The Great Divide Is Germany's Special Relationship with Russia Ending?

Germany's new foreign minister has adopted a sharper tone than his predecessors on Russia. There are plenty of reasons to do so, but it is a significant break with tradition. Berlin is casting about for a happy medium. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Markus Schreiber / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel


It's a recent Sunday and pianist Justus Frantz is sitting in his villa in the Pöseldorf district of Hamburg and holding forth about the Germans and their relationship with Russia. The new German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, Frantz says, sometimes reminds him of Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the Prussian Army at the start of World War I.

"Irresponsible," is how Frantz describes the minister's tough new tone. Maas's approach to Russia, he says, has been senseless as he seeks to gain the upper hand. "This generation no longer knows what war is."

Russia has played a prominent role in Frantz's life. The 73-year-old musician, who is married to the Russia violinist Ksenia Dubrovskaya, speaks a mix of Russian and German at home. Even before he met his wife, however, Frantz was long convinced that there was a particular affinity between German and Russian culture. "The epic of Russian music is only to be found in the epic of German music, not in French, English or American," he says, enthusiastically.

The musician has always come back to Russia throughout his career. In 1974, the young pianist got to know the composer Dmitri Shostakovich when he traveled to Moscow to give a solo performance. Toward the end of the 1980s, he founded the German-Soviet Youth Philharmonic and in the 1990s, he met the ambitious deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.

"A cultivated man," Frantz says, adding that they spoke about Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and German culture.

Of course, there are human rights violations in Russia, Frantz allows. "But the biggest human rights violation would be a new military conflict between Russia and the West."

In April, the musician launched an appeal that also received backing from Sigmar Gabriel, who preceded Maas in the Foreign Ministry. It is necessary to "break the antagonism of provocation and counter-provocation, suspicions and accusations, threats and counter-threats, sanctions and counter-sanctions," it declares.

Justus Frantz represents much of what constitutes the special bond between Germans and Russians. It is one marked by fear of war and cultural affinity, a romantic view of Russia and a yearning for a friendship between peoples, mutual fascination and the myth that the rational Germans and the Russian soul somehow perfectly complement each other.

'Worse than During the Cold War'

The relationship between Germans and Russians has long been a particularly emotional one. As absurd as it might sound, World War II did not alienate the Germans and the Russians from one another, but rather brought them closer together. No other country was as enthusiastic about the Gorbachev era and the end of the Soviet Union as the Germans. That could help explain why there is now such great disappointment at the fact that the distance between the two countries has begun growing again.

It's little wonder, then, that the new foreign minister's tone has provoked a debate in Germany. In a recent interview with DER SPIEGEL, Maas claimed that Russia was "increasingly hostile." He rejected the partial dismantling of sanctions, in contrast to Gabriel's support of such a move, and suggested that the West increase the pressure on Russia when it comes to Syria. Many in the West, Maas said, "now have an extremely critical view of Russia."

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It shows how tense the situation has become. For the first time since the end of World War II, Berlin expelled Russian diplomats absent any suspicion of espionage but rather as punishment for the nerve agent attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal in London. In recent years, Germany has imposed sanctions, increased its military spending and, as a member of NATO, stationed troops in the Baltics. They are all part of a policy of containment, one which has also involved efforts to maintain dialogue with Russia. One must keep talking with Russia is the constant refrain.

Yet despite talk of dialogue, Russia and the West are sliding deeper into crisis. "The situation today is worse than during the Cold War," says Sergey Nechayev, Russia's new ambassador to Germany. There is mistrust and deep misunderstanding, he says. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned of a "rapid alienation" between Russia and the West.

Understandably, the change in tone from the new foreign minister has not been well received in Moscow. "We have a problem with the tone of a few politicians' statements," Nechayev says diplomatically. "We hear words there that have never existed in the lexicon of German-Russian relations. Words like 'antagonism' and 'hostile.'"

Crossing Party Lines

Even the Russia critics within Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) are unhappy about the minister's verbal attacks. "One should not make dialogue with Russia unnecessarily difficult," says CDU foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen. "The situation is serious enough. We should forego verbal escalation."

What, then, should be done? The Russia question is no longer some academic exercise in foreign policy circles. Ever since the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany has adopted the issue as a central plank in its political platforms, German-Russian relations have become a crucial election issue, particularly in eastern Germany.

Indeed, there is a deep division in Germany that runs between the east and the west and between Russophiles and Russia sceptics. The division cuts through the country's established parties, particularly the Social Democrats but the disconnect is also apparent in the CDU and even within the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). The Russia issue is one that crosses party lines.

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Points of Conflict in the German-Russian Relationship

On one side stands Chancellor Angela Merkel, much of the CDU, the Greens and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz, both of the SPD. FDP leader Christian Lindner likewise belongs to this group. They are in favor of clear criticism, toughness on sanctions and the setting of clear limits.

On the other side are many Social Democrats, such as Steinmeier and Gabriel, and a large part of Merkel's Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), particularly party leader Horst Seehofer. Armin Laschet, the CDU governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, and FDP deputy leader Wolfgang Kubicki are likewise part of this group. They favor dialogue, dismantling sanctions and even readmitting Putin to the G-7.

And then there are the far-left Left Party and the far-right AfD, both of which are completely uncritical if not admiring of Russia and its authoritarian model.

One side argues that Putin is shifting borders within Europe, destabilizing Ukraine, seeking to divide the European Union and carrying out a covert cyberwar against the West.

Plenty of Reason for a Tougher Tone

"But the West has made mistakes too," say the others. They emphasize Germany's historic responsibility toward Russia and they demand a realistic approach. An understanding with Russia is absolutely necessary, they say.

The first group thinks this is naïve. "Putin only understand the language of force." "War-mongers," cry the others. And, they add, Russia is more than just Putin.

Every new foreign minister finds the move into the Foreign Ministry a challenge. On the one hand, Germany's foreign policy is marked by continuity and reliability. On the other hand, every new minister wants to raise their own profile. And that's also true of Heiko Maas. Searching for an issue where he could distinguish himself from his predecessors Steinmeier and Gabriel, Maas decided on Russia.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas
Xander Heinl / photothek.net

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

With the Skripal case and Russia's role in the Syrian war, there was certainly plenty of reason for the tougher tone. Furthermore, with the relationship between the West and Russia already at a low point, the risk of doing damage to Germany's broader foreign policy goals was limited.

Nevertheless, Maas underestimated how sensitive an issue it was, particularly within his own party. Even those who were early supporters of his appointment to the Foreign Ministry have privately expressed irritation. How can someone from the party's left wing, they wonder, suddenly take a tougher stance toward Moscow?

Even in the Chancellery there has been a fair degree of bewilderment about the new minister, to the point that Merkel and her people approached leading Social Democrats to ask what, exactly, their foreign minister was up to.

'Criticism or Dialogue'

Foreign policy experts within the SPD parliamentary group are annoyed that Maas failed to consult with them before embarking on this new direction. Indeed, a recent meeting of the party's executive committee turned into something of a tribunal. Stephan Weil, the SPD governor of Lower Saxony, and Manuela Schwesig, his counterpart in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, warned that many in the party grassroots were furious. Maas, though, was not present at the meeting, so the group agreed to take another look at the issue at the next party leadership gathering.

Since then, though, both sides have sought to turn down the heat. "I've had positive talks with Heiko Maas on the issue of Russia," Schwesig says, adding that they both agree that dialogue with Russia should continue but that criticism should also be openly discussed. "It's a question of where to put the emphasis, on criticism or dialogue."

Schwesig is one of Maas' biggest critics in the SPD. Since she became the governor of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania last summer, she has made relations with Russia a central focus. Her first foreign trip in her new position was to St. Petersburg along with a large trade delegation. It was a clear statement.

Schwesig learned Russian in high school. When Stanislav Tillich resigned as governor of Saxony in December 2017, she took over as chair of the German-Russian Friendship Group in the Bundesrat, the legislative body that represents Germany's federal states.

"No one is naïve and no one is mistaken in their assessment of Putin," Schwesig says. There is a common allegation about people from the former East Germany, she says, that "the East Germans lived too long with the Russians behind the Wall." According to Schwesig, "the East Germans are not naïve just because there was earlier a German-Soviet friendship."

Critics of the course Maas has charted believe it isn't just dangerous from a foreign Policy perspective. "People are concerned about the Russia issue," Schwesig says, adding that her constituents often bring it up with her. "People are alarmed, they are worried."

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