution concerning internal developments in Russia and Russia`s position on Syria, while lecturing Moscow on how to behave as a member of international institutions.

This resolution, which did not find the agreement of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was also released just before regular German-Russian bilateral government consultations, contaminating the atmosphere in which they took place. In doing so, the German resolution followed the line being set by the Magnitzky Act passed recently by the US-Senate.

The German media too, has on the whole been enthusiastic about this course of action, which could nevertheless be understood in Moscow as a slap in the face for the Russian government.

Most of the opinion leaders in the German media show a degree of ignorance about Russia that has all the potential to support a permanent worsening in German-Russian relations that will be detrimental to the vital interests of both countries concerned. It is not sufficiently understood that Russia remains an indispensable member of Europe and the Euro – Atlantic security space, not least due to its sheer geopolitical weight in the global and regional balance of power.

The binding imperative for German – Russian relations should therefore continue to be that peace and stability in Europe, and an effective Europe on the world stage, is only possible with and not against Russia.

The newly developing Russian middle class must also know that the doors of Europe are wide open for them and that Europe in general, and Germany in particular, has long term interests in a cordial , productive relationship – even in the face of short-term difficulties and even if the present generation of policy-makers seems, for now, to be incapable of living up to this long-term challenge.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.