The centrality of Germany in Russia’s European policy is determined not only by assessments of its economic might or by President Vladimir Putin’s particular feelings toward its political elites, always bringing forth new generations of “Verstehers”. The priority granted to cultivating the relationship with this traditionally deferential partner is underpinned by assumptions of Germany’s crucial role in ensuring the inefficacy of the EU common foreign and security policy (CFSP). The Clausewitzean belief in war as a natural continuation of policy, deeply ingrained in Russian strategic culture, infers that Germany’s irreducible reluctance to rely upon, and indeed to build up, military instruments of policy guarantees that the ambition to establish a “geopolitical Commission” for the EU will remain unfulfilled.
The fast-approaching elections in Germany are keenly monitored by Moscow experts, who are increasingly eager to play into the prejudices prevalent in the Kremlin, rather than to risk examining the progressive disapproval of Russia’s behavior in German public opinion. The possibility of a strong electoral performance of the Green party was seen as a disturbing anomaly, so the decline of its ratings over the summer is greeted with a sigh of relief. Worries about strong opinions on Russia expressed by Annalena Baerbock have mostly dissipated and the now prevalent expectations are that Armin Laschet will keep to the course charted by Angela Merkel, only without her firm hand on the tiller.
The issue that has acquired an entirely disproportionate significance in Russian evaluations of the prospects of maintaining a “special relations” of sorts with Germany is the construction (for the last year described as nearly completed) of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea. Merkel has persisted with advancing this “geopolitical project” despite U.S. sanctions, objections from many European states, and disapproval by the “Greens”, and Laschet is expected to inaugurate its launch. Russian calculations of Germany’s irreducible dependency on the inflow of gas through this extravagantly expensive infrastructure may be proven wrong by the strong drive to reducing emissions in the EU energy policy, but the assumption that the commitment to this endeavor has undermined Germany’s leadership in the EU in forging an impactful CFSP may hold.
This assumption informed the mainstream gloating in Moscow on the failure of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a convincing last-minute argument against the Nord Stream 2 during his July 12 visit to Berlin. Vague German promises of “compensations” are, indeed, as unsatisfactory for Kyiv as are the reassurances regarding accession to NATO in some indefinite future, not codified in a feasible Membership Action Plan. What is, however, more important for Zelensky is to make the German leadership face the fact that the Minsk agreement on managing the smoldering conflict in Donbas cannot possibly lead to any resolution. It remains convenient for Merkel, as it is for French President Emmanuel Macron, the second guarantor of the never-observed ceasefire, to argue that there is no alternative to the Minsk deal, but Zelensky needs to break out of this deadlock, and the forthcoming visit to Washington D.C. may help him in persuading the U.S. leadership that control over this high-risk stand-off cannot be delegated to the complicit European duo.
Counting on the EU feebleness in the security domain and exacerbating the German aversion to power politics may seem to be a rational political choice for Russia. The irony of this counter-European strategy is that the harder Putin tries to discourage Germany from committing to containment – whether by publishing articles in Die Zeit or by staging the Zapad-2021 exercises – the more necessary this commitment becomes.
Dr. Pavel K. Baev is a Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).