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How will Germany approach Russia?
The new German government and its Ostpolitik
One of the most intriguing questions surrounding the new German government’s policy choices concerns the Kremlin. Will it seek to act as a bridge between Russia and the West, or will it close ranks with Washington against an increasingly belligerent Moscow?
With Russia building up huge numbers of troops on its Ukrainian border, that question is already very pertinent.
Vladimir Putin appears convinced he has the upper hand over the West and is insisting that NATO meet implausible demands including accepting no new members nor to position permanent troops in former Soviet states.
No one knows whether Putin’s troop build up is a precursor to invasion or whether he is using it as a blunt tool of diplomacy. The threat seems to be clear though: if the west doesn’t meet Putin’s demands he is prepared to go to war.
On Friday, a week of intense diplomacy will kick off between western partners and Russia, including a third round of talks between Joe Biden and Putin and a meeting of top US diplomats and their Russian equivalents in Geneva.
Smaller states on the Russian periphery are furious about Russia’s tactics. Finland, not a member of Nato but a member of the EU, said that it would not let Moscow dictate whether it chooses to join the western military alliance.
Germany now has choices to make.
The Social Democrats (SPD) want to pursue the same policy direction that marked the Merkel era.
For 12 of her 16 years in power Merkel’s Foreign Minister was a member of the SPD. Most prominently, Frank Walter Steinmeier shaped the German response to the Ukraine crisis in 2014 along with his French counterpart in the so-called ‘Normandy format’, an attempt to bring Moscow and Kiev to the negotiating table and end the war in eastern Ukraine. One almost had the feeling that he SPD would accept the annexation of the Crimea as long as it was agreed to at the negotiating table.
While Steinmeier and Merkel organized EU sanctions against Russia they also busily pursued German national interest by deepening energy ties with Moscow. Germany also signed up to the Nato commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence but has since failed to meet this goal.
The SPD’s balancing act on Russia has a long history, stretching back to their most revered leader, Willy Brandt, and his neue Ostpolitik of the 1970s, which was based on the maxim of “transformation through rapprochement.” More recently, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has take that relationship to a new level by working as a top lobbyist for Gazprom and describing his buddy Putin as a “democrat.”
Olaf Scholz’s top foreign policy advisor is currently attempting to breath fresh life into the Normandy format and is working with the French to set up a meeting with Putin by the end of January.
But the junior partners in the German coalition are much more skeptical about Germany’s traditional Russia policy.
The Greens and FDP both have young leaderships who want a more values-based foreign policy that prioritizes ties to other western democracies.
Paradoxical as it may sound, the Greens are the most hawkish on Russia. Co-leader Robert Habeck even suggested supplying the Ukraine with “defensive” weapons on a visit to the country last year, something that caused outrage in his pacifist party.
Habeck and co-leader Annalena Baerbock have both suggested that Germany should use natural gas as a geo-political tool - by threatening not to give a licence to the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Crucially, the Greens now control the Foreign Ministry - Baerbock’s brief. She is arriving in Washington for talks with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken today and she made her intentions clear in a statement before the trip:
“The more difficult the times, the more important strong partnerships are - and as Europeans, we have no stronger partner than the US.” She also referred to Russian demands on Nato as “having a clear price tag.”
The Greens aren’t an easy partner for Washington, though. Baerbock and Habeck and Habeck lead a pacifist party that distrusts the US over phone hacking and its treatment of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
The final piece of the jigsaw is the Free Democrats (FDP), who historically always take over the foreign ministry but are more focused on finances these days. In principle, the FDP are on the side of the Greens - they want closer trans-Atlantic ties and regularly criticize Russia on its Ukraine policies. But they are also realistic about German reliance on Russian gas and may therefore be wary of direct confrontation with Moscow.
If a report this week in Bild Zeitung is to be believed, there is already a tug-of-war going on inside the government over how to approach the Kremlin.
Under the headline ‘Scholz makes Russia policy the boss’ job’, the tabloid reported that Scholz has taken Russia diplomacy out of the hands of the Foreign Ministry and into the Chancellery. According to the report, he’s already assured Putin he wants a “reset” of relations.
Now, it’s hard to tell at this stage whether Bild Zeitung is just making a good headline out of a few tit-bits of information. It isn’t unusual for diplomacy of this critical nature to be handled by the Chancellery. But the report that Scholz is looking for a “reset” certainly suggests that he wants to dictate the direction of that diplomacy.
This would be the second time within a matter of days that Scholz has given the Greens a cold example of who’s in charge now, - he appears to have acquiesced to nuclear power and natural gas making it into the EU’s list of “sustainable” energy sources to help out the French (see Monday’s newsletter).
Scholz could be taking advantage of early polling among the German public that shows broad trust in him to do a good job (77 percent approval). Faith in Baerbock by contrast is low, with just 37 percent thinking she’ll make a good Foreign Minister. If Scholz establishes himself early in the public consciousness as a dominant leader rather than primus inter pares in a finely balanced coalition, he will win himself considerable room for manoeuvre.
On the other hand, the simple arithmetic of the SPD’s seats in the Bundestag mean that Scholz is the weakest of all post-war Chancellors. If the FDP want to unite with the Greens to steer him away from his ‘reset’ with Putin, they should have the influence to do so.
FDP faction foreign policy spokesman Frank Müller-Rosentritt told Bild this week that: “We can only achieve a reset if Russian troops and mercenaries leave Crimea and eastern Ukraine. We need a clear, common course in the EU that emphasizes that.”
“Russia and Germany are connected by a history that goes back several hundred years. The fact that this relationship has reached a low point is not due to Germany, but to Putin’s aggressive actions toward Ukraine,” he continued.
Those hardly sound like the words of a party keen to shake hands and make up.
How this plays out is still uncertain. But one thing is certain. A disjointed German response is beneficial to Putin.
Or, as a commentary in the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland from Tuesday points out:
“Baerbock is flying to the USA on Wednesday. What should she discuss with her American counterpart Antony Blinken when her own Chancellor is planning something completely different in parallel? Scholz, on the other hand, won’t be taken seriously by Putin if two of three parties in the Berlin coalition do not agree to a ‘reset’ of any kind.”