The relationship between Berlin and Moscow has always been crucial to the EU’s evolving Russia policy. Not only is Germany one of Russia’s most important trading partners, but traditional German Ostpolitik has always been based on expectations that increased contacts could change Russia into a modern and open society and a constructive partner in international affairs.
During the Ukraine crisis German perceptions on Russia changed fundamentally. Increasing interdependence could clearly not stop the Kremlin from challenging the European security order, annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Eastern Ukraine. In close cooperation with the French President, German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally became the focal point for negotiating a political settlement on Ukraine in the framework of the Normandy format. Merkel’s regular telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin ultimately made her conclude that he was living in another reality and in the European Council she pushed for economic and financial sanctions to be linked to the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements.
Germany strongly influenced the evolving EU Russia policy, resulting in the Five principles for the relations with Russia, in which the interests of Eastern Partnership countries, like Ukraine, were also taken into account, including by strengthening resilience against Russian malign influence operations. Most recently, these principles were further developed in an EU policy along three lines: “push back, constrain and engage”. Also in this discussion Germany played a key role in the aftermath of the Navalny affair, in which Merkel was also personally involved by offering treatment in a Berlin hospital.
Within the European Council the usefulness of dialogue with Moscow under the present circumstances and possibilities of selective engagement were the most hotly debated topics. Apart from the conflicts with Russia, Merkel still wants to keep lines of communication to Moscow open, although she is not naïve about concrete results. Somewhat surprisingly, she teamed up recently with French President Macron in calling for an EU summit with Putin to regulate relations along the lines of the recent Biden-Putin summit. However, this proposal was immediately rejected by a vast majority of EU member states.
Whereas Macron had earlier initiated an ill-fated attempt at outreach towards Russia, Merkel has widely been considered as a more neutral power broker, who had been willing to accept that Russian countersanctions would also hurt the German economy. However, there has always been one exception: energy relations and especially the construction of the Nord Stream-2 (NS-2) gas pipeline.
However, as a result of the Ukraine crisis Merkel did accept the notion that NS-2 is not a purely commercial project and that it could have serious geopolitical consequences for Central and Eastern European partners, including Ukraine. Therefore, Merkel has consistently been trying to secure the future of gas transit through Ukraine, even after the completion of NS-2 this summer. But the big question remains, whether NS-2 will ever be used, in view of the EU’s regulatory framework on unbundling owners and users of the pipeline.
After Merkel leaves office, the fundamentals of German (and EU) relations with Russia will probably not be changed. A new Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Chancellor is expected to bring further continuity, even as a coalition with the Green Party could mean a more critical attitude towards Russia on its repressive internal policies and aggressive foreign policy, combined with a renewed push for closer cooperation on Russia with Central and Eastern European neighbors. But also such a more critical attitude towards Russia’s internal and external policies has already started to emerge earlier with Merkel at the helm.
Tony van der Togt is an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Russia and Eastern Europe Center in The Hague. He publishes regularly on EU-Russia relations and is a participant in the EU-Russia Expert Network.