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Vladimir Morozov

Program Coordinator at the Russian International Affairs Council

Until now, the crisis of Western institutions and the Euro-Atlantic world, as a rule, has been the weakening of the United States’ hegemony, reducing the share of Western countries in the world economy as an obstacle to European integration, crisis phenomena in the European Union, and as European security system issue, etc. At the same time, the current domestic political dynamics in the U.S. and EU countries — primarily in Germany — brings the issues of transatlantic or European-American relations to the forefront. The configuration of the future world order will depend on the dynamics of these relations.

The tensions within Western institutions and the Euro-Atlantic region are also a serious challenge for Russian foreign policy, security, and economy, and, in general, for the understanding of its position in the world. Although Russia seeks parity with the United States in terms of strategic stability and global governance, the European Union and Germany remain the key priority for integration and development of relations, due to geographical and cultural-historical proximity and developed economic ties. However, Russia's aspirations face Germany's vision of its position and interests in Europe and throughout the world.

The relations in the “strategic triangle” of Russia-Germany-the US are likely to remain ambiguous. While dynamics is possible, much depends on the results of the first year of the Trump administration, the outcomes of parliamentary elections in Germany in September, and the possible parameters of Russian foreign policy after the presidential elections in 2018. However, even if all the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are settled, the lack of strategic vision for each party in the system of their own foreign policy priorities will remain the key factor that hampers the strategic cooperation between our countries.


Interdependence and instability are defining characteristics of the modern globalized world. Despite the fact that globalization has brought clear advantages, such as the high rates of economic growth and the raising of living standards in almost all countries of the world, reducing the probability of a global armed conflict between key global players, it also has its disadvantages. The increasing competition primarily in trade and within economy as a whole for finite amounts of natural resources, in areas of influence and regulation, and for markets in general. The increase in the number and intensity of local armed conflicts, the emergence of new major players on the world arena (primarily China), including non-state and quasi-state actors, the shift of the conflict potential to the sphere of information and culture all exemplify that globalization not only increases opportunities, but also offers significant threats to future development.

The globalization of threats, in its turn, requires new approaches to the global governance system. Despite all efforts to reform the old (UN, OSCE, NATO) and form new global governance institutions (BRICS, G20), there is still no regulation in the world that could be relevant to the current state of development, pending challenges and threats. Thus, we still live in a situation of "timelessness" and "the end of history" of the 1990s, when the old bloc system of the Cold War times became part of history, and remained in the world were Euro-Atlantic institutions and associations headed by the United States.

These institutions, though having proved their relative effectiveness in comparison with their Soviet counterparts, appeared to be inadequate in their capacity to complete the tasks required in global governance. Moreover, as noted above, the rapid globalization opportunities and threats to development, as well as attempts of the Western countries to use these opportunities to the maximum advantage and to counter threats, began at least to seriously undermine the former unity of Western institutions and Euro-Atlantic community, if not to destroy it.

Until now, the crisis of Western institutions and the Euro-Atlantic world, as a rule, has been the weakening of the United States’ hegemony, reducing the share of Western countries in the world economy as an obstacle to European integration, crisis phenomena in the European Union, and as European security system issue, etc. At the same time, the current domestic political dynamics in the U.S. and EU countries — primarily in Germany — brings the issues of transatlantic or European-American relations to the forefront. The configuration of the future world order will depend on the dynamics of these relations.

Such tensions within Western institutions and the Euro-Atlantic region are also a serious challenge for Russian foreign policy, security, and economy, and, in general, for the understanding of its position in the world. Although Russia seeks parity with the United States in terms of strategic stability and global governance, the European Union and Germany remain the key priority for integration and development of relations, due to geographical and cultural-historical proximity and developed economic ties. However, Russia's aspirations face Germany's vision of its position and interests in Europe and throughout the world.

This leaves major questions unanswered. What are the major interests of each of the parties in the world and in Europe? Is there the potential for Moscow-Berlin axis? Is the U.S. really trying to prevent the normalization of Russian-German relations? How will the relations between Germany and the U.S. as well as between Russia and Germany develop in the short term?

In order to answer these questions, one should review the dynamics of the relations of the three countries up to the present date.

Russia-Germany-USA in the 2000s–2010s.

Concerning the dynamics of relations between Germany and the U.S., Russia and Germany over the past almost two decades, one should firstly keep in mind the serious historical inertia in the relations. Such inertia, in some cases, can provide good conditions for the further development of relations (the case of Germany and the United States), or seriously complicate them (Russia- the U.S. case). However, regardless of the outcome, any inertia initially carries the threat of false interpretation of the other party’s interests and, as a consequence, incorrect strategic conclusions (Russia-Germany case). Since this article is primarily interested in the issues of German-American and Russian-German relations, we will not delve into the dynamics of Russian-American interaction in this period in great detail.

As already noted, relations between Germany and the United States had, and in part still retain, a solid safety margin. The assistance that the United States once provided to the Federal Republic of Germany on uniting the state on its terms (the takeover of the GDR, rather than developing a new constitution and the new status of the country), the country's membership in NATO as a guarantor of national security, broad economic and cultural-historical ties, and other policies all served to strengthen the ties between Berlin and Washington during the 90's in the previous century. However, in the early 2000’s there was a serious growth in disagreement between the two countries.

The first real challenge for the transatlantic ties between Germany and the United States was the decision of Second Bush Administration to begin a military campaign in Iraq in 2003. In many ways, this decision forereached the key characteristic of the U.S. foreign policy for many years to come-- namely, the gradual refusal to take the opinion of the allies, primarily of the NATO allies, in Europe into account, and the use of unilateral actions, with the possibility of creating so-called "coalitions of the willing." After the WWII, this practice was, and in many respects is, unacceptable for German political elites. The first stage of such friction at the time of Schröder’s office was largely leveled after Angela Merkel entered the office, as she was relying on the traditional approaches of German foreign policy, namely, maintaining good relations with the U.S. and maintaining transatlantic solidarity.

The beginning of Barack Obama's presidency was promising for German-American relations. Along with the expectations of the U.S. withdrawal from the role of the "world policeman" (the approach shared by the two previous U.S. administrations) and a decrease in the employment of unilateral actions in the world arena, the German side wanted its overseas allies to be a partner in solving a number of problems. These include the issues of control over non-proliferation of weapons, the reforms of international organizations, and remedial actions after the global financial and economic crisis, to the problem of respect for human rights and control over environmental change. In addition, many people note that German public opinion was strongly impressed by the plans of the new administration on a wide range of domestic reforms. In particular, the public was impressed by the ideas of healthcare reform, active protection of human rights both within the country and abroad, etc. As further events illustrate, all of these expectations were clearly overstated. Many promises remained unfulfilled, including the shutdown of the Guantanamo prison, which, in the eyes of European public opinion, became a symbol of the violation of basic human rights. In its turn, the disclosure of information on wiretapping of the European Union political leaders, especially of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, further strengthened the distrust of the German society towards this main ally.

The economic dimension of the partnership between Germany and the United States was important in terms of increasing contradictions. Despite the constant quantitative growth in exports of German goods to the United States (which became the largest consumer of German exports), the problem of negotiating the establishment of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in bilateral relations. Despite the fact that it was the Germans initiated this agreement, and, in general, doing so promised many more benefits to Germany and the European Union through the reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, which created regulatory standards, as a result of both internal political discussions and negotiations with overseas partners, German political elites and society once again faced the fear of a "zero-sum game" in favor of the United States.

The results of the presidential elections in the United States and the new office headed by Donald Trump were generally evaluated as negative in Germany, causing a new wave of disappointment towards the U.S. as a reliable ally. Although, according to the representatives of the German political elites, the initial shock is gradually becoming a secondary concern, while great concerns about the further U.S. commitments to NATO still remain. These include the concerns for the prospects for U.S. assistance in resolving the crisis in Ukraine, the issues of trade and economic relations, including the possible introduction of protective tariffs for German exporters, the issues on human rights, etc.

At the same time, German-Russian relations also came to the turn at the beginning of the 2000s. With a solid margin of safety, which was largely determined by the legacy of the "Eastern policy" of V. Brandt, and the priority for Germany in relations with Russia in the Eastern Europe.

The period of the first half of the twenty-first century was, in many ways, the most productive from the point of view of the development of bilateral Russian-German relations. Partly this was due to the inertia of the "Eastern policy" (that, according to many Russian and German experts de facto lost its importance after the unification of Germany), the development and deepening of trade, economic, cultural, and educational ties, as well as common approaches to understanding of international law and the role of multilateral institutions in the world. Historically, the largest expansion of the European Union in 2004 and the positive image of the EU in the Russian society of that period also played an important role. Overall, this allowed many experts to affirm the possible formation of the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis, and the gradual integration of Russia into European structures and the construction of the so-called "Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok».

In spite of the rise to power of Angela Merkel, a supporter of strengthened transatlantic relations, Russian-German relations have all in all continued to develop in a positive way, especially in the sphere of economic cooperation. Although specific episodes, mostly connected to European security issues (including Russian President Vladimir Putin’s famous “Munich Speech” and Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in reaction to the expansion of NATO) partially complicated bilateral relations, but nevertheless were not direct proof of an approaching crisis. It is worth separately mentioning the attempt to find a new trajectory for Russian-European relations under president Dmitry Medvedev, connected with the “Partnership for Modernization” initiative, which stipulated, along with widened trade and economic connections, gradual harmonization of the legal and regulatory mechanisms of Russia and the EU, considered to be the first concrete measure taken to build a “Greater Europe”.

The Ukrainian crisis and its consequences were unexpected for both sides. On one hand, for Russia, Germany’s position looked and still looks strictly pro-American. The Russian side assumed that the Federal Republic of Germany would support Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation in 2014, analogous to the reunification of Germany in 1990 and Russia’s/the USSR’s position on the issue. On the other hand, Germany was caught off-guard by, from its point of view, the open annexation of foreign territory in Europe. The escalation of following events, including the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, introduction of sanctions against Russia, and attempts to regulate the conflict using the “Minsk Agreements,” led to growing disappointment of both sides in not only political, but also economic connections.

One more factor which severely exacerbated and continues to exacerbate difficulties in Russian-German relations is Russia’s participation in the Syrian Civil War. For Germany, the Syrian conflict has become extremely sensitive not only because of the problems with Middle-Eastern refugees and the integration of forced migrants, problems now securely fixed in German domestic policy discussions, but also due to accusations of possible human rights violations by Russia during the implementation of air operations against anti-government forces in Syria. It is here that statements about how Russian interference significantly heightened the flow of immigrants to EU countries, and to Germany most of all, are frequently heard.

Today, the key strategic priorities of the United States are: finding new sources of economic growth including domestic reforms and returning some of the hi-tech industries back to the country, keeping NATO as the security guarantor in the Euroatlantic, searching for a solution to the Syrian crisis, and balancing China in the Asia-Pacific and trying to include it into resolving the North Korea nuclear problem. The EU at large and Germany in particular are viewed as semi-autonomous actors that may pursue their own interests as long as they do not collide with the interests of the US. Moreover, while keeping NATO as the main security guarantor in the region, more active EU and German involvement in European security is anticipated, mainly as a means of lifting the economic burden on the US economy. Russia is viewed mainly as a destabilizing power in European and international security systems, primarily because of the alleged interference in the Ukraine and in US and European domestic policies. It does imply that ad-hoc cooperation with Russia is possible for the US, though it is limited to a certain set of issues.

Strategic interests and prospects of Germany-US-Russia relations

At the same time the top foreign policy imperative for Germany is keeping the EU together and on the track of ever closer integration. This imperative is based on a number of factors. First of all, the sheer idea of European integration and the EU was based on two imperatives: the need of containing Germany after its post-World War II economic and military revival, and on integrating the country into the Western regional and global governance institutions and thus preventing any form of German revenge-seeking. This action also affected the strategic thinking of German elites, and resulted in their strong passion for multilateralism in solving any global and international issues.

Secondly, the re-unification of Germany and the ensuing economic growth, as well as the weakening stance of France in European institutions, resulted in a surprising situation when mechanisms used for containing Germany and utilizing its economy in the interests of the EU became the mechanisms for Germany to secure its foreign policy interests. While dominating the issues of trade and financial regulation, Germany demonstrated political leadership in solving Southern Europe’s debt crisis, imposing sanctions against Russia, and in the admission of Syrian refugees. Therefore, it is Germany that really benefits from European integration and thus further European integration equals protecting German national interests.

Likewise, keeping good relations with the US is also one of the key priorities of German foreign policy. Despite all of the difficulties in dealing with the Trump administration and of the negative experience of the past decade, the US remains the key trading partner for Germany as well as the guarantor of European security. This in turn will push Germans into searching for a compromise with Trump, including the possible increase in military spending. The main risks lie in the possibility of trade-war and protective tariffs against German manufactures; therefore, German foreign policy is likely to become dependent on the political course of the new US administration.

The main complex issue will be the problem of further developing or at least stabilizing relations between Germany and Russia. Despite a significant number of people supporting restoration and development of bilateral relations between our countries, neither of our nations have any kind of clear and long-term vision of either party in its system of foreign and domestic policy priorities. For Germany, the need to have strong and special relations with Russia lost its significance after the re-unification and expansion of the EU. Since the key foreign policy imperative for Germany is keeping and strengthening the European integration, the interests of not only Poland and the Baltic States as well as Ukraine and Moldova to some extent largely outweigh the benefits of enhancing cooperation with Russia. Despite all the potential for expanding trade and economic ties as well as scientific, technical and cultural exchanges, Russia can offer little to become an intrinsically valuable priority for German foreign policy.

After the Ukrainian crisis erupted, Russia found itself trapped in a “security-development” dilemma. On the one hand, the key foreign policy priority for Russia has been maintaining its security. The rise of new security challenges and their rapid globalization aggravated this problem. At the same time, plummeting oil prices, economic stagnation and the threat of ever greater economic and technological underperformance, especially when compared to other developed countries, pushes Russian elites to normalizing relations with the EU and with Germany in particular, as well as the US. However, because of Russia’s desire to have a global stance equal or at least comparable to the US and EU, while at the same time the lack of German, European and American strategic vision of Russia’s role in Western global governance institutions remains apparent, the question of the “new normal” in Russia-West relations remains open.

To conclude, the relations in the “strategic triangle” of Russia-Germany-the US are likely to remain ambiguous. While dynamics are possible, much depends on the results of the first year of the Trump administration, the outcomes of parliamentary elections in Germany in September, and the possible parameters of Russian foreign policy after the presidential elections in 2018. However, even if all the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria are settled, the lack of strategic vision for each party in the system of their own foreign policy priorities will remain the key factor that hampers the strategic cooperation between our countries.


First published in Limes.

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