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In For the Long Haul


Germany’s old Russia policy, an attempt to build a “modernizing partnership,” is dead and should be buried. The beginning of 2015 saw Berlin searching for a new way forward, informed by recent events.


(c) Mykola Lazarenko/Handout via REUTERS

The year 2014 – marking a watershed for Europe – is drawing to a close. The conflict has already been simmering for months. Numerous telephone calls have been made between Berlin and Moscow. But the conversation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 16 in Brisbane marks a new low point in the German government’s disillusionment with the Kremlin ruler. Putin clearly has no intention of relenting in eastern Ukraine. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier issues a warning – we have to prepare for a long-term conflict with a former “strategic partner,” and Berlin needs a new long-term policy towards Russia.

After years of a “partnership,” Berlin and Moscow are back in “crisis mode.” It is the third phase of German-Russian relations since protests in Kiev began during the winter of 2013-14. By fall of 2014, recognition sets in that the conflict is not going to blow over in a few weeks – the West has to settle in for the long haul, a point that Merkel acknowledges in demanding “strategic patience” in the West’s dealings with Russia and Ukraine.

After the annexation of Crimea, Berlin’s determination surprises Moscow. Yet it takes until November 2014 for a serious debate to begin over how long-term concepts of Germany’s relations with Russia need to change given this breach of trust. The Chancellery and the Federal Foreign Office both see previous ideas on security, political, economic, and even societal cooperation with Russia as outdated.

Russia, until recently a partner, has become an adversary, and not only in the conflict in Ukraine, which increasingly is seen as and called a “war.” Russia has become an opponent of the West itself. And there is more: The Russian leadership suddenly went from an uncomfortable proximity with Europe’s left- and right-wing populist, anti-EU parties to full interference in the internal politics of EU member states. Germany’s ruling coalition of Merkel’s conservative CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD) of Steinmeier and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel agrees: Russia is now defining its foreign policy interests not in alignment with Europe’s, but in opposition.

For several reasons, the driving force for such a shift in Berlin is the Federal Foreign Office. Time and again, Foreign Minister Steinmeier has suffered setbacks over Putin’s handling of the Ukraine crisis. During the negotiations to form Merkel’s third government in autumn 2013, Steinmeier had clung onto his “modernizing partnership” approach. One year on he no longer harbors illusions. A different framework for German foreign diplomacy is needed.

Successful and sustained cooperation with Russia on international problems, such as nuclear negotiations with Iran, is not enough on its own. Work with Russia in fora and organizations like the NATO-Russia Council and the Council of Europe – which were believed to be effective in bridging the gaps between East and West – has collapsed. In Merkel’s Chancellery, interest grows in a new, long-term line of argument: The German government must equip itself for the 2015 EU debate over the extension of Russia sanctions, originally imposed for a single year. It must be made clear to EU partners that even though hope for future cooperation with Russia has not been lost, sanctions remain essential until the situation improves.

Finding a new concept is also crucial for Steinmeier in his role as leading SPD politician. Germany’s Social Democrats not only experienced the crumbling of their Russia policy in 2014. The party also struggles with the (not entirely welcome) input of its previous leaders. Former Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, even Willy Brandt’s Security Adviser Egon Bahr publicly voice their “Putinversteher”-views on the Russia debate. These are out of tune with Steinmeier’s recent experiences of Russian behavior in Ukraine. As the SPD has seen itself as the guardian of German Russia policy since Brandt’s Ostpolitik, Steinmeier and Gabriel consider it essential to stake out a new position for intra-party debate.

On November 16 Steinmeier suggests to further trade between the EU and the Moscow-driven Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). He hones in on Putin’s remarks at the end of October, when the Russian president requested further dialogue between these organizations. Three days later, at the 17th German-Polish Forum in Berlin, Steinmeier stresses, “There is a consensus in the crisis among EU foreign ministers that Europe’s long-lasting security is only conceivable with Russia, not against it. For that we need conversations … and we need venues – something like the Council of the Baltic Sea States, or an exchange between the EU and the Russia-founded EEU, and of course the OSCE.” A few weeks later, during a discussion with students in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on December 9 Steinmeier again emphasizes the necessity of cooperation. He makes clear that this should be a part of a greater conceptual framework in a December 14 letter to an SPD party colleague: “As Social Democrats we must confirm the basic concepts of our Ostpolitik under these new and more strenuous conditions.”

He is not alone in this approach – four days later at the EU summit Merkel advocates the introduction of a free trade zone between the EU and the EEU: “Indeed, we have nothing against working together with Russia, with Kazakhstan, with Belarus on a large common economic area, and I believe that with appropriate progress in the course of the Minsk agreement we can keep that goal in sight.”

But closer cooperation with Russia will depend upon developments in eastern Ukraine. Even discussing closer cooperation is only possible thanks to a perceived relative quiet in eastern Ukraine at the time. Pro-Russian separatists do make further territorial gains, but these are mainly unnoticed by the broader western European public. With the Ukraine conflict knocked off the top of news broadcasts, voices in the German public grow louder to “offer something to the Russians.”

During the World Economic Forum in Davos, the debate over an “offering to Putin” dominated the media. When Merkel and Gabriel repeat their suggestion for a common free trade zone as a long-term vision, it too generates much media coverage.

Back in Crisis Mode, January 24-30

Yet events again intervene – the search for long-term cooperation is dramatically interrupted on January 24 by a rocket attack in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Attributed to pro-Russian separatists, it kills more than 30 people. Perceptions of the conflict become more acute, not just in the public mind, but also among political actors. Western intelligence had already reported a massive secret operation supplying separatists with modern equipment from Russia. Berlin increasingly gets the impression that the relative quiet since Christmas was no more than preparation for a new offensive. The attack on Mariupol in particular revives previous fears that separatists could, under Russian leadership, seize enough territory along the Black Sea coast to create land access to the Crimean Peninsula, which remains difficult to supply. Putin himself used the term “New Russia” (Novorossiya) in April 2014 among Russian nationalists to refer to the Black Sea coast as far as Odessa.

That fear is heightened by a massive attack by separatists on the Debaltseve railway junction between Donetsk and Luhansk. The size of the attack on the several thousand-strong Ukrainian force assembled there alarms the German government. In the EU the question of stronger sanctions return to the agenda; proponents of a softer approach, among them Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, now have trouble making their case. The United States openly accuses the separatists and Russia of seeking territorial gains in the Ukraine. In Washington, a serious discussion starts about supplying weapons to Ukraine.

On January 29 the EU foreign ministers – including their new Greek colleague – decide to extend by six months the visa and banking restrictions imposed in March 2014 on pro-Russian separatists and Russians connected with Crimean annexation. They also consider further sanctions and ask the EU Commission and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini to compose a list with more candidates for visa and account restrictions.

Dramatic Diplomacy, January 30-February 12

One of the most dramatic diplomatic phases of the crisis begins on the weekend of January 30. Military action, with separatist attacks on 80 Ukrainian army positions, becomes so intense the German government fears an open war in the east. At the same time, behind the scenes, the Russian government makes suggestions to resolve the crisis – suggestions completely unacceptable to Ukraine and the Europeans. It prompts a hectic bout of telephone diplomacy with dozens of discussions on the highest levels, led by Merkel and Hollande and including Presidents Obama, Poroshenko, and Putin.

Top German and French diplomats work on responses to Ukraine and Russia. On the evening of February 3, Merkel and Steinmeier and their closest advisers hold a long session. The chancellor also phones the Russian president. On February 4 the idea to start a diplomatic mission led by Merkel and Hollande starts taking shape, underlining the severity of the situation. The first priority seems to be to prevent further territorial gains by the separatists south-east of Mariupol and avoid a complete debacle for the Ukrainian army in Debaltseve. The September Minsk agreement remains the necessary basis for a renewed ceasefire, even if details need changing to take into account the separatists having since conquered more than a hundred square kilometers. In the background Merkel’s Foreign Policy Adviser Christoph Heusgen, Steinmeier’s State Secretary Markus Ederer, and Foreign Office Political Director Hans-Dieter Lucas race between Paris, Moscow, Berlin, and Kiev to explore which “adjustments” Kiev might accept, to enable ceasefire negotiations to begin. Poroshenko and Putin also talk at length on the phone on February 3 and 4.

Washington’s role remains ambivalent. On February 4, US Secretary of State John Kerry stops in Minsk and is informed of the united European effort. Yet both Merkel and Steinmeier regard the American debate over delivering weapons as unhelpful to their efforts. They fear it might raise false hopes within the Ukrainian government and reduce the potential for compromise.

On Thursday, February 5, Merkel and Hollande fly to Kiev – and then on to Moscow; a plan to which previously only a small circle has been privy to, including EU high representative Mogherini and EU Council President Donald Tusk. At the same time, Steinmeier visits Warsaw and Riga to inaugurate the Latvian EU Council presidency. Latvia and Poland are the EU members closest to Ukraine, and Steinmeier aims to clarify the current diplomatic approach. The hope is to avoid the impression that Ukraine is being coerced to concede its territorial claims in eastern Ukraine.

The talks between Merkel, Hollande, and Putin in Moscow on Friday, February 6 last four hours. The German-French duo stress that there will not be any rupture in the trans-Atlantic alliance even if the US were to deliver weapons to Ukraine over European objections. The message is twofold: Putin may be better off making an agreement over Ukraine under the mediation of the Europeans. And the repeated offers of establishing a Russo-EU free trade zone should not be misunderstood: Europe and the US would not be divided over the conflict.

On Saturday, February 7, Merkel and Poroshenko meet US Vice President Joe Biden at the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference and brief him on their discussions. The next day during a phone conference in “Normandy format” (France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia) they arrange a summit in Minsk for the following Wednesday. Representatives of the “Trilateral group” – Russia, Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatists – are to join the meeting. After Merkel gets assurance by President Barack Obama that the US would back the European-led negotiations, February 12 sees the agreement of a 48-hour truce. It includes concrete implementation plans – complete with deadlines – for the essential points of the Minsk agreement.

During this period it becomes clear that the various levels of response – short-term crisis management, medium-term planning, and long-term consideration – must all be pursued simultaneously. Back on February 5, NATO’s foreign ministers had resolved to strengthen the rapid response force for eastern Europe to reassure increasingly uneasy eastern NATO and EU partners. In western capitals, efforts are also made to push back against the Russian “information war.” On February 16, in response to the earlier shelling of Mariupol and in spite of the Minsk agreement, 19 additional separatists and Russians are added to the EU sanctions list.

Agreement of the Minsk implementation treaty (“Minsk II”) affords little respite to the exhausted diplomats – it immediately becomes apparent that Putin’s request to delay the ceasefire for 60 hours was a ploy to give the separatists time to seize the crucial rail junction of Debaltseve. In marathon telephone conversations, Merkel, Hollande, their foreign ministers, and their advisers nevertheless convince Kiev, Moscow, and the separatists to keep to the agreement.

On the European side, the tone changes to a cautious optimism. In the coming weeks a trans-Atlantic discrepancy emerges as some American generals underline their concerns that the ceasefire will be exploited by the Russian side to resupply forces so they can later march on Mariupol. But Germany’s statements stress minor progress in implementation of the Minsk agreement.

Thoughts on New Concepts

Despite the massive efforts demanded by the management of the immediate crisis, efforts to develop long-term concepts for dealing with Russia have continued. In January, the German government decides to establish a new Russia and Eastern Europe research institute. Steinmeier wants new policies to be grounded in an improved understanding of social, economic, and political developments in Russia and post-Soviet countries.
And again, Moscow is offered incentives to work with the EU, particularly in light of Russian economic troubles ­– a result not so much of Western sanctions, but of low oil and gas prices. In their conversations with the Russian government, the Germans and French insist that a new gas agreement with Ukraine and adjustments to the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement must be addressed in the first half of 2015. Indeed, Merkel explicitly emphasized on February 2 that she wants Russia to remain Europe’s energy provider, even as countries like Ukraine have turned away from Russian energy with surprising speed, threatening Russian gas provider Gazprom with the loss of important markets.

Steinmeier uses the Munich Security Conference to stress that the development of new concepts for dealing with Russia continue – necessarily so, despite the crisis. The relationship with Russia must be built on new foundations – even as the trust of ten years ago is now destroyed. His speech included this core section: “Germany has a particular responsibility for Europe’s security. That means that we must think beyond the current conflict in eastern Ukraine. I don’t mean that in the sense of going back to how things were – that won’t happen and it would be an illusion, a dangerous one at that. What I mean is that if we’re able to de-escalate and resolve the critical conflict, how do we then want to re-incorporate Russia into a European security architecture after trust has undoubtedly been lost. … And this is why what I am saying now is also a call to Russia to tell us what kind of contributions they want to make, what they want to contribute in order to bring about a security architecture that is beneficial to all of us.”

The same day, February 8, Steinmeier’s party leadership committee publishes a paper that refers back to Brandt’s Ostpolitik while aiming to point the way forward: “The EU and Germany cannot give up on a European Russia. Our goal remains the integration of Russia in the broader European political, economic, and security structure,” it says. “We should be aware of the opportunities that a trade policy initiative offers for conversations between the EU and the recently founded Eurasian Economic Union. This project shows an opportunity for equal partnership in the future.” Of course, respect for the democratic rights of self-determination of Ukraine and other countries of the eastern neighborhood of the EU is a prerequisite for such partnership. The goal is a common trade area “in which, beside the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, all countries would be able to take part.”

On February 12 Merkel, Hollande, Poroshenko, and Putin sign a general declaration in Minsk saying: “The national leaders and heads of government commit to an unchanged vision of a united humanitarian and economic space from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the foundation of full respect for civil rights and the principles of the OSCE.” At the following EU summit, all 28 member states support the agreement. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to receive signals that further cooperation is wanted – if and when basic framework conditions are met. Steinmeier says in a March 5 interview with the German daily Handelsblatt: “I do not want Europe to be permanently walled off from Russia. Even if a political solution takes many years, possibly even a decade, we must do everything in our power to solve the conflict.”

Yet in Berlin talk of cooperating with the Eurasian Union is quieting down – partly due to the reticence of Eastern European countries who think little of the inclusion of Russia at the moment. The “wiggle room” for a new German and European Ostpolitik is narrow – especially as polls show that German citizens have lost their trust in Putin. Concern remains that Hungary and Greece might pursue a separate policy of rapprochement with Russia, thus undermining unity within the European Union.

Despite slow progress in the development of a new Russia policy, two important decisions are made within a week: On March 11 the International Monetary Fund decides to release $17.5 billion for Ukraine. And on March 12 the OSCE member states – including Russia – extend the Ukraine mission by a year and increase the number of observers to a thousand. Both decisions are seen in Berlin as important contributions to stabilizing the situation in Ukraine.

Shortly before, Merkel had sent a signal to Moscow: She will not attend the traditional military parade commemorating the end of World War II on Red Square on May 9. Instead, she agrees to join Putin in laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a day later. The gesture is symbolic – when the present is marked by enormous problems and few specifics are known about the future, the memory of a shared, bloody past could help: “The duty to remember the dead exists independently of what currently separates us from Russia,” says Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert when announcing her trip.

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