Germany’s new Ostpolitik finds ways to engage with Russia
Ostpolitik was considered synonymous with West Germany’s foreign policy during the Cold War. This foreign policy doctrine was developed by Chancellor Willy Brandt to give more strategic options and flexibility to Bonn’s foreign policy, primarily improving relations with Moscow. Ostpolitik remained a very useful tool for German foreign policy even after the reunification of the country. Now Ostpolitik can once more become a useful tool in restoring the strategic understanding between Germany and Russia following the crisis in Ukraine.
(Photo credit: European People’s Party)
Germany’s new Ostpolitik finds ways to engage with Russia
‘Ostpolitik’ was considered synonymous with West Germany’s foreign policy during the Cold War. This foreign policy doctrine was implemented by the Federal Republic or FRG’s first socialist chancellor, Willy Brandt, and was developed to give more strategic options and flexibility to Bonn’s foreign policy, primarily improving FRG relations with Moscow. Hence, Ostpolitik became a very useful tool for German foreign policy not only during the Cold War but even after the reunification of the country. Now Ostpolitik can once more become a useful tool in restoring the strategic understanding between Germany and Russia following the crisis in Ukraine.
German Ostpolitik from Schröder to Merkel
With the end of the Cold War and the peaceful devolution of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR, a new era of Ostpolitik began. Berlin intensified its efforts to engage with Moscow in the most productive way in order to integrate the new ‘democratic and capitalist’ Russia into the European system of norms and values. This idea followed the notion that if economic and political relations with the Kremlin were intensified, Russia would be transformed into a vital partner for Germany and Europe.
This aspiration intensified under Gerhard Schröder’s administration. Schröder initiated the ‘partnership for modernization’ in which Germany would both supply Russia with technology in order to help Moscow modernize its economy and at the same time encourage the Kremlin to liberalize its political system. The German chancellor did not hesitate to sign many bilateral agreements of great strategic importance with the Kremlin. The most important example of this close cooperation was the signing of the contract for the Nord Stream pipeline that would connect the two countries by bypassing transit territories such as Ukraine and Poland. The particularly cordial relations between Berlin and Moscow under Schröder were in deep contrast with the tensions that existed at the same time between Germany and the United States due to the unilateral American decision to invade Iraq (Meister, 2014).
Schröder’s government added a new dimension to Ostpolitik. This new element not only improved political relations and the understanding between the two countries, but also placed great attention on the promotion of German commercial interests. Analytically, the ‘export thirsty’ German economy needed new trade partners and newly capitalist Russia offered a vast potential market in which German products could thrive. In addition to this, German industry needed to secure the stable flow of energy supplies unaffected by any political quarrels between Moscow and the transit countries.
In short, under Schröder the term Ostpolitik became ideologically neutral and commercially aware. The German government played down any criticism of Russia’s human rights policy and the German chancellor often characterised the Russian president as a spotless democrat.
When Angela Merkel came to power in 2005, many expected a more cautious stance towards Russia. The first East German chancellor was more reserved in her approach to the Putin regime, but during its first term she continued her predecessor’s trajectory. As Medvedev was elected president, Merkel intensified her efforts to engage with the new administration and to create stable relations with Moscow. The German chancellor was willing to support Medvedev since she believed that a mutual understanding was going to be easier to reach with Medvedev than with Putin. When Putin was re-elected president in 2012, any hopes for further democratisation and modernisation of Russia were abandoned. Merkel wanted to follow a different, cautious approach towards Putin’s Russia. She started to dispel the export-led, ideologically neutral elements of Ostpolitik and began to put its political principles on a par with the commercial interests (karaian, 2014).
The crisis in Ukraine and its influence on Ostpolitik.
The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis was a game-changing event for European political elites. It also highlighted an important shift in the EU’s internal balance of power. For the first time in recent history, Berlin took up geopolitical leadership of the Union and became the protagonist in the management of the most serious confrontation between Russia and the EU since the end of the Cold War.
This shift in German behaviour has to be credited solely to Angela Merkel. The German chancellor dropped Berlin’s customary style of leading from behind and immediately declared Russia’s armed takeover of Crimea to be unacceptable in Europe’s hard-won ‘peace order’ of the past 70 years (Pond, 2015).
From the beginning of the crisis, Merkel strongly opposed any plans for Western ‘boots on the ground’ in a theatre where Russia enjoyed overwhelming military superiority. She also opposed the rapid rearmament of Ukraine with NATO military equipment. On the contrary, Merkel believed that the best way to face Russia was by pitting Europe’s long-term financial might against the Kremlin’s short-term military muscles. In order to achieve this, the German chancellor first needed to gain acceptance of financial sanctions from the German business lobby, which represents an important number of companies that depend on Germany’s annual trade with Russia. Even though the economic sanctions would shrink German exports to Russia, an important market for German industry, Merkel was able to persuade executives that Europe’s security had to be prioritised over economic profit. At the same time, Angela Merkel managed to use Germany’s tolerance of ‘economic pain’ to lead the rest of the European Member States by example in support of the economic sanctions against Russia.
This determined German stance caused a deterioration in German–Russian relations, but at the same time convinced Putin to seek the de-escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Thus the negotiations that followed produced the Minsk Two agreement and brought about a temporary end to the violence in Donbass.
Can Ostpolitik be reset?
The signing of the ceasefire was the first step towards the de-escalation of the crisis. Although Berlin remains committed to the implementation of the Minsk Two agreement, many senior German officials admit that their chances of achieving the return of the status quo ante in Ukraine are very modest. They understand that at best the situation in the Donbass region will remain a frozen conflict that will not be resolved in the foreseeable future. Thus, the only way to avoid a caricature of military-political division into opposing blocs is to reset a new Ostpolitik that would try to bridge the gap between the two opposing sides (Pond, 2014).
As the German foreign minister Walter Steinmeier highlighted in an article in Focus entitled ‘Ohne Russland geht es nicht’, Russia is a vital component in the security of Europe and without the Kremlin’s cooperation many important security problems cannot be resolved. Therefore, by using Germany as its vanguard, Europe needs to open the line of communication with the Kremlin and to try to first reach common ground on issues where both parties share the same views. The rise of radical Islam and the battle against terrorism both at home and also in the Middle East offers fertile grounds for rebuilding trust between the two sides.
The gradual rapprochement should also not be made at the expense of European security considerations in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, as the dialogue between the two parties takes place, Germany can exploit its vital importance as an export market to make the Kremlin respect European strategic considerations in eastern Ukraine. In addition to this, Berlin’s ability to impose immense economic pain on the troubled Russian economy can deter the Putin administration from future aggressive actions against other Eastern European countries. Thus, the new Ostpolitik needs to combine both carrot and stick options in order to initiate a new working relationship with Russia. This double-faceted approach is the only path that Germany can follow in order to bring Russia back to a constructive relationship – firstly with Berlin, and then with the rest of the EU (Pepe, 2014).
The fact that Germany is taking over the presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) at this critical juncture in European security is a golden opportunity for Berlin to approach Moscow in a more constructive way. Although it is highly unlikely that Germany will resolve the deep strategic confrontation between Europe and Russia in one great leap, Berlin can proceed with small cautious steps towards further de-escalation of the tension between the two sides. Those steps should focus on issues in which both sides have overlapping interests. Intelligence sharing on terrorist threats and an initiation of a closer coordination on how to diminish Islamic State’s role in Syria can be the stepping stone in the reconciliation between the two sides. In addition to this, the EU should consider the revision of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014. Instead of automatically extending the sanctions, the EU could exclude some of them provided that Moscow maintains a more constructive role in the resolution of the Ukraine crisis. In addition, such an action could also benefit the economy of many EU states that are deeply affected by Russian countermeasures against European products. It is more than interesting that many European leaders advocate this direction, with the prime minister of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, the latest to ask for the revision of sanctions and the end to Cold War rhetoric. Hence the best forum in which this gradual rapprochement can be achieved is through the OSCE. As Hakkarainen and Nünlist attest, German chairmanship of the OSCE can help not only to reach an agreement on the Ukraine crisis but also to prevent further escalation in other crisis-torn areas where the Kremlin and the West have different interpretations of a single situation .
In summary, although major strategic breakthroughs are not on the cards in 2016, it could be the year in which Germany’s new Ostpolitik prepares the political environment for a consensus-based dialogue that would conclude in the creation of a new strategic modus vivendi in Europe. Given that Ostpolitik managed to ‘warm up’ relations between the two opposing camps during the Cold War, it is more than possible that it can have a similar impact now.
Georgios Siachamis is a PhD candidate at the University of Ghent and a visiting fellow at Egmont – the Royal Institute for International Relations.
Hakkarainen, Petri & Christian Nünlist. (2016) ‘Trust and Realpolitik, the OSCE in 2016’, Centre for Security Studies, vol. 4/1.
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Karaian, Jason. (2014) ‘Angela Merkel is rewriting Germany’s post-war handbook on relations with Russia’, Quartz, available at http://qz.com/194695/angela-merkel-is-rewriting-germanys-post-war-handbook-on-relations-with-russia/
McGuinness, Damien. (2016) ‘German leader Seehofer’s Putin visit stokes outcry in Berlin’, available at:http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-eu-35481707
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Pepe, Jacobo Maria. (2014) ‘A grand strategy towards Russia and Ukraine’, Aspenia, available at https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/grand-strategy-toward-russia-and-ukraine-german-lead-needs-eus-support
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 McGuinness (2016)
Petri Hakkarainen & Christian Nünlist (2016)