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Why are Germans so sympathetic to Russia?

The deployment of Pershing II missiles in the early 1980s by NATO to counter Soviet SS-20s led to widespread fears in Germany that the Cold War would escalate writes Markus Ziener. Hundreds of thousands marched in protests, demanding that NATO refrain from deploying the missiles. Many members of the German public were ready to trust Moscow’s assurances more than those of NATO.

Thirty years later, it seems that history is repeating itself. In the current crisis over Ukraine, large parts of the German public are giving Russia’s leadership the benefit of the doubt. They may not trust Vladimir Putin personally, but they are readily buying the Russian argument that Moscow feels encircled and endangered by the West. In a recent survey, the German public was evenly split between those who were sympathetic to Russia’s position and those opposing Moscow’s actions.

What are the reasons for this tolerance? The German public is naturally fearful of military escalation on its doorstep. And Germans do not have particularly strong feelings about Kiev’s quest for more autonomy from Russia. Dying for Ukraine? No thanks.

But that is only one part of the explanation. The other part is that the facts do not matter much anymore. Opinions about the conflict were largely formed in early 2014 and attitudes have remained unchanged, despite Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and clear evidence emerging about Russian support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The predominant view is that if the European Union had not tried to force Ukraine into signing an association agreement in 2013, escalation could have been avoided. The EU, in other words, completely disregarded Russian interests, thus instigating the biggest military conflict in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

However, even if one were to concede that Ukraine may have needed more time to decide its relationship with the EU, it is hardly a reason to accept what has happened since. Russia is violating international law and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum meant to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But such arguments do not pass muster with many Germans. Instead, one observes a willingness to think in Cold War terms and acknowledge spheres of influence, which practically entitles Russia to do what it pleases in Ukraine.

Contributing to this sentiment is the perception that the established German media is guilty of false and unfair reporting about Russia. In the digital era, the nature of news has fundamentally changed. The consumption of news has not only become much more superficial, it has also become more selective: you read what you want to read instead of what is offered to you by a newspaper.

Many Germans also want their government to pursue policies that are more independent of the United States. The Iraq war, the National Security Agency spying scandal, and the fight over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have affected perceptions of the crisis with Russia. Support for Chancellor Angela Merkel increases when she is perceived to be following a German or European line in dealing with Russia instead of heeding American advice. Strong sentimental feelings also remain toward Russia, especially in parts of East Germany and among older generations. Although East Germans suffered under Soviet dominance, many still feel great sympathy for Russians on a personal level. And many of those who recall the Cold War and World War II cannot believe that Europe could be on the brink of military conflict with Russia again.

As a consequence, German politics walks a tightrope. Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have to take into account several factors including a good deal of public unawareness, a fair share of realpolitik, and raw emotion. So far, Merkel has largely succeeded in the balancing act. She continues to engage with Russia and make a serious attempt to avoid Moscow’s complete isolation. She refrains from imposing sanctions that are too heavy and still sees her role primarily as that of a mediator. But, this policy works as long as there is some hope that it may bear fruit. As soon as this prospect collapses, Germany’s role becomes untenable. It will not be easy for Germany to switch from playing good cop to bad cop.

Markus Ziener is a non-Resident Fellow of the GMF and a professor for journalism in Berlin. From 1994 to 1999 he was correspondent for the German business daily Handelsblatt in Moscow, and between 2006 and 2012 he reported from Washington, DC. This article was first published by the GMF.

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