While it would be naive to expect a revolution, it is quite possible that the Ukraine lesson will spillover into other sensitive issues – suggests Nicholas Kaufmann
The financial crisis in Europe has precipitated the emergence of Germany as the continent’s undisputed leader in public perceptions but the country has long played a leading, although quiet, role in dictating both internal and external European politics. This includes defining Europe’s foreign policy towards Russia, or lack thereof. While Germany has historically been a driving force behind European Union enlargement to the East, the country prefers to punch below its weight when it comes to Russia. Germany’s realist Ostpolitik, however, may be quickly changing as Russia’s autocratic tailspin begins to threaten German and European interests.
Since Willy Brandt and the Social Democrats rose to power in 1969, Germany has pursued a highly successful policy of ‘change through rapprochement’, as Egon Bahr famously put it in a 1963 speech. Contrary to the immovable Christian Democrats and their Hallstein Doctrine, Brandt argued that West Germany could affect far more change through pursuing policies that would ease tensions between the two German states and the wider Soviet Sphere – while also gently pushing for change.
The policy proved successful enough that when the Christian Democrats came back to power in 1982 under the leadership of Helmut Kohl, they did not change West German policy towards the German Democratic Republic. Even Bavarian Minister-President Franz Josef Strauß, who fought tooth and nail against the set of treaties that embody Ostpolitik’s implementation, played a central role in securing a 3 billion-mark loan to the GDR the year after Kohl came to power.
After the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Germany unsurprisingly elaborated its new Russia policy on the basis of its successful Ostpolitik. Current German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has referred to it as “change through trade” in a speech at the Evangelische Akademie in Tutzing, the very same venue as Bahr’s emblematic speech. In the speech, Westerwelle argued that, “close economic ties can help make the remaining dividing lines in our continent more permeable, thus enabling us to overcome them”.
While ‘Cold War mentalities’ have become a favoured straw man for politicians on both sides of the historical geopolitical divide, Ostpolitik has truly found its wings in an era of globalisation and export-driven growth and has been self-confidently embraced. With considerable business interests in Russia and its wider sphere of influence, as well as 30 per cent of its energy coming from Russia and a large and influential Russian immigrant population, Berlin has every reason to put interests before values; or, as Germany has done, values through interests.
Over the years, Germany’s Ostpolitik 2.0 has played an instrumental role in taking the wind out of American and Atlanticist sails in Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed the American push toward North Atlantic Treaty Organisation membership for Ukraine and Georgia, diluted if not killed United States plans to deploy a missile defence system in Europe, as well as any attempt to formulate a half-way coherent supra-national Russia policy in Europe. To be fair, Germany isn’t the only EU member state working behind the scenes to deflate more hardline policies. But it is the only one that could do it alone.
Business in the country has, therefore, been able to continue to turn huge profits in Russia while the government can tell human rights and democracy advocates with a straight face that Germany is contributing to the gradual democratisation of its trade partner. The status quo, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. As Russia’s autocratic tendencies become harder to ignore and the prospects of doing business in a corrupt petro-state less appetizing, many are beginning to call into question the policy’s sustainability.
No one event can be said to have sparked this evolution but rather the increasingly brutal internal and external policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. At home, the government is clamping down on human rights and the political opposition while abroad the Kremlin increasingly uses its economic and political clout to strong-arm its neighbours. The latter tendency in particular has been showcased over the past year as Russia waged economic warfare against neighbours audacious enough to flaunt their European aspirations.
In one of the first palpable signs that the growing uneasiness of public opinion had permeated the highest levels of governments Germany’s president, who seems to have staked his presidency on human rights, has not shied away from offering up tough words for Europe’s most notable offender recently. In June, Joachim Gauck admonished the Russian government for what he called a “deficit of the rule of law” and an “air of imperialism” at a conference with Russian intellectuals in Berlin.
While the German presidency’s powers are largely ceremonial, Gauck holds a high level of moral authority in the country. The 73-year-old former Lutheran pastor first gained notoriety as a civil rights leader and has even been labelled the nation’s answer to Nelson Mandela for his role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany and exposing the abuses of the GDR’s notorious security apparatus – the Stasi.
Others too are beginning to openly question the old adage that the country has nothing to gain from overt conflict with an increasingly totalitarian Russia; notably politicians such as Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy parliamentary floor leader of the centre-right majority party and Green Party parliamentarian Marieluise Beck. Both warn that Germany shouldn’t pull punches out of fear for potential economic consequences.
Stefan Meister with the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank believes although that this shift is about more than just a reaction to Putin’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies but a realisation that they pose an inherent threat to the future viability of the country’s economic potential. “While Germany desires a political and social transformation towards democracy and rule of law alongside economic cooperation,” he says, “Russia’s leadership is only interested in technological exchange.” This is becoming unsustainable, he thinks, because “there cannot be sustainable economic growth without transparency, rule of law, and a market free of government intervention”.
The issue of Ukraine has served as a catalyst in Berlin’s transition to a tougher stance against Moscow. The country, which was due to sign a landmark trade and cooperation deal with the EU last month at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, called off the association agreement at the last minute in an attempt to cool relations with Russia. Moscow hopes that the country will instead join its own Eurasian customs union and has threatened to deal an economic blow to Ukraine if it throws its hat in with Europe.
The Vilnius Summit debacle clearly illustrated the cost of German complacency to the EU’s external influence. For Berlin, the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy is not anti-Russian but merely a means to promote democracy and prosperity on the union’s borders. For Ukrainians protesting in Kiev’s Independence Square, however, the country’s European aspirations are above all geopolitical; a chance to anchor Ukraine’s destiny to Europe and definitively escape its overbearing neighbour.
Under the delusion that Ukraine’s decision was purely economic, Germany did little to help assure Ukraine’s leaders that it could shelter the country from Russia’s wrath if it signed and the Kremlin saw that its threats would illicit little more than passive condemnation. It was not until it became clear that Ukraine was backing down under Russian threats that Merkel stepped up her rhetoric, even sending Westerwelle to wade through the crowds of protestors in Kiev and declare that the “gates of Europe are still open”.
That Russian bullying could undermine Europe’s most powerful foreign policy weapon, the prospect of EU membership, was a brutal wake-up call that all things are political. While it would be naive to expect a revolution, it is quite possible that the Ukraine lesson will spillover into other sensitive issues. Even a slightly more assertive Germany would send a strong signal to Moscow, while also curbing the appetite of the more hawkishly inclined in Europe.
Putin will increasingly be faced with dangerous dilemmas in the coming years as Russian civil society becomes more vocal and the economic situation worsens. All signs point towards relatively weak oil and gas prices in the coming decades – compared with the boom the sustained pre-crisis expansion – and Russia’s economic authorities have concomitantly downgraded the country’s economic forecast with it. Russia will have to reform and diversify in order to stay afloat. For a leader whose recipe for success rests on petro-dollars and oppression, Putin’s willingness to take the necessary steps is not a given – putting in danger European economic interests and the country’s future potential. For once, interests may pass through values.
Nicholas Kaufmann is a Brussels-based consultant and works closely with a number of public affairs firms