The relationship between Germany and Russia (and the Soviet Union before that) has been of crucial importance to European security following the end of World War II.
In recent decades Berlin’s position towards Moscow has been guided by Ostpolitik, launched in 1969 by then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, designed to foster change through rapprochement. This relationship, built on engagement – including energy cooperation – went through the end of the Cold War, saw the disintegration of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, which the Soviet Union facilitated. Although Ostpolitik has never been abandoned, much has changed in recent years. This was so even before the 2014 crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russia-backed hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine. In fact, it has much to do with a recalibration of the ‘values vs. interests’ equation in German foreign policy-making. Inter-personal ties between leaders have soured, mutual trust plummeted. German public opinion has become more critical of Russia.
Ostpolitik has been gradually eroded.
The key challenge for whoever ends up taking the helm from outgoing Chancellor Merkel after sixteen years in power is two-fold: decide what to do with that bilateral relationship and figure out how to square it with the oftentimes divergent priorities of other European partners and especially the United States.
German-Russian ties matter, but they also matter in the context of a broader, ‘multi-theatre’—or multiplex—world. As Berlin attends to its relationship with Moscow, it also needs to deal with Ukraine and Belarus, the suspicion some European countries feel towards Russia, do business with China, preserve a strong bond with Washington, all while Russia, China and the United States deal with each other.
So, as Angela Merkel prepares to leave the scene at the end of what has been a long goodbye, will much change in the German-Russian relationship? Where may change come from?
Domestically, any possible adjustment in German foreign policy is likely to stem from political leadership, epistemic communities, industry and business, or public opinion.
German industry and business remain broadly sympathetic towards Russia. Change in Russia may no longer come through trade, but it is unlikely that German companies will want to forgo large commercial interests in Russia in favor of an abrupt re-orientation of the country’s foreign policy, especially since its economic cooperation with China is also coming under close scrutiny. Media, academia, and think tanks are overall split. Public opinion ranges from ambivalent to critical towards Russia, whose stifling of dissent and repression of the opposition and authoritarianism fueled by an oil- and gas-based economy will not endear the German public to Russia. This leaves the direction of the relationship contingent, at least in the immediate, on the new leadership.
A victory by Christian Democratic Union (CDU) candidate Armin Laschet would ensure some degree of continuity, although Germany would not be in for ‘more of the same.’ Past statements by Laschet suggest a more understanding stance towards Russia, and a more pragmatic view of the German-China relationship. A greater role by the Greens would open new scenarios. On human rights in China and on de-carbonization, the Greens’ candidate Annalena Baerbock’s sensitivity would see her more closely aligned to Biden’s America than Russia or China. However, she would likely face strong headwinds from domestic business in her efforts to decouple the German economy from the energy relationship with Russia or China’s Belt and Road Initiative. A CDU-Greens coalition would, regardless of who ends up being the senior partner in the coalition, go through a protracted phase of adjustment.
Domestic leadership change is unlikely to be the only factor at play though. After all, outside of Germany, much else is in flux too. What complicates the bilateral relationship is that it takes place in a multiplex environment, where each country is operating on different stages, some of which involve different actors, and the roles of engagement of which tend to differ from one theatre to the other.
The Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipeline, while not being exhaustive of the German-Russian relationship, illustrates both the challenges of that relationship, while also hinting at some possible ways to move forward in a creative and mutually advantageous manner. With more than 90 percent of the pipeline complete as of mid-2021, the project is supposed to come to an end in the coming months, with gas exports from Russia to Germany to begin towards the end of this calendar year. The significance of the project, which revolves around a 1,230 km pipeline delivering 55 bcm of natural gas from Russia, under the Baltic Sea, towards north-western Europe, can hardly be overstated. The project involves bypassing Ukraine, deepening Germany’s energy dependence on Russia, and extending Europe’s reliance on fossils fuels at a time when energy transition and a push towards renewable should be gathering greater pace.
President Biden has seemingly accepted that Germany’s energy relationship with Russia will continue in some form. The existence of NS2 may be collateral damage that the Biden presidency is willing to accept in return for other contributions on the German side. One such example could see Germany steer that project in a direction where natural gas would gradually give way to green and blue hydrogen. Such a scenario, whilst not immediate, would be consistent with U.S. and European commitments to tackling climate change, public opinion preferences in Germany, and even – somewhat counter-intuitively – the broad direction of travel of key elements of Russia’s energy industry. Still largely dependent on fossils fuels, Russia has given more thought to energy transition than it is often given credit for, or that it itself is ready to acknowledge. Russian energy giant Gazprom has prioritized technological restructuring in recent years. Other domestic energy companies have also striven to transition to low and zero-carbon technology.
In conclusion, German domestic politics is in flux. Domestic leadership change will be consequential, but it only forms one part of the equation determining the course of German foreign policymaking in the years to come.
Matteo Fumagalli is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland, UK). Email: [email protected]