Can Europe Make It?

The failure of Germany's Russia policy

Germany's strategy towards Russia has gone so well that in the present crisis Vladimir Putin thinks he can be confident that Europe will not use force to defend Ukraine, and that the EU’s will to confront Russia through political means is also extremely fragile.

William Horsley
14 March 2015

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. Demotix/Goncalvo Silva. All rights reserved.President Putin has ratcheted up his reign of fear at home after the latest political assassination in Moscow. He is also seeking to make Europe accept his might-is-right doctrine in Russia’s near abroad. All eyes are now on Europe’s acknowledged number one country: Germany. Can Chancellor Angela Merkel use Germany’s carefully-nurtured special relationship with Moscow to silence the guns in Ukraine and restore international order on Europe’s eastern flank?

Angela Merkel is a formidable politician, who has forcefully condemned Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine and helped to forge enough unity among EU states to impose two rounds of sanctions against Moscow. Without her personal authority it is doubtful that the ceasefire agreed in Minsk on 12 February would have been achieved. Moreover, Germany has suffered more than any other European country from the impact of sanctions on its massive trade and investment dealings with Russia.

But Germany now needs to face up to the fact that its Russia policy is in shreds. That strategy, formalised in the coalition agreement between the governing CDU/CSU and Social Democratic Party in 2013, is to collaborate with Russia for stability in Europe, while in return Russia has to become more open and democratic. The offer of a conditional partnership has been trashed by Russia’s monumental breach of trust in trying to dismember Ukraine by force, and its brazen denial of its direct involvement in the conflict in the face of overwhelming evidence from NATO and other sources.

Germany’s strategy was the result of a series of deliberate and controversial choices. For years, its political leaders brushed aside criticisms that their own national policy has held the European Union back from developing a more coherent stance towards Russia. Germany continued to privilege its relations with Mr Putin’s Russia, in the face of anguished protests from Poland, the Baltic states and others, while his regime rigged elections, bullied neighbours with gas cut-offs and selective import bans, and used all available means to subvert countries, including Ukraine and Moldova, which sought to escape from corrupt, Soviet-style politics and join the community of democratic nations.

In 2009, just a year after the Russian army seized control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, Angela Merkel signed a ‘strategic partnership’ accord with Russia to bind the two countries more tightly together thorough an even deeper ‘inter-locking’ of their economic and industrial interests. She insisted that Germany would not turn back from its close embrace of Russia, because she said that was the best course for Europe. It was a clear political signal from the country which had already come to represent the centre of gravity of Europe.

Russian officials duly thanked her for heading off serious damage to Moscow’s relations with the EU. The subsequent German decision to phase out its own nuclear power generation left Germany even more dependent on gas supplied by Russia. German officials let it be known that they saw relations with Moscow as ‘too important to be left to Brussels’.

Germany has been the trump card for Mr Putin’s Russia in its efforts to gain leverage in Europe. Moscow has built a high-powered network of sympathisers and friends among Europe’s political elite, who lobby for Kremlin interests. Foremost among them is the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who sits on the board of Gazprom, but many leading UK public figures and retired top diplomats also wield influence while serving as advisers to major enterprises that do business with Russia. Hungary, Bulgaria and Serbia have been leant on to sign gas deals with Moscow that advance Russia’s goal of maximising its stranglehold over supplies to Europe.

Russia’s Europe strategy has gone so well that in the present crisis Vladimir Putin thinks he can be confident that Europe will not use force to defend Ukraine, and that the EU’s will to confront Russia through political means is also extremely fragile.

That is the background against which the latest Minsk agreement has effectively endorsed the taking away of Ukraine’s sovereignty over parts of its territory in the east. It grants an extraordinary degree of autonomy to the separatists over the areas they control. And it gives them an effective veto over Ukraine’s future, by obliging the Kiev government to negotiate and agree detailed terms with the rebels in a non-transparent process before it can hope to regain control of its border with Russia. 

That lopsided arrangement, reached under military duress, reflects a humiliating retreat for Europe as well as Ukraine, in the face of Russia’s scrapping of the rules-based order that was meant to follow the end of the Cold War.

A timely policy paper by Jean-Dominique Giuliani of the Robert Schuman Foundation lists five treaties, two UN texts and two constitutions (those of Crimea and Ukraine), which were violated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

It is time for Germany to come off the fence on Russia. That does not mean military confrontation, but it does mean coming clean about the past pursuit of German national interests, which Russia has been able to use as a cover for its subversion of the peaceful and law-based post-Cold War order.

It should now mean using to the full the collective political and economic power of Europe, on which Russia’s future depends, to face down its unacceptable behaviour. Germany is the key to the achievement of such a strategy, which would truly be in the interests of all Europe.

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