A balance of values and interests: Germany, realpolitik, and Russia policy

Recent events show that Moscow does not take Berlin seriously when it acts alone. Germany must coordinate its actions at the European level and find common responses to Russia’s behaviour.

Shortly after the news broke that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been poisoned during an election campaign trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk in mid-August, the public debate in Germany turned to the long-running controversy around Nord Stream 2. One could almost conclude that the declared opponents and supporters of the large-scale pipeline project had been eagerly awaiting their next knee-jerk reaction – to reflexively present familiar arguments and dismiss the other side’s image of Russia as unrealistic.

The debate makes clear that, today, German foreign policy is inextricably linked to the implementation of German values. This is undoubtedly a great achievement, one that draws on a lesson from the dark chapters of German history. At the same time, however, the naivety inherent in German foreign policy has been revealed once again. Without a doubt, Nord Stream 2 is currently the most important bilateral German-Russian economic project. But one should not overestimate the pipeline’s importance to the Russian state budget. Can one really assume that Germany will single-handedly change the Russian leadership’s mind? What, exactly, can Germany achieve by cancelling the project? Amid all the discussion about Nord Stream 2, many have forgotten the need to have a technical and honest debate on these essential questions.

From the beginning, I considered Nord Stream 2 to be a damaging project. The fact that former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder promoted the initiative before his somewhat scandalous switch to Russian gas company Gazprom, and that he treated it as a purely German economic project, caused a huge loss of confidence in Europe. In the meantime, parliamentary pressure has enabled us, as critics of the project, to persuade the German government to rethink its position and correct its mistakes by involving Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in the conversation. Now that the pipeline is almost completed, we cannot get out of it without losing face and incurring heavy contractual penalties. With the coal and nuclear phase-out in mind, as well as scepticism about American shale gas and gaps in the expansion of renewable energy, Germany continues to depend on Russian gas. If it overturned the project so close to completion, Germany would deprive itself of another means of exerting pressure on Russia. It would be better to complete the pipeline and reserve the right not to accept the gas it supplied – if, for example, Russia continued to delay the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Moreover, if we were to cancel the project, Germany would be unlikely to import less gas from Russia. Rather, this would lead us to continue imports via the land route, making transit less efficient, reverse flow to eastern European partners less attractive, and – ultimately – the gas supply more expensive for customers. Thus, if we want to remain at the wheel, we need to take supplier diversification in general more seriously – which is a matter that goes beyond the issue of Nord Stream 2.

Berlin watches with great concern as Moscow brazenly and ruthlessly pursues its interests.

As the Navalny case suggests, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s empire is one in which powerful people appear to believe they can commit political assassinations with impunity. The aim is to systematically silence any critical voice. In 20 years of Putin’s rule, we have witnessed at least 20 high-profile political murders and assassination attempts. Be it the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018, the murder of a former Chechen rebel in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten park in 2019, or the attack on Navalny, the Russian authorities hardly make any attempt to cover up their connections with the perpetrators. The fact that the Tiergarten murder took place on German soil was a new low in German-Russian relations.

Berlin watches with great concern as Moscow brazenly and ruthlessly pursues its interests, as one can see in increasingly aggressive Russian attempts to exert influence in Germany. Such activity includes espionage by Russian agents, targeted propaganda and disinformation, the instrumentalisation of political forces, and cyber attacks on political institutions (of the kind the Bundestag witnessed in 2015). All this paints a picture of hybrid warfare in which Russia makes little effort to conceal its actions.

This approach by the Russian government – the absurd conspiracy theories that sometimes appear in the state-controlled media, and the disregard for diplomatic customs and the international rules-based order – is increasingly dispiriting. The logic of the Putin system, which wants to preserve itself at all costs, leads to intolerable excesses and has begun to seriously test the German-Russian relationship.

In the light of all this, we have to realise that a romanticised image of Russia and philosophies such as Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) can no longer be guiding concepts for dealing with the Russian state. The German-Russian relationship has long been characterised by close and reliable economic cooperation. After all, the sides’ mutual dependence goes back to the 1960s. Perhaps, in this crisis, the special relationship between Germany and Russia presents an opportunity, since we can draw on a broad network of personal and civil society contacts and a deep understanding of Russian customs, as well as the means of pressuring Moscow that our European partners might not have.

However, Germany can no longer pursue an effective Russia policy on a purely national level. As recent events show, Moscow does not take Berlin seriously when it acts alone. We must, therefore, coordinate our actions at the European level and find common responses to Russia’s behaviour. Only then will we apply the necessary pressure. Energy cooperation could certainly be an important lever. But we will only succeed in this area if Europe and the United States cooperate in the energy sector, without Russian involvement. A loss of foreign exchange revenue would hit Moscow hard. In fact, the US imported almost 190m barrels of Russian oil products in 2019. If we want to stand up to Russia, we must find a coordinated position with the US on this issue. Unfortunately, this is an unrealistic aim under the Trump administration.

EU foreign ministers sent an important signal this week when they unanimously adopted the Franco-German initiative to impose new sanctions on Russia over the Navalny poisoning. It is right to target individuals connected with the crime without punishing the Russian population. We should also continue to explore possibilities for action in the international organisations of which Russia is a member. These bodies include the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the Council of Europe, in which Russia had already lost some of its voting rights because of its illegal annexation of Crimea.

Yet we cannot afford to break our connections with Russia completely. Despite all the problems we face, we depend on Russia to address global challenges involving terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and the European security order. And the country is at the centre of the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and eastern Ukraine, as well the protests in Belarus.

If Berlin and Brussels are to be taken seriously in Moscow, we must understand what kind of language is spoken there. Otherwise, Russia will simply take advantage of us. We must honestly ask ourselves how the Putin system works. We must develop a balance of incentives and pressure, while making it clear that we cannot allow Russia to cross our red lines. And we must engage in sober realpolitik that is bound by values but strictly oriented towards our interests.

Roderich Kiesewetter is an ECFR council member, foreign policy representative of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, and a former Bundeswehr General Staff colonel.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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