View from Berlin: Keeping Europe’s cool

Merkel does not want an escalation of Russia-bashing out of fear, as it would only reward the Kremlin’s scaremongering. 

In Germany, the recent twists and turns of Russia’s policy in Europe and the Middle East have been received with growing concern. Whether it is the bombing of Aleppo, the open deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad or Russian support for right wing movements in Europe, Russia is becoming ever more difficult to deal with, and the German notion of keeping the door open for engagement is losing credibility.

Outside of the energy relationship, which is working, the Russian leadership is successively abandoning or denying all areas of potentially converging interests, which could be used by Berlin to maintain a level of cooperation or to begin a rebuilding of trust. While the need to find some modus vivendi with Russia as a neighbour and a power in Europe continues, regressive dynamics have taken over. What is more, Putin has positioned Russia an an alternative model of society and politics against the model represented by the EU. On the other hand, he seems fixated on being accepted by the West.

Many of the Kremlin’s actions seem to be designed to generate attention in the West, to secure status and recognition. It seems that Russia is longing for respect at almost any cost. If that was the case, one school of German foreign policy thinking maintains that there must therefore be some room for influencing Russia’s behaviour. But in reality Germany has little leverage, with Russia fixated on the United States. The dominant political thinking in Moscow sees Russia in oppositional terms to the West, with Russian geopolitics returning to the Soviet quest for parity with the United States.

In German strategic thinking about foreign policy, a purely confrontational approach to Russia would undermine the stability interests of Germany. On the other hand, accepting Russia’s actions in Crimea, Ukraine or Syria undermines Germany’s interests in upholding the norms and values of international order. German policy actors instinctively look for a middle ground between these two positions – but such a middle ground is becoming harder and harder to find.

This is the background to Germany’s position in the upcoming debate in the European Council on relations with Russia. The first priority for Berlin is to keep the EU together and not allow any strategies of divide and rule to further weaken the political consensus among member states. Chancellor Merkel will have to reassure her EU partners that Germany supports all forms of solidarity to those around the table feeling intimidated and threatened by Russian policies if she wants to secure the readiness of the EU to engage with Russia in principle.

A second priority is EU consensus on sanctions policy. For Berlin, in order to maintain the consistency of Western policy it will be important to uphold the conditionality of sanctions on the full implementation of the Minsk agreement, regardless of the fact that such implementation is now a near impossibility.

For the same reason, Angela Merkel and her government are highly reluctant to open a second round of sanctions over Russia’s actions in Syria. While some prominent voices in her own party, as well as in the Bundestag (the Greens) and in some other northern European capitals call for such steps, Germany does not want to escalate tensions with Russia. To do so would likely harden Russia’s position on Syria and cause the Kremlin to use its leverage with other countries to push back against the West. This could affect Europe’s relations with Iran or North African states, and it could even destroy the EU-Turkey accord on refugees if Turkey were to move further away from Europe because of a rift between Russia and the EU.  

In this sense, the third priority for Germany will be to control the temper and tone of the debate in the European Council. The Chancellor does not feel any inclination to defend or to protect Russia against criticism from European capitals. But on the other hand, Merkel does not want an escalation of Russia-bashing out of fear, as it would only reward the Kremlin’s scaremongering. To defend Germany’s interests, the EU has to keep its cool.

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


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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