Despite expectations that the weakened position of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance (CDU/CSU) in parliament could force Chancellor Angela Merkel to adopt a softer line towards Russia, the German government has chosen to show solidarity with the UK.
It has backed the recall of the EU ambassador to Moscow, and announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats. The newly appointed SPD foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has had tough words for Moscow, saying that it must finally face up to its responsibility and answer the questions related to the use of a chemical weapon against double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Germany’s recognition of the need for a response has been key to establishing a firm EU position in support of the UK. It reflects an increasing recognition within the main political parties that Germany is also under assault from Russia, albeit by different means.
A recent cyberattack that penetrated the German Federal Foreign Office’s systems is part of a pattern of cyber activity against German institutions, including the parliament. The previous government had concluded that the infamous ‘Lisa affair’ in 2016, when Russian media falsely alleged the rape of a 13-year old Russian girl in Germany by immigrants, was a disinformation attack on Germany.
However, there are marked differences within both grand coalition parties about how Germany should respond to the challenge that Russia poses. At the same time, the Alternative for Germany has found common cause with critics of the government’s response to Salisbury from within the coalition parties, as well as in Die Linke and a section of the Greens. It has argued that there is insufficient evidence to call Russia to account over the Skripal affair.
These differences are not new. But they are more visible after elections that featured a splintering of support for the main political parties. Business has added its voice too. The main German business association that lobbies for companies trading with Russia said last week that it was too early to point a finger at Moscow over the Skripal affair and that ‘not all motives point clearly to Moscow’.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine in 2014, German policy towards Russia shifted sharply away from its instinctive desire to avoid confrontation with Moscow and seek closer economic relations. For 20 years, different governments had hoped that increased trade would stabilize relations and promote socioeconomic modernization in Russia, including improved rule of law. Support for EU sanctions in response to Russia’s aggression suspended these deep-seated orthodoxies and turned policy on its head.
However, it would be wrong to say that this abrupt change amounted to a transformation of Germany’s thinking about Russia. From the outset, groups within both coalition parties questioned the wisdom of sanctions for both political and economic reasons.
Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier doggedly sought ways to persuade Moscow that its support for implementation of the Minsk Agreements could lead to a reduction of tensions and the phasing out of sanctions. This approach ignored the fact that the conflict in Donbas was a symptom rather than the cause of a collision of interests between Russia and the West.
The coalition agreement contains a reference to this SPD-driven desire to reduce the level of sanctions. Yet it also states clearly that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine violate European security and that Russia’s current foreign policy demands vigilance and resilience. However, there are no pointers to what future policy objectives and policies should be.
There is no mention in the agreement of the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project vigorously championed by former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The expansion of the Nord Stream pipeline is set to double the capacity of the gas link under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany, but has clear strategic and economic downsides for Ukraine.
Despite her support for Ukraine, Merkel has shown no appetite to challenge construction of the new pipeline. Influenced by a strong industrial lobby, the government has taken a ‘Germany first’ approach, ignoring opposition to the project from the Baltic states and several central European countries. The German authorities last week granted the final approval for the building of the pipeline.
Russia was not an issue during the German election campaign. However, amid sharply increased tensions in Russia’s relations with the West, it is now back on the agenda. The polarized positions within the main parties underline the need for a proper debate about Russia and the nature of the challenges it presents, as well as strategies for dealing with them. Yet just as the last grand coalition avoided serious discussion of Russia in order to limit disagreements, there is a risk that the same situation will continue.
In the absence of a firm cross-party consensus, Merkel’s policy of standing up to Russian efforts to challenge European security is likely to come under further attack.
John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.