In 2020, Germany and Russia celebrate several important anniversaries in their bilateral relations, marking events that did much to lay the foundations of the two states’ current cooperation: 65 years since diplomatic relations were established between the Federative Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 50 years since the Treaty of Moscow was signed, 30 years since the reunification of Germany and the signing of the founding agreements related to this, including Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany and Treaty between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Good-Neighbourliness, Partnership and Cooperation. They were signed in August–November. In these months of the anniversary year, the bilateral relations are facing major tests.
Officially, the stages in Russia–Germany relations are measured not in anniversaries but in legislative periods of Germany’s governmental coalitions that formulate their own four-year foreign political agenda. Traditionally, Russia is part of this agenda and Germany’s programme in relation to Russia is determined by the factional makeup of the German Government, the current international situation and the domestic political processes in Russia. The latest coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD was concluded for the period between March 2018 and September 2021. It contains statements about Russia violating the European world order (“annexation” of Crimea, intervention in the east of Ukraine), about there being great potential for civil and public dialogue and economic cooperation, about Germany’s commitment to the idea of a common space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The coalition members believe that “Germany is sincerely interested in good relations with Russia and in close cooperation with a view to ensuring peace and resolving important international problems” though “Russia’s current politics compel us to be particularly careful and flexibly stable. … The goal of our Russian policy remains: a return to relations based on mutual confidence and a peaceful balance of interests allowing the parties to once again achieve close cooperation.”
Moscow’s relations with Germany are determined by Russia’s foreign policy concepts, the latest of which was adopted on November 30, 2016. Among the EU states, Germany has traditionally been assigned the place of the leading partner and a revitalization of mutually advantageous bilateral relations with that partner is viewed as an important resource for “promoting Russia’s national interests in European and global affairs.”
The first two and a half years of the current German coalition government’s legislative period were marked by a series of events that had a major effect on the political backdrop for the bilateral cooperation. The Salisbury incident of March 4, 2018 (“the Skripal affair”) resulted in the “collective West” states, including Germany, expelling Russian diplomats, adopting new sanctions, with Berlin, particularly the Aussenamt, and developing negative sentiments toward Moscow. This all coincided with the new governmental coalition starting its work on March 14 and Russia’s “new old” president being elected on March 18. Under such difficult circumstances, Russian and German leaders continued their constructive communication largely based in a mostly closed-door meeting held in Sochi in early May 2017. Details of another meeting between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel held in the same city in May 2018, as well as the working discussion of topical questions in Meseberg, were also not revealed to the public, yet they shaped generally positive sentiments that contributed significantly to smoothing out the influence the March events had had on shaping the anti-Russian sentiments in Germany’s political community and media. Regular meetings held in 2018 between heads of various agencies (primarily foreign ministries) were also conducive to positivity.
On August 23, 2019, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin, was killed in Berlin. This also engendered negativity as it resulted in further exacerbation of diplomatic relations and in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats in December 2019. Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reciprocated.
On January 11, 2020, Angela Merkel made an unexpected visit to Moscow and discussed topical problems in international relations with Vladimir Putin. At the same time, the two states’ foreign ministers also held a meeting. The German politicians’ visit confirmed that Berlin was ready to continue the constructive dialogue. The coronavirus pandemic that broke out in March pushed most bilateral issues into the background somewhat.
In mid-May, Angela Merkel expressed her highly negative personal opinion concerning the cyberattack on the Bundestag in the spring of 2015, which German special services believed to have been organized by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defence. Even though the experts at the Federal Criminal Police Office confined themselves to stating that “this fact is highly likely,” without providing incontrovertible proof, Berlin adopted this version as “final and incontrovertible.”
On July 1, 2020, Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Its Presidency Programme has only one paragraph on Russia, stating that relations with Russia need to be actively formed on the basis of the EU’s five principles (the 2016 Mogherini principles) and that their implementation needs to be analyzed. On May 27, 2020, the Federal Chancellor delivered a speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin focusing a lot on Russia. While emphasizing the objective importance their bilateral relations have for both states, the Chancellor reminded her audience that she had, from the outset, had a critical constructive attitude to the bilateral dialogue and to the importance of respecting the values and recognized international rules that, in her opinion, Russia “has repeatedly violated.” Consequently, Berlin will “speak out” against subsequent breaches of these by Moscow. Simultaneously, within the framework of its value-based approach, Germany sees opportunities for new impetus in the development of bilateral relations, including such areas as climate protection and global healthcare.
The August 20 incident with Alexei Navalny was a litmus test for the true level of anti-Russian sentiments in some parts of Germany’s political community. This time, the paper turned dark purple. “The Salisbury spirit” made a comeback to the public discourse with active support from some EU capitals. There were insistent voices calling for “punishing the Kremlin” by imposing sanctions on, among other things, Nord Stream II, up to and including shutting the project down. Moscow has no success in its attempts to transform those unfounded and harshly formulated demands and accusations into a constructive discussion: Berlin saw a clear violation of its values and legal rules that, in her May speech, the Chancellor referred to as being possible. At the same time, in his message of greetings to Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, Vladimir Putin confirmed “Russia’s invariable commitment to dialogue and interaction with German partners on the pressing issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”
Against the backdrop of clearly dubious proof of “the Russian authorities once again using chemical weapons” to eliminate undesirable persons, the ”collective West” continued to apply unprecedented pressure; in October 2013, it prompted Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to make several harsh statements to the effect that Russia could stop communicating with the European Union. Let us note that, officially, the EU put a freeze on the top-level dialogue from the spring of 2014. The same applies to Russia–EU summits and intergovernmental consultations with EU states. Yet, Russia’s working consultations with individual states, primarily Germany and France, continue. The inter-parliamentary dialogue has never stopped. Moreover, the Russian-German High-level Working Group on strategic economic and financial cooperation resumed its meetings in June 2016, while the inter-agency High-Level Working Group on Security Policy resumed its meetings in November 2018. Clearly, neither party is interested in having their communications come to a halt.
Both Brussels and Berlin heard Sergey Lavrov, but it did not prevent them, on October 15, 2020, from imposing EU sanctions on six high-ranking Russian officials and on a research institution. These sanctions had been proposed by the France–Germany tandem. On October 15 2018, the Council of the EU adopted a mechanism for imposing restrictions as part of combating use and proliferation of chemical weapons. This mechanism served as the legal grounds for the sanctions: the EU celebrated the second anniversary of this mechanism in style. On October 22, Brussels imposed sanctions on two Russian citizens for having allegedly participated in organizing a cyberattack on the Bundestag.
On October 17, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas noted that the EU had adopted appropriate sanctions, that Brussels was ready to respond henceforth to “Russia’s unacceptable actions,” while also admitting that no one was interested in cutting off the dialogue with Moscow as this dialogue is required for resolving conflicts, including those in Libya, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere. Nonetheless, on October 26, Andrea Sasse, a German Foreign Ministry spokesperson, responded negatively to Vladimir Putin’s suggestion that a moratorium be imposed on deploying land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in Europe. Agreeing with NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, she believed this initiative did not inspire confidence. On October 27, in an interview with the Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, Sergey Lavrov confirmed his previous statements, saying, “I hope our European colleagues will have the wisdom, vision and pure common sense, so that our dialogue with the European Union and its member states is fully restored on the basis of the principles of neighbourly relations, good faith, predictability and openness.” On October 28, Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs commented on Andrea Sasse’s remarks, pointing out, in particular, that this was “a typical example of a biased and, in fact, knee-jerk reaction, no effort being made to understand what the Russian proposal is about.”
In the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War and the Second World War, the European Union and its member states have begun distorting history, including the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism. For instance, the resolution the Bundestag adopted on October 9 on bolstering the memory of war victims stipulates creating a new historical and memorial centre about Nazi crimes. The text of the resolution suggests the likelihood of distorting the historical memory and using the centre to instrumentalize insinuations “equating the Soviet Union with the Third Reich when it comes to unleashing the war,” which, from Russia’s point of view, is absolutely impermissible.
As of early November 2020, relations between Russia, Germany and the EU are still based on the “selective engagement” principle, with the European participants having no clearly defined strategic approach to the development of these relations. Germany apparently has no conceptual framework for working in this area and, in its presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany has essentially abandoned its opportunity to spearhead a discussion of the contents of future interaction to which there are no alternatives.
Clearly, Moscow and Berlin will continue their working contacts on political matters, although these contacts will have as their backdrop a profound crisis of confidence crisis and a minimal level of understanding on a series of controversial issues (cyberattacks, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, Alexei Navalny). Yet, that circumstance will not significantly affect the Normandy format or the cooperation on the Syrian, Libyan, Iranian and other tracks.
The paradox of today’s crisis of relations is that it is taking place against the background of decent (despite the effect of the coronavirus pandemic) relations in other areas, such as the economy, culture, science and education. In recent years, these have received an additional impetus to development.
Back in 2014, Russia and Germany’s foreign ministries launched a new format, a Russian-German Cross Year, which was intended to boost bilateral cooperation in specific areas. The first years were dedicated to language and literature, youth exchanges, and regional and municipal cooperation.
The Russian-German Year of Scientific and Educational Partnerships was held in 2018–2020. The events that year bolstered cooperation in inter-university interactions, cutting-edge research and support for young scientists and innovations. Currently, about 1,000 joint university partnerships are functioning, involving 203 German and 233 Russian universities, as well as 33 organizations with other status, and their numbers are constantly rising. Russia is Germany’s ninth-largest partner in this area.
Since July 2017, the German Government has been protecting the principles of European energy security and sovereignty and attempting, for that purpose, to counter the consistent steps taken by the US Administration (and their EU supporters) against Nord Stream II. Yet, that opposition has thus far not been particularly effective. In early 2020, Washington first succeeded in having the construction of the gas pipelines suspended; subsequently, threatening extra-territorial sanctions against the current and future project partners, the US put a question mark over the project being completed/ the pipeline being put into operation. In early August 2020, EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer said that the EU was designing a mechanism that would “also ensure that the EU becomes more resilient to exterritorial sanctions by third countries,” including Washington’s possible economic restrictions against Nord Stream II. The “Communication on Strengthening the EU’s Financial and Economic Sovereignty” is to be ready by the end of 2020.
In June 2019, the economic ministers of both states signed a Memorandum on Partnership for Efficiency based on provisions from the position paper of the Eastern Committee of the German Economy (January 2019) intended for developing cooperation in principal economic areas such as energy, climate protection, nuclear security, outer space, healthcare, support for small- and medium-sized enterprises, further professional training, digitization, agriculture, visa liberalization, etc. In February 2020, in Berlin, Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier and Russia’s Minister for Industry and Trade Denis Manturov agreed to form a joint energy group.
In December 2019, the EU adopted the European Green Deal mandating a transition to a climate-neutral economy for EU member states by 2050; this deal became a challenge for Russia–Germany cooperation. Interaction with Germany on hydrogen energy could be a promising area for cooperation. Even though Germany and the EU’s hydrogen strategies do not mention Russia, there is every objective reason for Russia to find a niche in that sphere. The Eastern Committee of the German Economy and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce (GRCC) deserve credit for bringing this matter up in their reports in early July 2020. On September 17, the GRCC formed a Hydrogen Initiative Group with a view to determining and promoting Russian and German companies’ pilot projects. On October 12, the Russian Government approved a “roadmap” for developing Russian hydrogen energy, which envisages active involvement by Russia in international cooperation.
The obvious challenges entailed by the Green Deal include introducing carbon tariffs intended to bar imported goods manufacture of which produces considerable СО2 emissions. Many Russian businesses had prepared in advance for this contingency by investing heavily in reducing their emissions, in waste treatment facilities and in circular technologies. Even so, they face an uphill battle as they attempt to convince EU officials that their products meet the European requirements. Today, Brussels mostly believes that all Russia-made goods leave a large carbon footprint.
Actually, Russia is arriving at comprehending, at all levels, that there are no alternatives to environmental thinking and conduct. For several years running, there have been successful Russian-German projects for introducing the most accessible technologies, primarily in the sectors that produce the biggest amounts of СО2. Despite certain difficulties, cooperation has been launched in environmentally friendly waste disposal and processing. Individual regions are becoming increasingly interested in environmental protection measures, building sustainable energy sources, in particular wind farms. Energy-saving technologies are being used in constructing new buildings and facilities. German companies have good opportunities for participating in Russia’s “green” modernization, though this has only just been launched.
Falling global energy prices and the rigid restrictions Germany and Russia have imposed on the movement of capital, services, and manpower have resulted in a decline in mutual trade estimated at up to 25% at the end of 2020. Drops in Russian exports to Germany are several times greater than drops in German exports to Russia since the two states’ economic cooperation is still largely tied to the energy sector, whose economic agents determine a significant part of foreign trade flows and mutual investment flows. Foreign trade is being restructured at a very slow rate owing, among other things, to the inadequate pace of Russian economic reforms and creation of a critical mass of competitive small- and medium-sized businesses. The state is taking steps to support the economic agents’ exports performance and incentive mechanisms are becoming more effective, but this is clearly not enough to achieve a qualitative breakthrough.
Even though the number of German businesses in Russia has fallen by about a third, the German business community remains the biggest and best organized among all foreign communities as it is continuing to invest and lobby its members’ interests. They name bureaucracy and protectionism on the part of the Russian authorities among the most prominent negative factors. In recent months, visa restrictions imposed in connection with the pandemic have become a significant obstacle. The GRCC obtains exceptions and charters special flights, but this does not solve the mobility problem for German top managers and for skilled professionals that assemble and service German-made equipment. The situation will clearly not improve during the second wave of the pandemic.
Russian companies in Germany have recently also faced frequent non-market problems but, unlike their German partners, they do not have such powerful support as that provided by the Eastern Committee and the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, which can set up a direct dialogue between the country’s leaders and major entrepreneurs.
In conclusion, it is important to remind our readers that the year of Germany in Russia was officially inaugurated in late September. It will feature various events intended to introduce Russians to the culture and cutting-edge economic, educational and scientific achievements of Russia’s principal European partner. This year, Germany itself will experience difficult societal, economic and political developments that will shape electoral sentiment at the 2021 elections to the Bundestag, Landtags and local councils. The elections to the Bundestag will bring a new governmental coalition and a new chancellor and officially introduce a new period in Russia-Germany relations. On the one hand, Germany’s new leadership will assume a harder stance towards the Kremlin. On the other hand, following the initial interaction between the states’ leaders, there will be an opportunity for a joint search for a common denominator in both states’ interests and for ways of gradually emerging from the current crisis of confidence and achieving an understanding on the critical points on strategic issues and areas. Both sides already need to be preparing for this.
From our partner RIAC