Brexit and German-Russian Relations

What are the implications of Britain leaving the EU for Germany in the context of its relations with Russia? First, chancellor Merkel is losing an important ally in the EU for a vigorous response to Putin’s policies in what he considers to be a traditional Russian sphere of influence, that is, the Baltic nations, the six countries of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, the ex-Warsaw Pact members, and the Balkan countries. Unlike Germany, Britain’s Russia policies, both inside and outside the EU, are largely unconstrained by domestic constituencies – equivalents of Putin – and Russland-Versteher in the UK are hard to find. London has taken a tough line on many issues of concern to Moscow. Telling examples have been expulsions of Russian diplomats made public by the foreign office; the public inquiry into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with its conclusion that the killing was a FSB operation, “probably approved” by its head “and also by President Putin”; and consistent support for Russian civil society in what the Kremlin has chastised as “color revolutions” in its claimed sphere of influence.

Second, as an extension of the previous point, chancellor Merkel, in her struggle with domestic critics of her Russia policies both inside and outside the coalition government, is losing further ground in maintaining EU unity on sanctions vis-à-vis Russia. Whereas the governments of Italy, Greece, and Hungary, as well as important sections of public opinion in these and other EU countries, including France and the Netherlands, have questioned the utility of sanctions, the UK used to be one of the strongest voices for maintaining them. In fact, a few days prior to the official prolongation of the EU sanctions, the House of Commons Defense Committee issued a report that called on the government not only to support the prolongation of the existing EU sanctions, but also “to consider extending travel bans to a larger portion of the Russian leadership.”

Third, no matter when – if at all – the UK will invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, Germany will be preoccupied with intra-EU crisis management and thus be less able and willing to devote more time and resources to the solution of “frozen conflicts” on post-Soviet space (Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh) and to Ukrainian political and economic reform. It will most likely accept de facto the status quo, that is, Crimea as part of the Russian Federation and the separatist republics of Lugansk and Donetsk as yet two other “frozen” conflict areas, simply hoping that the sorry state of affairs will not escalate. That, however, will do little to improve German-Russian relations and not even lead to a speedy removal of sanctions since they are still tied to the “full implementation” of Minsk II.

Fourth, without Britain, the significance and effectiveness of the EU as a military and security actor will be further reduced and the importance of the United States and NATO for Germany as guarantors of European security will grow. Conversely, with the absence of the UK’s voice for transatlantic cooperation, the next US administration may exert pressure on Germany to do more on defense. It could, therefore, be more problematic for Berlin to continue with its self-identification as a “civilian power,” its mantras of “there can be no military solution” and “European security cannot be achieved without Russia, let alone against Russia,” and the incessant invocation of “dialogue” and “détente” while deemphasizing deterrence in relation to Russia. Since a greater emphasis on deterrence is at risk of being branded as “saber rattling and warmongering,” domestic political conflicts in Germany will most likely increase. Whether this will serve Russian interests is again a different matter.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.