Germany and Russia Are Getting Closer—Here's Why
Recently, Lyle J. Goldstein wrote for The National Interest a piece on how German relations with both the United States and, more importantly, Russia were in trouble. His primary source on the latter appears to be a single interview of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen with Ren TV. Von der Leyen, considered in the running to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and coming from the CDU’s more feminist wing, tends towards a more adversarial relationship with Russia than the average German minister.
Goldstein rightly acknowledges that German-Russian relations saw a steep downturn following the crisis and war in Ukraine in 2014, but ties have been slowly normalizing again over the past two years. Though Germany did take command of the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast Battalion in Lithuania, Germany has since been a ray of hope for Russian diplomatic efforts in NATO Europe.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the ongoing saga of NordStream 2, the proposed expansion to the direct German-Russian gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea that avoids the more anti-Russian countries of Poland and Ukraine. Opposition to the pipeline expansion from central and eastern Europe, and even Denmark, has been increasing, leading to Lavrov to officially complain in October 2017 of political interference in the project. This opposition also resulted in Gazprom reducing funding for NordStream 2 that same year.
Yet, despite these Baltic-Ukrainian efforts to stop the pipeline, Germany continues to support it with German companies producing equipment for the project. German Energy Minister Peter Altmaier visited Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on 15 May 2018 to discuss “large-scale joint projects in energy.” Though Nordstream 2 was not mentioned explicitly in the press readout, it could not have been far from their minds.
Furthermore, German-Russian diplomacy has been very active in 2018 so far. For example, among NATO members only France and Turkey have held more official talks with the government of the Russian Federation than Germany. Even then the number of German-Russian discussions would have been higher had it not been for Germany's ongoing government formation talks earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron's especially active diplomacy and Erdogan's increasingly independent strategy in Turkey. Indeed, Germany has had more engagements with Russia than unaligned, historically pro-Russia Serbia this year.
Three days after Altmaier’s visit to Moscow on May 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, one day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited him. Combined with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's meeting with his German counterpart Heiko Mass in Moscow on May 10, this makes three high-profile Russian-German meetings in nine days- hardly a bad run.