Mees van der Werf's Blog

Time for a renewed Ostpolitik?

July 3, 2018
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently met with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. When she arrived, he awaited her with a bouquet of white roses. At the combined press conference after their meeting, the two leaders spook words of rapprochement and cooperation. This stood in stark contrast with the animosity of recent years. Is Germany trying to improve its relations with Russia? There are arguments for Berlin to do so.


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After the Second World War, a solution to the German problem was needed. In the early 50´s Stalin offered to create a reunited neutral Germany. Instead, Germany remained divided. With US´ support it was rearmed, on French insistence, it was integrated into the European framework. Since then the Wall has fallen. Germany was reunited, Eastern European states joined NATO and the EU. Germany, although once united the economic powerhouse of Europe, remained locked in a European community of rules.
But now American support for the status-quo on the continent is faltering. This summer’s G7 top was only the most recent in a long line of instances in which "America First" trumped transatlantic cooperation. Donald Trump’s approach signals a new multipolar world order based on realpolitik. Of all European states, this is most troublesome for Germany. As the biggest EU state others look to Berlin for leadership. However, because of its history, Germany is reluctant to take a strong leadership role.
This pressure on Germany to become more assertive offers an opportunity to Russia to improve its relations with Germany and the entire EU. Warmer relations would take some of the pressure to assert itself off Germany. This would be very helpful for Merkel who never had such fragile domestic support. There is a second political argument for a détente. The two most significant threats to Merkel´s position; the rise of Alternative für Deutschland and Merkel’s coalition partner CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, support rapprochement. Giving in on this could be used as a bargaining chip to strengthen her position. Add to that the increasing criticism of Germany’s foreign affairs minister Heiko Maas' tough stance on Russia and a robust domestic argument for increased dialogue becomes apparent.[1]
There are other, economic, arguments for a détente. Russia has vast natural resources which are of significant interest to the German economy. Germany, in turn, has a heavy industry capable of modernizing infrastructure in Russia. A successful major exchange of development for raw resources in the past were the Nord Stream pipelines. Its expansion, Nord Stream 2 is now underway. Russia is also a substantial export market for German industries. The uncertainty around Germany’s stance towards Russia continues to harm these economic interests. The damage caused to the German economy by the U.S. sanctions is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions.[2] Recently, the increases in tariffs between the EU and US have made renewed trade with Russia even more appealing. Such trade could take the form of a new period of Ostpolitik based on the adage of "Wandel durch Handel.” [3]
If Merkel were to adopt a more positive stance towards Moscow she would be supported by Hungary and Italy, the third EU economy. Italy’s new government has promised to be “the advocates of an opening towards Russia.”[4] They have argued for reinstituting the G8.[5] Finding something in common with Hungary and Italy could help Merkel in Europe. Both countries would play a prominent role in creating new EU-wide rules on immigration. France is interested in better relations as well. During his recent visit to St. Petersburg French President Emmanuel Macron addressed Putting as “cher Vladimir," he together with Merkel seeks Russian support for a new solution to the Iran nuclear issue.[6] This following the U.S.’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Austria would also support renewed dialogue with the Kremlin. Austria did not expel any Russian diplomats over the Skripal-affaire arguing instead for dialogue.[7] During Putin’s visit to Vienna Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said that Europe must “end these sanctions, which are exasperating, and normalize political and business ties to Russia.”[8] Austria would be well positioned to support attempts to change the EU’s approach to Russia as they now hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Further EU support could come from the European Commission itself. Its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently called for an end to the “Russia-bashing” and argued for “reconnecting with Russia” instead.[9]
All this means that Merkel would not stand alone, domestically or internationally, if she would work towards a détente. The recent visits could turn out to have been a prelude to that thaw. For now, it remains uncertain what Merkel's course of action will be. She views Russia warily. But when faced with a choice, she might prefer a pacifistic Germany with Russia over an assertive Germany against Russia.



[3] Change through trade. Changing the relations and perhaps even Russia through increased trade.


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