German Ostpolitik in the shadow of Russia’s imperial revenge


Cultural Journal/Kulturní časopis

The strange tragedy of Angela Merkel’s Ostpolitik in 2005–2021 was that the highly intelligent and committed chancellor showed herself incapable of departing from the wrong track in Germany’s Russia policy that Berlin had already taken before she took office. It is symptomatic that none of the early German mistakes vis-à-vis Moscow was directly related to Ukraine, yet the conflict surrounding Ukraine since 2014 has been marking the fiasco of Germany’s Ostpolitik in the new century.

Berlin made a momentous blunder long before Angela Merkel came to power and early in the succession of Vladimir Putin’s reigns of, so far, two premierships and four presidencies. In September 2001, the Federal Republic’s government invited Russia’s newly minted second president, Vladimir Putin, to address the assembled Bundestag. No other Russian head of government or state has ever received such an honour.

This was true for Mikhail Gorbachev as indirectly elected USSR President of 1990 – 1991 as well as for Boris Yeltsin as the first Russian elected head of state from 1991 to 1999 or for Dmitry Medvedev who was Putin’s liberal stooge in the presidential office in 2008–2012. Considering their world views, these three presidents would have all been more worthy speakers to the German parliament than Putin. At least Gorbachev spoke, as a private citizen, in the Bundestag in 1999 – long after his departure from politics.

Taken on its own, Putin’s relatively pro-western 2001 Bundestag speech, delivered in German, was largely uncontroversial to be sure. But the circumstances surrounding his effective performance in Germany’s national parliament were dubious. The Bundestag reacted with ovations to the courtship of a Russian politician who, as a KGB officer in Dresden, only a few years earlier had been part of Moscow’s occupation machinery in Eastern Europe.

Even more worrisome was that Putin had gotten an invitation to speak and was celebrated in Berlin at a time when Russian forces stood uninvited in another country. Russian troops were stationed in the Transnistrian region of Moldova during Putin’s 2001 visit to Berlin. They had been there since the disappearance of the USSR in 1991. Until today, a small Russian unit remains in Transnistria against the Moldovan government’s will.

In 1994 Moscow agreed to withdraw its military from Transnistria in a bilateral treaty with Chişinău after it had, in 1992, unlawfully intervened in an internal Moldovan conflict. At a November 1999 OSCE summit, Moscow committed itself once more, in the multilateral so-called ‘Istanbul Document’, to withdraw its remaining troops from Transnistria. At that moment Putin was, as Russia’s newly appointed prime-minister, already de facto ruling Russia.

The troops had not been fully withdrawn from Moldova, however, by the time Putin gave his speech to the Bundestag in 2001. Nor was there any indication that Moscow would any time soon fulfil its bi and multilateral obligations vis-à-vis the non-aligned Moldovan state. Merkel attempted to reach a solution to the Transnistrian problem with then-President Medvedev in 2010–2011 as part of the so-called ‘Meseberg Process’. However, Merkel’s considerable efforts were unsuccessful. That was because Putin – and not the relatively pro-western Medvedev – continued to hold the reins of power in Moscow, as Russia’s prime-minister during 2008–2012.

The considerable domestic and foreign policy regressions under Putin, already visible by September 2001, were not a topic of his visit to Germany, to be sure. This omission constituted the problem of Putin’s appearance in the Bundestag and his talks in Berlin at the time. The invitation of the German parliament as well as the reaction of the MPs to Putin’s speech sent a bad signal to Moscow. Ongoing violations of international and human rights, so it seemed, are of secondary importance when it comes to the relationship between the two largest nations of Europe. The chemistry between Moscow and Berlin is more important than the principles laid down in such documents as the 1975 Helsinki Final Act or 1990 Charter of Paris.

At least that is how many Russian politicians and diplomats have seemingly understood Berlin’s loud silence on Transnistria and Chechnya in 2001. East-West trade, good personal relations, and fair-weather rhetoric take precedence over western values, international law and European security.

Berlin’s destructive pipeline policy

A second fateful decision by Berlin that predetermined the eastern policy of Merkel’s chancellorship was made in 2005, around the time she took office. In the final weeks before the end of Gerhard Schröder’s term as Federal Chancellor as well as in the months that followed, the first Nord Stream project was initiated. Schröder’s subsequent employment by Gazprom (and later Rosneft) and the, since then, massive propaganda of Europe’s allegedly dire need for Russian undersea pipelines set the course for Merkel’s future Ostpolitik.

These developments created legal, informal and discursive frameworks at the beginning of Merkel’s reign that had a lasting impact on her approach to Russia. The serious repercussions of these early decisions continue to shape the German foreign economic and policy debate as well as Berlin’s relationship with Moscow as well as Warsaw, Kyiv or Vilnius until today.

The underwater pipeline projects initiated by outgoing Chancellor Schröder in 2005 and subsequently promoted by him in his function as chairman of the supervisory boards of Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 were resolutely implemented despite their economic redundancy. In the apologetic narratives, the projects are presented partly as purely commercial, partly as clever geo-economic, and partly even as smart security policy initiatives. Such stories had and have broad appeal, even though the ridiculous overcapacity for transferring Siberian natural gas to Europe and the serious geopolitical consequences of the new pipelines are now readily apparent.

Reducing Moscow’s crippling dependence on the Ukrainian gas pipeline system by commissioning the first two Nord Stream lines in 2011–2012 was from the outset more than a new Russian foreign trade strategy. As misleading as the thesis of an alleged need for the Nord Stream projects for European energy security was and is, as real was and is the need for the Kremlin to reduce Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Siberian and Central Asian gas flowing into the European Union.

Only the partial achievement of this goal with the full start of operation of the first Nord Stream pipeline in October 2012 made it possible to continue in Ukraine the Russian revenge by force for the collapse of the USSR. This project which had been previously already implemented in Moldova and Georgia.

Gazprom’s alternative, available from late 2012, of bypassing Ukraine for much of its export to the EU was not a sufficient condition, but a necessary one, for the subsequent increase in Russian aggressiveness towards Ukraine. The Kremlin’s new intransigence manifested itself even before the EuroMaidan Revolution began.

Over the course of the last peace year of 2013, there were a number of belligerent signals and actions by Moscow vis-à-vis Kyiv. For example, in August 2013, the Kremlin imposed a complete blockade of all trade between Ukraine and Russia that lasted several days. Moscow’s escalating rhetoric and sanctions policy led to rising tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations before the Kyiv protests began in late 2013. This occurred even though Ukraine was still under an explicitly pro- Russian leadership with the then-President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Their imminent loss of power was not yet in sight.

Moreover, the pro-Russian president was removed from office not by the Maidan revolutionaries, as it is often collocated. After the street fighting had ended, Yanukovych was, on 22 February 2014, removed by the Ukrainian parliament which until then had been loyal to him.

Repetitive behaviour

In response to Yanukovych’s ouster, Moscow shifted its Ukraine policy to the strategy it had pursued years earlier vis-à-vis Moldova and Georgia. Following years of rhetorical, political and economic attacks on Kyiv, Moscow began a partly military, partly paramilitary intervention and occupation of Ukraine in February 2014 in Crimea; and in March 2014 in the Donets Basin, as it had done earlier in Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

To this day many western interpreters of Putin fail to recognize the regularity in the Kremlin’s behaviour. Despite the older examples of Moldova and Georgia, some commentators known as experts on Eastern Europe, insist on an alleged exceptionality of the Ukraine case as well as a key role of wrong EU policies for the escalation in Eastern Europe in 2014.

Long before Russia’s attack on its western-oriented brother state, the republics of Moldova and Georgia did not need to be parts of Eastern Slavic culture or to be involved in association negotiations with Brussels for a receipt of military punishment by the Kremlin. The two post-Soviet republics had lost control of larger portions of their state territories already in the 1990s than Ukraine did in 2014. Chişinău and Tbilisi met their sad fate earlier than Ukraine which, in 2014, was allegedly incited by radical nationalism and western stupidity.

The well-known German formula of Annäherung durch Verflechtung (rapprochement through entanglement) took on a meaning beyond the metaphorical. Germany and Russia-controlled territory have since moved closer together not only economically and politically but also geographically. The almost fateful correctness of Berlin’s popular interdependence formula is confirmed by the fact that not only economically intertwined countries are moving closer together.

As practice shows, the reverse conclusion of this law of international relations is also true. The new gas volumes which since 2011 – via the Baltic Sea – have brought Germans and Russians ever closer together, have correspondingly been lacking for the maintenance of Russian-Ukrainian proximity.

As both interdependence theory and the entanglement formula predict, not only does the development of economic connections lead to more peaceful relationships between the countries involved. A parallel reduction of economic ties with third countries may mean less peace for them.

As a result of Germany’s increasingly deep energy interdependence with Russia since 2005, the transit states for Siberian gas flows that have become disentangled from economic exchange with Russia suffered a reciprocal alienation from Moscow. In particular, Ukraine’s economic untying from the Russian Federation after the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in late 2012 led to an increase of tensions between the two countries during 2013. Ultimately, this escalation resulted in Moscow’s occupation of first southern and then eastern territories of the Ukrainian state in 2014.

The relative gain in national security from the Nord Stream projects is small for Germany, which is a NATO state located far away from Russia. In contrast, the equivalent reduction of Russia’s dependence on its former colony and neighbour state Ukraine proved to be fatal for the integrity of the latter. The all-European loss of stability due to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the intervention in Donbas in spring 2014 far exceeds the marginal security gains for the EU from the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline.

While Merkel bears little responsibility for the ill-fated Bundestag invitation to Putin in 2001, she is partly to blame for the Nord Stream projects and their consequences. Merkel may have been no longer able to prevent the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in 2012, if she wanted to do that. But the start of construction of Nord Stream 2 in 2015 is a puzzle and creates an impression of cognitive dissonance in Berlin. Had the Kremlin not made its intentions sufficiently clear regarding Ukraine in 2014?

The double error with Georgia in 2008

In 2008 Berlin made two further mistakes that – in contrast to the two Nord Stream projects – have been hardly discussed in Germany. German signals sent to Moscow at that time were to have far-reaching consequences for Russia’s Ukraine policy, as had been the case with the Bundestag invitation to Putin in 2001 and the signing of the Nord Stream contract in 2005. Germany’s double snub of Tbilisi within one year added to the impression already created in Moscow that Berlin tacitly respects Russian hegemony in most of the post-Soviet space.

When Georgia and Ukraine jointly applied for NATO membership in early 2008, they were in different starting positions. In Georgia, more than two-thirds of the population at the time supported the country’s entry into the alliance. At the same time, in Ukraine, nearly two-thirds still opposed NATO membership – a Ukrainian attitude that turned into its opposite only after the Russian attack in 2014.

Also, unlike Ukraine at the time, Georgia had not been a fully sovereign state for some time in 2008 and had sustained troubled relations with Russia. In the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali – also known as ‘South Ossetia’ – Moscow had already installed separatist satellite regimes in the 1990s that controlled approximately 20% of Georgian state territory. The Ukrainian territories that came under official or de facto Russian control in 2014 are larger in area than the corresponding Georgian parts of the country; however, they account for only about 7% of Ukrainian state territory in total.

Preparations for NATO membership in Georgia were already advanced in early 2008. They had begun the usual process of reforming a country before joining the Alliance. Against this background, the NATO Summit in Bucharest marked another unfortunate milestone in western policies towards the post-Soviet area which was largely due to Berlin’s influence in the alliance.

During the controversial internal Western deliberations on the alliance’s reaction to the two membership applications in the Romanian capital, Berlin could have proposed a differentiated treatment of Georgia’s membership application as well as that of Ukraine as a compromise. Instead, Germany insisted on a de facto rejection not only of Kyiv’s membership application but also of Tbilisi’s.

The alliance stated, to be sure, that Georgia and Ukraine ‘will become members’. However, there was no indication of when or how the officially announced entry of the two post-Soviet states into the alliance would occur. It remained unclear on what conditions the accession processes of Georgia as well as Ukraine would depend and whether they would proceed in a package or separately.

The middle ground the alliance found in 2008 was ultimately worse than an outright and official rejection of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s applications. The membership pledges distracted Kyiv and Tbilisi from pursuing other security-enhancing strategies and created a sense of urgency in Moscow.

The Kremlin intensified both its Georgia and Ukraine policies in response to the Bucharest NATO summit. While Moscow still had sufficient levers of domestic political influence in Ukraine at the time, Georgian domestic politics was already happening largely autonomously. Therefore, in early summer 2008, Putin thawed the frozen conflict in the Tskhinvali region thereby provoking a hasty response from then President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili and the Russian-Georgian Five-Day War.

The Russian invasion of Georgia was ended by the so-called Sarkozy Plan. In the EU-brokered cease-fire agreement, Russia committed in mid-August 2008 to withdraw its regular troops that it had stationed in the Tskhinvali and Abkhaz regions during previous week. However, in the following weeks, months and eventually years, the Kremlin repeated its older, above-described pattern of behaviour. As in the case of the bilateral and multilateral documents signed by Russia regarding Transnistria in the 1990s, Moscow did not implement the Sarkozy Plan of 2008. In violation of the treaty, Russia left its troops on Georgian territory.

Moreover, the Kremlin transformed the two Georgian separatist regions into the pseudo-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unlike the so-called ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ (and later the ‘Luhansk’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republics’), Russia even recognized its two satellite regimes on Georgian territory as independent countries. With Moscow’s official confirmation of the statehood of the Russian artificial entities in northern Georgia, the Kremlin went beyond its previous neighbourhood policy and entered new territory in its foreign policy and interpretation of international law.

NATO – largely at the instigation of Berlin – sent a risky signal to the Kremlin in April 2008. According to the German implicit message, even elementary security interests of Russia’s neighbours who are pro-western but not integrated with the West are secondary to the Kremlin’s preferences. With its Georgia policy in 2008, Merkel’s government reaffirmed an impression that Berlin had already left on Moscow in 2001 under Schröder with its neglect of Moldovan security interests. For the Kremiln, it can be assumed, this established a pattern of reassuring continuity in Germany’s eastern policy behaviour under different governments.

Worse, Moscow’s manifest violation of the Sarkozy plan and military dismemberment of Georgia into three states officially recognized by Russia remained inconsequential for the Kremlin. Brussels ended the already minimal European sanctions imposed to punish Russia for the war in the Caucasus. The EU continued its negotiations of a new co-operation treaty with Russia, which had been interrupted in August 2008.

Germany went even further at the Eighth St Petersburg Dialogue conference from 30 September to 3 October 2008. Just a few weeks after the Russian-Georgian war and shortly after Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a ‘Joint Declaration of the Petersburg Dialogue on Shaping the Partnership for Modernisation’ was signed by the Chairman of the German Steering Committee of this bilateral organization, Lothar de Maizi re, and by the Deputy Chairwoman, Liudmila Verbitskaia, the Rector of St Petersburg University, i.e., Putin’s alma mater. In 2010 the German project of the so-called modernization partnership with Russia was elevated to the European level and adopted by both the EU and subsequently many member states.

Curiously, after Russia’s invasion, bombing and dismemberment of Georgia, relations between Berlin and Brussels, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other, did not cool down but warmed up. Of course, the German and other Western European advances towards the Kremlin did not contain any explicitly affirmative signals regarding Russia’s violations of international law and human rights in Moldova, Chechnya or Georgia. On the contrary, both Berlin’s and the EU’s so-called Strategic and Modernisation Partnerships with Moscow officially aimed to bring Russia closer to Europe in normative terms by means of positive political spill over-effects of an economic rapprochement.

However, Berlin’s noble intentions and strategic calculations were misguided, as we now know. From the outset, they could not compensate for the high costs of Germany’s rapprochement and interdependence strategy vis-à-vis Russia. The tacit neglect of elementary interests of small successor states of the USSR, such as Moldova and Georgia, and implicit acquiescence to the Kremlin’s continuous undermining of principles of international law in the post-Soviet space could not have ended well.

German and European forbearance toward Russia’s behaviour on the Nistru and in the North as well as South Caucasus have borne no fruit in either domestic or foreign policy terms. While Berlin apparently thought to promote a pro-western change of direction in Moscow with its undiminished willingness to co-operate, the opposite has been the result.

Ukraine as an aftermath

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014 appear to many observers as unprecedented aberrations in East European geopolitics after the end of the Cold War. In fact, these developments were mere continuations of older trends. In some respects, they were logical outcomes of earlier domestic political dynamics within Russia, their repercussion for Moscow’s foreign affairs and inappropriate western responses to them.

With Merkel’s assumption of the chancellorship in 2005, Germany had, what seemed at the time, an ideal occupant in its highest office of government to respond adequately to the new challenges in Eastern Europe after Putin had come to power in 1999.

As it gradually became clear, however, the new chancellor was unwilling or unable to abandon the wrong track Germany had taken in its Russia policy under Gerhard Schröder. Merkel’s diplomatic engagement in Eastern Europe did increase and was particularly notable in 2014–2015. It may be thanks to Merkel that Putin did not push deeper into Ukrainian territory at that time. However, the need for a paradigm shift in Germany’s Russia policy, which became obvious in 2014, failed to materialize – a sad fact that became manifest with the start of the Nord Stream 2 project in 2015.

That Merkel, despite her high level of competence and obvious disappointment with Putin, was unable or unwilling to make the long overdue shift in German Ostpolitik away from Schröder’s approach is depressing.

Instead, Berlin’s mode of behaviour toward Russia’s authoritarian regime remained and remains characterized by fateful decisions of a man who is a political friend of Putin and has been an official employee of the Russian state since 2005. Perhaps, the Eastern European and Caucasian blood toll will have to further rise, in order for Berlin to turn away from this position.

This article is taken from the source: EUROZINE

published: 28. 2. 2022

Datum publikace:
28. 2. 2022
Autor článku: