Russia and the German Elections

The recent hijacking of an EU civilian plane by the Lukashenko regime has brought into sharp focus the challenges which both the U.S. and Europe face in dealing with Russia. This was an act of state-sponsored air piracy which threatened the safety of those on broad and demonstrated that Belarus will go to any lengths to pursue opponents who live in exile. President Putin has backed Lukashenko and last week warned the outside world that foreign enemies are trying to “bite” off a piece of Russia—but, he responded, we “will knock your teeth out.” The EU has imposed sanctions on Belarus but neither Brussels nor Washington have taken any actions against Russia on this particular issue. Indeed, President Biden will meet Putin in Geneva on June 16th.

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of how U.S-German cooperation on dealing with Russia is developing. The Biden administration, in contrast to the Trump administration, came into office determined to mend relations with Germany and also to work with Germany on developing a common policy toward Russia. The most concrete example of this was the waiver that was given to NordStream 2 CEO Matthias Warnig and his company during the latest round of U.S. sanctions on the pipeline. As Biden said, the pipeline is almost completed and it is more important to have good relations with our allies. The administration has said that it is not seeking a reset with Russia but is rather seeking stability and predictability in the relationship–which in fact sounds like a reset. In pursuit of that goal there will be the Geneva summit, and it remains to be seen how much can be accomplished there, given the brittle nature of the current US-Russian relationship.

In the run-up to the German election, Russia is emerging as a key foreign policy issue, representing a somewhat new alignment in German politics. The two pro-Russia parties—the AfD and Die Linke—favor a forward-leaning engagement with Russia and oppose sanctions. The CDU, the SPD, and the FDP today all subscribe to what was once the bitterly-contested Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt half a century ago. The three parties all support engagement with Russia and recognize the economic interdependence between Russia and Germany, especially in the energy field. They have criticized Russia for its annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in the Donbas, its repression of domestic dissent, its poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and before him the former GRU agent Sergei Skripal, and the assassination in Berlin’s Tiergarten of a Chechen dissident. Nevertheless, they all support dialogue with Russia and have been opposed to supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weaponry.

The one party that has not subscribed to the Ostpolitik consensus is the Greens, because the party did not exist when Brandt’s Ostpolitk first emerged. The Greens, like all the other major political parties, have internal disagreements about Russia, but they have consistently and actively supported human rights in Russia and have been openly critical of Russia more than any other political party. Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock has said that if the Greens come to power, they would stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline both for political and climate reasons. She has also said much more pressure must be put on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Her colleague Robert Habeck was in Ukraine recently, met with President Zelensky, and said that Germany should supply defensive weaponry to Ukraine, something that Merkel has so far refused to do. He was roundly criticized for saying this by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and others in the SPD.

In 2021, there is, therefore, the possibility that the past 50 years of continuity and consensus in German policy toward Russia could be questioned. If Baerbock were to become Chancellor or the Greens were to take the Foreign Ministry there could be a hardening of policy toward Russia. But, assuming there is a coalition government, it is not clear how far the Greens would be able to go in implementing the policies they now espouse. And if they did take a harder line on Russia, how would that manifest itself? In more sanctions? In military aid to Ukraine? Until now, Germany has largely defined and led the EU’s Ostpolitik, although the EU itself remains deeply divided over how to deal with Russia. We know that President Macron is trying to take over the leadership role for France, and he explicitly favors a reset with Russia—so far this has not succeeded.

How does Russia view the German elections? We know that disinformation has appeared about Ms. Baerbock and has been attributed to Russia. Election interference is well under way and conspiracy theories about her links to George Soros and plans to have compulsory study of the Koran in all German schools, for instance, have been attributed to Russia. Clearly, her stand on Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine greatly irks Moscow. We can expect that over the next three months Russia will step up its disinformation campaigns targeting the Greens and probably other parties too.

The new German government will face a Russia that has been emboldened to reach out and attack its perceived enemies wherever they are and to continue cyber and social media interference in the election campaigns of Western countries. It will be working with a U.S. administration that has stated that it will pursue a dual track policy with Russia—cooperation on issues of mutual interest such as arms control, strategic stability, climate, the Arctic—and pushback against malign Russian military and cyber activities. This policy is the 2021 version of the seminal 1967 NATO Harmel Report advocating both deterrence and détente with the USSR, and it has been implemented with varying degrees of success since then. Germany has also pursued similar policies over the decades and will no doubt continue to engage with Russia where it can.

Since President Putin has belatedly discovered climate change, it will be interesting to see how much it is possible to work with Russia on an issue that is important for all the German political parties, especially the Greens. Other issues, such as Russia’s relations with its neighbors—and particularly the conflict in Ukraine—will be very difficult to deal with. As the Kremlin increasingly tries to cut Russian civil society off from the West, it will be more challenging for Germany to continue its outreach to the Russian people. But strong economic ties will continue to bind the two countries together.
Germany has over the decades articulated different concepts for dealing with Russia: Wandel durch Annaeherung (Change though rapprochement), Wandel durch Handel (Change through trade), and Annaeherung durch Verflechtung (Rapprochement through Integration), and it led the EU’s partnership for modernization with Russia. The latter outreach clearly did not work. The question is whether the next German government will be able to redefine its ties to Russia in such a way that serves both German, EU, and transatlantic interests and is able to deter Russia from supporting the dangerous kinds of actions that we saw recently in Minsk.

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