The Tmes for a Special Relationship Between Germany and Russia Are Over

Relations between Germany and Russia are in a state of severe crisis. At latest since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, but also even before, the relationship was under stress. The new federal government will have to face the challenge of finding ways to deal with the root causes of the crisis. The intuitive response in this situation would be to take steps for improving bilateral relations and to find a way out of the current impasse. However, the root of the problem reaches deeper than the bilateral level.

The new German foreign minister has already sketched out initial contours of his Russia policy: German policy towards the East should not include Russia alone, but also the Eastern European countries, and those should receive more attention than it was the case in the past. For nostalgics of a German-Russian special relationship, who give preference to conciliation with Russia over relations with the Eastern neighbours, this represents a wrong prioritisation.

However, this position simply expresses recognition of a change that has taken place a while ago: the times for a special relationship between Germany and Russia, with Russia policy being treated as a merely bilateral affair, are over. An improvement of the German-Russian relationship without taking into account the European and global context is nowadays neither possible nor desirable.

After the end of the Cold War relations between Germany and Russia could thrive in a biotope of more or less well-ordered international relations. The years 2000s allowed for far-reaching initiatives — from “strategic” to “modernization partnerships”. Difficulties in relations with Russia could be outsourced either to the US or to Brussels. Although even then relations between Germany and Russia were not isolated from the European and international context, they had never been so intensely part of global politics and subject to its troubles since the end of the Cold War as they are nowadays.

In recent years the foreign policy agendas of both Germany and Russia have significantly widened: Russia has turned away from Europe as the main reference point of its foreign policy and has become a global player. The geographic area of Russian foreign policy — previously limited to Russia’s immediate neighbourhood — has expanded to the Middle East, Asia, Latin-America and Africa. German Russia policy, focused in the past on Russia itself and domestic policy, now has to take into consideration Russia’s extended foreign policy and to develop a stance towards Russian foreign policy in other parts of the world.

At the same time German foreign policy has committed itself to taking on more international responsibility. Germany’s leadership role in dealing with numerous crises on the European continent has tightened the links between Germany and its neighbours. However, this means that Germany now also has more responsibility in dealing with the fears and concerns of its neighbours, in particular of its Eastern neighbours, for instance with regard to energy as well as security policy. Against this backdrop, the basis for a Russia policy defined by bilateral relations — be it in trade, energy or diplomacy — is no longer given.

Theoretically the extended foreign political agendas of Germany and Russia offer two options: they open new room either for cooperation or for conflict. To date, the result is sobering. Russia has defined its new global role mainly in opposition to the West — both in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe. A policy of “compartmentalization” — i.e. to separate areas of agreement from those of disagreement — has reached its limits for instance in Syria. The new volatile and confusing strategic context in which both Germany and Russia operate is wider, bigger and fraught with far more intricacies and challenges.

In this new strategic context, Germany’s Russia policy has to take on responsibility beyond its immediate neighbourhood — as in Ukraine — for international conflicts that involve Russia. This does not mean that relations between Germany and Russia fall pray, for instance, to difficulties in the US-Russian relationship. Yet, staying out of the game cannot be an option for a German foreign policy that aims at taking on more responsibility. How a responsible international Russia policy might look like is demonstrated right now by France’s president: a clear stance towards Russia in Syria and in questions of domestic meddling while at the same time continuing dialogue and without sacrificing own interests.

The starting point should be a strong common European policy towards Russia. The road to Moscow does not lead through Berlin alone, but also through Brussels. The guidelines for this are provided by the five principles for a European policy towards Russia drafted by Federica Mogherini and agreed upon by all EU foreign ministers in March 2016: Firstly, full implementation of the Minsk agreement; secondly, closer relations with Russia’s neighbours; thirdly, strengthening European resilience against interference; fourthly, selective engagement with Russia for instance in combatting terrorism; fifthly, strengthening people-to-people contacts. These five guidelines have not lost any of their relevance today. However, their implementation requires new energy and political investment.

Implementing the Minsk agreement would not only require revitalization of the Normandy negotiations but also considerations regarding widening the format and including European representatives. Equally important are better information about and a clear stance towards Russian interference and disinformation. A small working group within the European External Action Service dealing with strategic communication is alone not sufficient to ensure European resilience. Strengthening relations with Russia’s neighbours is a permanent task, just as much as maintaining relations with Russia’s civil society. Here, the EU still has an ace up its sleeve with potential visa facilitations.

First published in our partner RIAC

Liana Fix
Liana Fix
Program Director International Affairs, Körber-Stiftung