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

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Foto: Markus Schreiber / AP

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."

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.


Points of Conflict in the German-Russian Relationship

Foto: Andrey Stenin / picture alliance

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

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas

Foto: Xander Heinl /

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."

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