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

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Part 2: Trying to Understand the Russian Point of View

Stephan Weil points to a recent survey carried out by the polling company Forsa which shows that 94 percent of Germans think good relations between Russia and Germany are important. Fully 68 percent of those surveyed reject a tougher stance on Russia, a view shared by 81 percent of SPD party members. Weil says he sees little appetite in the SPD for a fundamental change to its policy on Russia.

The Lower Saxony governor is also concerned about his state's economic interests. The Russian market is very important to automaker Volkswagen, which is headquartered in the state. But the main reason the debate is so charged within the SPD is because it touches a core Social Democratic principle: Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, the SPD chancellor's 1960s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. "I don't think the new SPD direction is a good one. A policy of détente is part of our core brand," says the former Brandenburg governor and ex-SPD leader Matthias Platzeck, who is now chairman of the German-Russia Forum.

Maas' rhetoric, his critics say, does not fit into this tradition. And it also doesn't jibe with the desire of a large part of the SPD to present themselves as the party of peace. Nevertheless, party leader Andrea Nahles and deputy chancellor Olaf Scholz have given Maas their explicit backing and the foreign minister has closely coordinated with both of them over his stance toward Moscow.

Indeed, there is little understanding in the Maas camp about the reasons for the current debate. "Anyone who criticizes Russia's destructive role in Syria, the breaking of international law in Crimea or the Kremlin's targeted disinformation campaign is frequently confronted with demands to return to Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik," says Niels Annen, state minister in the Foreign Ministry. This overlooks the fact, Annen says, that Germany's solid anchoring in the West was the foundation of Brandt's policy. "Then as now, a clear point of view is the clear foundation for the necessary dialogue," Annen says. The debate shows that a sober description of Russian policy "is not always easy."

Understanding the Russians

A closeness to Russia is part of the biographies of many Germans, though with some politicians, it isn't always widely known the degree to which they know and love Russia. One example is the CSU politician Peter Ramsauer, who was transport minister in Merkel's last cabinet and now chairs the Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development in the German parliament.

Ramsauer learned Russian at high school in Bavaria and traveled through the Soviet Union as a teenager. His Russian teacher also gave him piano lessons and Ramsauer was so talented that he even contemplated becoming a concert pianist. His love of Russian music remains: Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky.

In 2006, Ramsauer was present in Murmansk for the opening of a facility, built with German assistance, for the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. The Russians organized a reception and an old admiral, Ramsauer relates, had tears in his eyes: What had once been the pride of the Soviet fleet was now being scrapped -- and with German support. "That was a pivotal experience for me," Ramsauer said. "The West didn't try hard enough to understand Russian sensitivities. We must try to understand the Russian point of view."

Ramsauer has powerful allies within his party. CSU leader Horst Seehofer has often spoken in favor of dismantling the sanctions imposed on Russia. Former Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber has maintained a good relationship with Putin and has sought to counteract the chancellor's Russia policy on more than one occasion. In exchange, Putin extended a particular honor to Stoiber when he made his final trip as Bavarian governor to Russia in 2007 by having the Kremlin's military band play for him.

Within the CDU, by contrast, a clear majority backs Merkel's approach to Russia. If the SPD sees Ostpolitik as its defining principle then for the CDU, it is the alignment with the West. After all, it was Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first postwar chancellor and the man who led the CDU into the new era, that guided Germany into the European Community and NATO.

Röttgen, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, embraces this tradition. "Germany has no special role when it comes to Russia," he says. "Germany is part of the European and trans-Atlantic tradition. That is not being called into question."

The indulgence with which many in the SPD treat Putin is seldom to be found in the CDU, particularly not among the regional party organizations in western Germany. Nevertheless, even there the occasional leading CDU figure has a different view on Russia. Armin Laschet, for example, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia: He was one of the first in the party to welcome Russia's military intervention in Syria.

After the nerve agent attack on Skripal, Laschet raised doubts about the British version of events, which clearly pointed the finger at Moscow. Paris, Washington and Berlin all threw their support behind London. But Laschet tweeted: "If almost every NATO state is being forced to show solidarity, should one be in possession of definitive proof?"

Laschet's stance is partly fueled by the perception that German voters do not support a tough approach to Russia unless it is extremely well founded.

Admiration for Virile Putin

The right-wing populist AfD has indulged in its own unique view of Putin. In their eyes, the Kremlin leader is a man of reconciliation who is unfortunately being continually provoked by a belligerent German government. Recently, Hansjörg Müller, an AfD member of parliament, attacked the new foreign minister in a speech from the plenary floor. Maas' "anti-Russian rhetoric" was going to incite a new war with Russia, he warned. "That is why I ask you: Who are you really working for? Is it the Atlantik Brücke or the German Marshall Fund?" -- referring to two trans-Atlantic think tanks.

Maas and most parliamentarians from the other parties simply rolled their eyes at Müller's conspiracy theories. But the speech quickly went viral. Many AfD supporters maintain an uncritical view of the Kremlin and they admire the virile Russian president, who seems so much more powerful and decisive than the hesitant Merkel. "Putin is a leader who loves his country and protects it," Müller enthused. "He doesn't subordinate himself and his people to foreign interests like our chancellor does." The AfD politician owned up to the fact that Putin was someone onto whom many Germans projected their desire for a strong statesman, "like Bismarck."

With such statements, Müller is in perfect harmony with his party. Back in 2013, present-day AfD leader Alexander Gauland was one of the first to plead for a Bismarck-like approach to Russia. Back then, the AfD was primarily a euro-skeptic party under the leadership of Bernd Lucke and the issue of Russia was regarded as Gauland's weird obsession. Today, one of the AfD's core beliefs is that Germany should be on the side of Russia and should escape from its dependence on the United States. "We Germans are powerless vassals of the Americans, militarily, politically and in our media," Müller claims.

The division in Germany is also geographic, cutting down through the country along the old East-West border. When the Körber Foundation researched German attitudes on Russia, they found that 30 percent of western Germans describe Russia as a "country that feels foreign to me," while only 12 percent of eastern Germans did. It's no coincidence that it's predominantly the leaders of eastern German state governments who repeatedly advocate loosening sanctions against Russia. Thuringian Governor Bodo Ramelow, a member of the Left Party, regards the sanctions as "gunboat diplomacy" and says the "Russia bashing" reminds him of the Cold War. He says that foreign policy should avoid confrontation and that one has to "learn to think like the Russians." Berlin, he says, "should approach Russia and make offers."

In Saxony-Anhalt, meanwhile, the divide in the CDU is apparent. Governor Reiner Haseloff wants the sanctions to be lifted, a position that isn't just due to economic considerations but also the feeling that the West doesn't understand Moscow. "We here in the east know the Russians," he says.

Not everyone in the party's state chapter, however, is supportive of this view. Haseloff's predecessor Christoph Bergner, who also served as the government's Commissioner for Eastern Affairs, has said he is shocked by the pro-Russian stance of many eastern German governors. Sanctions are the only way to get Russia to budge on Ukraine, he argues.

Russia as an Important Export Market

But the issue is a sensitive one. Eastern Germany in particular has strong economic ties with Russia. The TOTAL refinery in Leuna, for example, has a turnover of 4 billion euros a year, making it by far the strongest performing business in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. And 80 percent of the oil processed at the facility comes from Russia.

Industries here have traditionally maintained close ties with Russia, which makes them all the more troubled by the present conflicts. "German companies still regard Russia as an important market," says Wolfgang Büchele, chairman of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, an organization representing the German business community. "But the uncertainty about with whom and under what circumstances business with Russia will be possible in the future is extremely harmful, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises."

Büchele, who hails from southern Germany and has had a varied career as a manager, already navigated the highs and lows of trade with Russia during his stint as head of Eastern Europe for the chemicals giant BASF in the 1990s. It was never easy, but the Germans were less scared off by the difficult terrain than many others, even after the 2014 sanctions made trade harder.

In 2017, exports from Germany to Russia increased by one-fifth and companies began to invest again in the country, in part because of the weak ruble. "The new U.S. sanctions made the situation abruptly bleaker," Büchele says -- and they came just as German companies were hoping to soon be able to talk about lifting the sanctions linked to the Minsk Agreement.

Many in German industrial circles now have the impression that the U.S. sanctions are no longer just about exerting political pressure but also about furthering their own economic interests. For example, the latest U.S. sanctions seem aimed at pushing American liquified gas into the European market. The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations estimates that the short-term damage to the German economy due to lost business as a result of the U.S. sanctions regime could be in the hundreds of millions. Around 60 companies are thought to have been affected, particularly firms involved in the extraction and transport of oil and gas from Russia, as well as mechanical engineering and plant manufacturers.

"We therefore urgently request that Germany seek talks with the United States to provide clarity," Büchele says.

No issue lays bare the divide in Germany like that of Nord Stream 2, the natural gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea. The division cuts across party lines, so much so that members of Merkel's CDU have openly disagreed about the issue in the European Parliament.

The project is not only economically lucrative, it has become a symbol for German-Russian relations. And it has a special place in Putin's heart. In his phone calls with the chancellor, he invariably brings up "moya truba" or "my pipes," and he keeps pestering Merkel about when the construction will finally start.

The chancellor had long viewed the pipeline project purely in economic terms, but her views have since changed. Following a conversation with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, she made it clear that Nord Stream could only be built if Ukraine remained a transit country for Russian gas. Gazprom boss Alexey Miller promptly reacted, promising on Twitter that transit would continue through Ukraine.

The debate about Nord Stream has long become a debate about the stance Germany and Europe take toward Russia. At the moment, the dispute is centered on the question of who is responsible for approving the pipeline -- Brussels or the affected states.

Recently, the legal service of the European Council, which represents the EU member states, came to the conclusion that the European Commission was contravening international law by attempting to block the pipeline. The German Embassy in Moscow happily sent out the news to a broad list of recipients.

No Longer Seen as Friends

The estrangement between Berlin and Moscow is also having an impact on Russian society. When the Levada Center surveyed citizens in 2010 about Russia's "enemies" and "friends" in the world, only 1 percent of the respondents classed Germany as an "enemy" and around a quarter designated it a "friend." Last year, in the same survey the results had flipped. Now almost one-fourth of Russians see Germany as an "enemy" and hardly anyone sees it as a "friend." Very few other countries experienced such a dramatic reevaluation.

From the Kremlin's point of view, Sigmar Gabriel's replacement with Heiko Maas has been a disappointment. Over the years, the Russians had become used to German Social Democrats having a certain sympathy toward Moscow. It appeared that the close German-Russian relationship at least lived on in the friendship with certain senior Social Democrats. Last summer, when Putin dined together with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his co-SPD member Gabriel, it almost seemed like a promise of better times to come.

But then came an SPD foreign minister who deliberately traveled to Ukraine first before planning a trip to Moscow. At least Merkel is planning a trip to Russia this summer. With the exception of a brief trip in May 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it will be her first bilateral trip to Moscow since the annexation of Crimea.

In the Chancellery, officials are trying to predict what Putin has planned for his last term when it comes to relations with the West. Perhaps there is an opportunity here somewhere. There is talk of "taking stock."

However, what Berlin needs is a strategy, an answer to the question of what a sensible relationship with Russia means, beyond the romanticism and the emotions. Those like the foreign minister, who feel the German-Russian relationship is damaged beyond repair, are opting for a policy of containment.

Those who believe that Putin wishes to restore the Soviet Union, destroy the EU, flood Europe with refugees and split the West using propaganda, have to opt for defense and confrontation.

However, when Russia has acted aggressively or destructively in the past, it has been the result of a feeling of being encircled by the West. And for Putin, all means are justified when it comes to breaking that encirclement.

Putin does not want to restore the Soviet Union. He wants the West to respect Russia's interests. And he wants the West to once again recognize Russia as a great power, a global player -- a role Putin sought to fill in Syria. And the Russian president wants the West to stay out of Russian domestic politics and to prevent a further expansion of the EU and NATO.

Accepting a Sphere of Influence

Finally, Putin wants the West to finally accept that Moscow regards the former states of the Soviet Union -- with the exception of the Baltic countries -- as part of Moscow's sphere of interests in which the Kremlin demands a say.

Germany, of course, cannot offer such an official recognition, but it would make sense to de facto take these interests more into account. The fate of Ukraine shows that it is useless for the West to continue to insist on its principles when it cannot defend them against an unscrupulous Russia. Berlin needs a Realpolitik approach when it comes to Moscow.

That also means that it is finally time not just to talk about dialogue but to actually practice it. A first step would be to revive government consultations such as those Germany holds with other countries, including non-democratic states like China. That could also help overcome the loss of trust between Moscow and Berlin. As a precondition, though, Russia would have to refrain from misleading the West with strategic lies.

Symbolically, it would also be important to work together to prepare for and mark important historical anniversaries over the next couple of years. Moscow is particularly sensitive when it comes to the political role of remembrance and should thus be included in plans to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2019 and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in May 2020.

Back in Justus Frantz's villa in Pöseldorf, the pianist is sitting at his big Steinway playing the Russian national anthem. "Russia, our sacred state, Russia, our beloved land."

It's the same melody as the former Soviet anthem, though back then the lyrics were: "Long live our Soviet motherland, built by the people's mighty hand." The poet Sergey Mikhalkov rewrote his own lyrics slightly in 2000.

Frantz plays the piece with feeling but without pathos. When the last note fades out, he immediately starts playing again, this time the Israeli national anthem. "For me, the German-Russia relationship is just as important as the German-Israeli one," he says.

By Melanie Amann, Christian Esch, Annette Großbongardt, Martin Hesse, Christiane Hoffmann, Veit Medick, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Schult and Steffen Winter

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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peter_gerasimon 05/10/2018
1. German Russian Relations
Based on my own experience, despite all the antagonism, Russians have a much more positive view of Germany than Germans do of Russia. A much more creative approach towards Russia is urgently needed. Sanctions, NATO Expansion and Armament Build Up is not a smart way forward. We need to lead in finding the best path towards peaceful coexistence and not confrontation. I hope that the upcoming Sochi, ( Merkel to meet Putin in Sochi on May 18 ) results is something positive.
rascalndear 05/11/2018
2. AIding and abetting Germany's self-destructive streak?
It's always telling when elderly musicians who think two cultures have similar souls (hint: it's not a compliment) and therefore should be in bed together are the mouthpieces for twisted, dangerous ideas. We all know what happened last time that Germany and Russia were "pals." This heinous op ed ignores the reality of what Russia has been and is doing both in its own back yard and abroad. Perhaps Der Spiegel's "staff" should question what Mr. Schroeder's role has been in your craven position towards a country that is a rogue nation, that threatens nuclear attacks, that attacks, tortures and murders its own citizens, and whose signature has not been worth the paper it was written on since at least 1654. Why is Germany so hell-bent on self-destruction? Weren't two World Wars enough?
rascalndear 05/11/2018
3. Sleeping with the enemy
Imagine ending an op ed with an elderly pianist playing "Deutschland über Alles".... I think your staff should get the drift.
Inglenda2 05/12/2018
4. Why worry?
As long as Putin is able to use a former German chancellor as (Inoffiziell Mitarbeiter), the two countries should continue to get along fine together.
delia 05/15/2018
5. Wake up
I think German politicians and policy makers better take a second look at the way in which the German leadership blindly cultivates Germany's role as one of Washington's loyal vassal states. Consult with the German people, who have got it right about Russia. Ask them where they think the geopolitical future lies. Just because the odious populist right wing loves that Putin machismo is no reason for others to take a tough stand against him. Wake up.. The tectonic plates are shifting.
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