Ulrich Speck on German-Russian Relations

March 27, 2014

Ulrich Speck is a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe and an expert on German-Russian relations, arguably the fulcrum on which the European Union’s response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea will pivot. The Interpreter‘s Editor-in-Chief Michael Weiss invited Speck to explain Berlin’s changing posture toward Moscow, and what effect this may also have on US-German relations.

Michael Weiss: How has Russia’s invasion of Crimea altered Germany’s posture toward the Kremlin? Der Spiegel talks of Angela Merkel’s seeking a “hard” line against Putin, and the Chancellor has already criticized the 97 percent vote in favor of Crimea’s annexation as clearly fraudulent. She was also the one world leader who spoke most frequently with Putin in the days before and after Yanukovych’s ouster, yet clearly she made little impact in preventing an escalation. So will Berlin actually turn on Moscow, do you think?

Ulrich Speck:  Chancellor Merkel has certainly no illusions about Putin. When he came back to the presidency in 2012 and cracked down on protest, Merkel was not holding back with criticism. For years she had hoped like many, also in Washington, that Russia could still make progress towards a more liberal system, becoming a real partner for the west.

But these hopes have been massively disappointed; they look like illusions now. While the west was rolling out the red carpet, hoping to convince the Russian leadership of the virtue of liberal democracy and market economy through a growing web of interconnection on all levels, Russian leadership has put the country on an entirely different course: more autocratic and more capable and willing to project power outside its borders.

While German-Russian political ties have cooled down since 2012, Merkel has kept a good working relationship with Putin. Bilateral relations are underpinned by strong economic ties which both sides value. This relationship didn’t stop Merkel from criticizing Moscow; last autumn for example she called on Moscow to respect Ukraine’s right to chose its alliance in very clear terms.

However, it seems that in the run-up to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Merkel’s trust in Putin has been deeply shattered. According to press reports, Putin has outrightly lied to her, in order to buy time to work on the invasion of the Crimea.

Merkel is too cold-blooded a politician to take this personally. But she got the lesson that talking to Putin is not enough to stop him to take steps that undermine Europe’s peace order. The German chancellor has put her weight behind a plan of escalating sanctions, from the symbolic first step over targeted sanctions against individuals to painful economic sanctions which would dry out the sources of the Kremlin’s income, at least partially.

Merkel clearly sees the gravity of the situation. She understands that Putin wants to change the rules of the game, that he is testing the international community’s resolve to defend fundamental principles of the post WWII- and post-Cold War order. And she is dedicated to act with resolve to defend those principles and to send the message to the Kremlin that the West stands united and strong.

Her challenge however is to make sure that Germans accept a more confrontational approach to Russia. Merkel can only go as far as German elites and the broader public back her. While she is ready to lead on that, as her assertive speeches in the German parliament show, a lot of skepticism has become visible in Germany, and it is growing.

First, Merkel needs to convince her coalition partner, the Social Democrats — the party of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder — on board. Schröder’s former chief of staff, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is foreign minister, and has constantly warned against breaking bridges with the Kremlin. SPD is traditionally in favor of close relations with the Russian leadership. Merkel needs to give Steinmeier always space to exhaust diplomatic opportunities before she can move further.

Secondly, the business world is nervous about ties with Russia. Merkel has appealed to business leaders to accept the priority of politics during this crisis, and there were indeed positive signs that German business understands that it might have to pay a price. Now however, in open defiance of Merkel, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser has met Putin personally, a step that is certainly going to be understood in the Kremlin as a sign of Merkel’s weakness to bring business leaders on board for her policy.

Thirdly, the broader public worries about confrontation with Russia. Cold war memories are still alive. The worst nightmare of Germans for decades was to be the central battlefield of the next world war. Having an inimical relationship with Russia makes Germans very nervous.

Fourth, the Kremlin knows how to make his case in Germany. Putin spent his formative years as a KGB agent in Dresden, in the Eastern part of Germany that was under Russian occupation. He speaks fluently German. Over the years a network of former politicians, businesspeople and experts has developed in Germany that is spreading the Kremlin’s points of views. In many TV discussions in Germany today, the topic is not an aggressive Russia but rather the question to what extent Ukraine is allegedly becoming a fascist country.

To sum up, Merkel is ready to confront Russia, but she must be very cautious not to get too far outside the mainstream. According to polls, Germans at the same time dislike Putin, but they dislike sanctions too. While initially after the occupation of the Crimea, Germany looked quite united behind Merkel’s approach, now, as things seem to have calmed, skepticism is growing on whether confronting Russia is a good policy for Germany.

MW: Much of the concern in Germany — and elsewhere in Europe — is Russia’s “gas diplomacy” (or gas hegemony) and how a falling out with Moscow might leave the continent minus crucial energy imports. President Obama seems to be emphasizing an end to this dependence in his current European tour. What are the realistic prospects for doing so, and is Germany serious about pursuing such a strategy?

US: Energy dependency is just one aspect of the German-Russian relationship, but of course an important one. But in the last years, the situation has changed, or at least the perception. With the shale gas revolution, the energy market has become more fluid and the consumer has more power. Today it looks as if Russia as a producer has to worry more about the consumer in Europe then vice versa. Several German energy companies have renegotiated the price for Russian gas. Russia relies on long-term investments and contracts, and it cannot easily shift pipelines around.

What the EU is certainly going to do is to speed up several measures to build an integrated market, in order to make sure that no single member states can be blackmailed by Russia. These efforts started after the crisis in 2009 when Russia was cutting off gas, and the current crisis will work as a reminder for Europeans to increase such efforts.

Besides, the discussion about energy is going to be revived. It is likely that the geopolitics of energy policy are going to play a bigger role in these discussions.

MW: The Snowden revelations about the NSA’s spying on Germany (and on Merkel herself) seemed designed to embarrass US-German relations and drive a wedge between the two countries. The ultimate beneficiary of such an embarrassment, of course, is Russia, the one major country that has somehow managed to escape any compromising disclosures from the Snowden archive. Moscow may have even benefited from detailed intelligence on how the US surveils Russia’s movements, which is why the CIA didn’t see the Crimea invasion coming, or so the Wall Street Journal implied this week. Yet even in seeming unity over Ukraine, the US still seems to give offense to Berlin. Witness the “dirty bomb” war game Obama and David Cameron played this week, which Merkel seemed especially aggrieved by. What is your assessment of US-German ties? Good, bad, improving, or worsening?

US: German-American relations are good. For Obama, Merkel is the leader of Europe. We saw this during the Euro crisis, and we see this now during the Ukraine crisis. Germany is America’s first interlocutor. Washington is hoping that Germany is going to be one of the stabilizing powers on which it can rely in its strategy of partial withdrawal from the role of the global quasi-sovereign. True that both don’t have a great personal relationship, but both are too professional to make this an obstacle.

From the German side, America’s security guarantee remains vital. Left alone, Germany would not be able to withstand Russian pressure. Even if this is rarely being said explicitly, this underlying reality will continue to shape German-US relations, probably even more now, as Russia has started to challenge the status quo. Relying on an US security umbrella means, in the German understanding, that Germany must follow the US lead on security matters. The level of German investment in defense is a matter of discussion; it is likely that after the current crisis the pressure on Germany to spend more on defense is going to rise.

While these are the deeper foundations of German-US relations, there is some trouble on the surface. For Merkel, the Snowden affairs was an annoyance. Yes she wasn’t happy to hear about the deep penetration of US spying in Germany. On the other hand, she doesn’t feel, like many Germans do, that this is being done by a hostile power.

For Merkel, managing relations with the US means largely dealing with popular anger and distrust in Germany towards America. She strongly supports the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal between the US and the EU currently under negotiation, because this would mean to give the transatlantic relationship an even stronger foundation besides Nato. Convincing a skeptical German public about the advantages of TTIP is going to need another major effort by Merkel. As in the past, she will be ready to have some small skirmishes with Washington, but these are rather tactical moves to secure her strategic goal, a deep and lasting transatlantic partnership.