Managing the unmanageable: Germany and a resurgent Russia

In the face of large refugee inflows Germany’s insurgent parties are sympathising with Russia, even despite the country’s meddling in German domestic affairs.  

“Russia has destroyed everything we built together”, complained Gernot Erler, the German Foreign Ministry’s special envoy to Russia, in December 2014.[1] Erler, previously a strong backer of German Ostpolitik, spoke for the whole German policy community. For too long, Berlin has tried hard to engage Russia and ignored criticisms from other nations about Russian authoritarianism. However, the illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine not only sealed Ostpolitik’s fate for good, it has eradicated any hope that Russia, under Putin, might find a peaceful place among Europe’s civilised nations. But while Germany has acknowledged this, a militarily resurgent Russia still poses many difficult questions for Germany and its post-unification identity. For now, no-one has any idea how to solve them.

German-Russian relations: 2016 to 2030

While stories about German-Russian economic ties frequently make news in Europe, Germany is actually much less dependent on Russia than generally perceived. German-Russian trade volume is less than half of the former’s trade with Poland.[2] Russia is but one of Germany’s many trading partners, so the sanctions and counter-sanctions have had little noticeable effect on the German economy.

The German Ministry for the Economy has said that Russia’s economic crisis (caused by a lack of export diversification and a low oil price) damaged German-Russian trade more than sanctions.[3] There were few agricultural exports to Russia before the sanctions and, even then, German trade to Russia had increasingly been burdened by more restrictive measures and protectionist policies, especially since 2012. Counter-sanctions launched by Russia have only reinforced an already existing Russian policy of isolationism.

In some ways, the sanctions have even turned out to be good for the German economy. Data indicates that exports in German sectors affected by EU or Russian sanctions have increased in value by 15.3 percent and in volume by 5 percent since sanctions were imposed. The substitute markets Germany found were, unsurprisingly, more dynamic, open, and profitable than the Russian market. If Russia remains a “petrokleptocracy” for the next 14 years until 2030, Russia’s markets will continue to be undesirable to Germany. Experiencing little blowback from sanctions and counter-sanctions, Germany will be willing to use them as a tool to contain Moscow. Russia is not vital to Germany and the sanctions represent Berlin’s best means of containment for now.

Germany may not need Russian trade to maintain its economic position, and there remains a strong Russo-German affiliation in the country, with a strong Russia lobby in Berlin, particularly in the energy sector. In recent times. the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has become a symbol of that influence. The pipeline could, if operated at maximum capacity, increase Russia’s share of the German gas market from about 40 to 60 percent, bypassing current transfer routes through Belarus and Poland or Ukraine.[4] This project would also give Russia the opportunity to blackmail bordering states without fear of its vital export routes to Western Europe being disrupted. However, as European gas consumption is decreasing (even Nord Stream 1 is running at half its possible capacity) and the European Commission is taking antitrust actions against Gazprom, the project is not commercially viable.

Nonetheless, German, Dutch, British, Austrian, and French companies are trying to maintain relations with Gazprom and Russia, both to strengthen their position in Europe and to gain access to future projects in Russia.[5] Russia on the other hand will continue to increase its role in the European distribution network in the years up to 2030 through asset swaps and shares in local distribution companies in Germany. By 2030, if Gazprom’s increased investment and influence in Germany goes unchecked, it will have transformed Russian energy from a foreign policy threat (disruption of the transit routes) to a domestic threat. Russian political lobbying will probably shift from the federal level to the level of Bundesländer, as regional leaders are not responsible for foreign policy. As the Russian energy lobby is particularly strong in the German Social Democrats, the European Commission will be the key institution balancing against Russia’s influence.

The issue that will likely prevent any serious rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow for the foreseeable future is that of the European order. Berlin perceives itself as custodian of the post-1990 European order – and for good reason. No other state has profited so much from the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic zone of stability and rule of law. The German economy is highly dependent on a functioning EU internal market, and increasingly on its Central European neighbours as an extension of the German manufacturing economy. With a strong tradition of non-military and non-nuclear foreign policy, Germany can only operate within the framework of the Helsinki Charter.

Moscow’s vision of a dog-eat-dog world, organised according to spheres of influence and enforced by great powers, would deprive Germany of its security (both military and economic) and leave Berlin sidelined. This is why Germany finds the concept of multilateralism essential in its policymaking. Through the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, and the EU–Turkey deal, Berlin has learned that German hegemony in Europe will not be tolerated. Not only did it fail to achieve the desired result in any of these crises (Greek financial reform, European burden-sharing, or a Turkish retreat from authoritarianism), each crisis showed how quickly anti-German resentment could be politically mobilised across Europe (from Greece’s Syriza to Poland’s Law and Justice party). Berlin simply cannot act as a power centre in a nineteenth-century-style hegemonic Europe. Without a multilateral framework to accommodate the interests of other European states, Germany alone cannot shape European politics. Therefore, if the role of the EU and NATO is diminished, this would greatly reduce Germany’s influence in practice.

While the Russian challenge to Germany and the European order has been acknowledged by the mainstream parties in Germany, German foreign policy is ill-equipped to deal with the dangers Russia poses. There is simply no strategy to deal with Russia beyond sanctions. The foreign office’s emphasis on engagement to try to convince Russia to return to the old order is pointless because Russia never accepted this order and has no intention of returning to it. The engagement policy is a substitute for a real policy and can therefore have no real effect. Meanwhile, there are countless track-two diplomacy initiatives taking place in Germany to try to find out what Russia actually wants. However, no-one can agree what this might be.

A militarily resurgent Russia on the offensive in the common neighbourhood is a difficult opponent for Germany and it needs allies to help it counter Russian moves. In order to be taken seriously in Moscow, it needs the backing of an established nuclear power. German politicians need to coordinate with their Eastern European neighbours in order to steer clear of Moscow’s traps. This will be increasingly important once German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves office. With few exceptions, West German politicians have a great talent for getting Russia wrong and falling for Moscow’s skilful diplomatic deceptions. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s erratic attempts to pressure Ukraine – instead of Russia – on Minsk Agreement implementation is a good example of this dilemma. Whatever policy emerges, it needs to be embedded in a broader Western approach towards Russia. But with a United States that is increasingly disinterested in European affairs and a France that is rediscovering détente with Russia, this will become increasingly difficult. It is highly likely that Germany will content itself with securing the current NATO/EU area against Russia, without entering into competition with Moscow for control of the post-Soviet space. This “save the rest” strategy is the default option, if there are no robust multilateral efforts, if political relations with Warsaw remain stalled beyond 2019, or if the German political debate gets bogged down in domestic difficulties. For Russia, cutting off gas to Germany would render Moscow bankrupt, and attacking NATO would be suicidal. This leads Berlin to believe that the current security bubble around EU/NATO will remain largely intact in 2030.

That a “save the rest” strategy would also encompass a stronger deterrence presence in the eastern flank is understood among military planners. So long as there are insufficient troops available to back up such a policy, there is no strong show of support from the US, and Poland remains isolated, there will be little change to current policies. However, the reforms initiated by Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in 2014 will likely bear fruit in the mid-2020s, allowing Germany to back a more robust defence policy – if NATO can agree on this.

In theory, Germany could draw enormous advantages from an eastern neighbourhood in transition, particularly Ukraine. If the latter is able to reform and becomes a real market economy, it could develop into an important anchor-state for German business and industrial development (like Poland is now). A skilled labour force and competitive wages would make the country particularly interesting for the German industry. However, with high levels of corruption and legal uncertainty in the country, this seems unlikely. But Germany is not just looking to Eastern Europe – German companies are also increasingly lobbying for engagement with Central Asia (especially Kazakhstan) and other post-Soviet states are trying to attract German business as well.

There are two key questions for Germany regarding the eastern neighbourhood. First, how contested will it be? In a neighbourhood where even trade deals are subject to military power struggles, Germany, as a non-nuclear power hesitant to use military force, will always draw the short straw. Preventing this from happening will depend on whether there is a European or transatlantic consensus on robust countermeasures against Russian militarisation of the post-Soviet space. For domestic reasons, Germany cannot lead such a policy, but it would probably lend its support if it felt that other European states and Washington were serious.

The second big question is whether local elites in third countries can get their act together on reform. The Balkan experience shows that Germans usually have difficulty in imposing reform, and tend to underestimate the obstructive behaviour of local oligarchs. Germany can help when it comes to imposing reforms, but needs support from other states with a more robust foreign policy tradition and similar experience in transformation.

Last but not least, Germany will have to ask itself if Russia will be able to meddle in German domestic politics. The “Lisa case” made headlines when the Russian propaganda machine made up a story that a German-Russian girl was raped by Muslim migrants to incite resentment among Russians living in Germany and to exploit xenophobic reflexes. But the case backfired in Germany, exposing Russian attempts to fabricate news and manipulate policy discussions. Even among the one to two million Russlanddeutschen (Germans of Russian descent) only a few hundred turned up to the demonstrations.

The fact that Germany has taken in the most refugees by a long shot has increased anti-European sentiment, which the pro-Russian Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is ready to exploit. Together with Die Linke, pro-Russian parties may win up to 25 percent of the seats in the 2017 Bundestag elections. This populist trend is unlikely to continue because the AfD is internally divided on many policy issues and the electorate of Die Linke is old and the party has little appeal for younger voters. Russia supports right-wing movements because it thinks that the nationalist and anti-modernist forces ought to control our societies in the future. But in Germany, a Russia that increasingly resembles Mussolini’s Italy and re-enacts 1930s Germany’s Sudentenpolitik in its own neighbourhood is shocking its German audience like never before.

Sympathy both for Russia and Putin has plummeted in Germany in recent times,[6] with Russia becoming more nationalistic. These negative attitudes towards Russia will continue and sympathy is likely to fall even further. Russia’s meddling in European politics and its support for far-right forces will cause more unease in Europe than its military adventures do. Those who would like to reinvent Germany as a nationalist, chauvinist, and isolationist force in Europe will continue to love Putin, but they will remain an isolated community – for now, at least.




[1]     Rozmawial Bartosz T. Wielinski, “Rosja bardzo nas rozczarowała”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 9 December 2014, available at,76842,17099312,Rosja_bardzo_nas_rozczarowala.html.

[2]     “Außenhandel, Rangfolge der Handelspartner im Außenhandel, der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 2015”, Statistisches Bundesamt, 18 March 2016, available at

[3]     “Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Thomas Lutze, Klaus Ernst, Wolfgang Gehrcke, weiterer Abgeordneter und der Fraktion DIE LINKE, Drucksache 18/6483, Auswirkungen der Sanktionen der Europäischen Union gegen die Russische Föderation”, Deutscher Bundestag, 16 November 2015, available at; p. 3 ff.

[4]     See Sijbren de Jong, “Why Europe should fight Nord Stream II”, EU Observer, 23 February 2016, available at

[5]     See Zuzanna Nowak, “Gas Interests in Nord Stream 2”, PISM Bulletin, No. 91 (823), 14 October 2015, available at

[6]     See Bruce Stokes, “Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World, Russia’s Image Trails U.S. across All Regions”, Pew Research Center, 5 August 2015, available at

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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