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Resetting Russian Relations

By Ted Reinert

Despite the murder of human rights activist Natalia Estimirova in Chechnya, the subsequent visit of Russian Federation President Dmitry Medvedev to Munich for the annual Petersburg Dialogue meeting between Russia and Germany appears to have gone off swimmingly. Medvedev spoke sharply against the killing and the meeting focused on energy and economic ties, including the purchase of automaker Opel by a consortium including Russia's largest bank.

As Germany prepares to choose a new parliament and possibly a new leader in September, the country's relations with Russia are not likely to be a decisive factor in voters' minds. The economic crisis dominates the political debate and Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) enjoy a comfortable lead over the Social Democrats (SPD), who have put forward Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier as chancellor candidate. What's most interesting is that the difference between the parties on Russia policy appears to be shrinking.

Four years ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD was Vladimir Putin's best friend abroad, committing Germany to the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic. Poles compared the deal to the 1941 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The CDU's platform that year accused Schröder of running an "unprincipled" Russia policy. "We want good relations with Russia - but not over the heads of our neighbors...We should also not look away from Russia's problematic domestic developments."

The SPD (if not its former leader) may have moved ever so slightly in an Atlanticist direction recently, between the election of Barack Obama and the invasion of Georgia. But the conservatives have surprisingly moved in the other direction. This year's CDU platform claims to want "relations with Russia to be as close as possible." It goes on to say that the "depth and breadth" of relations is dependent on Russia's willingness to fulfill its international obligations at the UN, OSCE and elsewhere, but this is clearly softer rhetoric than four years prior.

The evolution of the CDU position on Russia shows that Schröder's closeness to Russia was less of an anomaly and more of signal of a lasting recalibration in German foreign policy. Merkel hardly feels affection for Putin and she has probably done a better job managing the Polish relationship than her predecessor. But Germany was a firm opponent of extending NATO Membership Action Plans to Georgia and Ukraine and its stance against enlargement is unlikely change no matter who is in the chancellor's office and governing coalition. And Merkel underlined her support for the Nord Stream pipeline on Thursday.

The United States is looking for, and Germany supports, a "reset" in relations with Russia. Indeed, this is the best option for everyone except hardliners who depend on conflict for their political survival. Unfortunately, Russia has quite a few of those. The American president extended his hand and didn't find a clenched fist in return; Russia is happy to talk, though not to make significant concessions. But the U.S. and its allies must make sure that the Kremlin's other hand isn't up to no good in Russia's "near abroad" in order for détente to progress. There is a very real chance that both Ukraine and Georgia will have new, less anti-Russia governments by this time next year. There are real and practical reasons why citizens in these countries may want this (it is not a comfortable path to be on bad terms with a giant, well-armed neighbor, and an opening has been spotted by politicians who balance east and west, such as Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko). There is also likely to be significant manipulation of events in Kyiv and Tbilisi from Moscow.

For all of Schröder's closeness with Russia, he asserted the Atlantic alliance's position on new elections in Ukraine in 2004, nudging Putin to allow a re-vote and thus allowing the Orange Revolution to come to fruition. With key elections approaching in Ukraine in January, Ms. Merkel should be expected to stand up to Russian troublemaking even more firmly, especially if she does not have to govern with the SPD in grand coalition after September. The liberal Free Democratic Party, the preferred partner of the CDU, would then take over the foreign policy portfolio. Its leaders have remained steadfast supporters of the transatlantic alliance and critical of Russia's human rights record, although as free-trade liberals they discouraged economic sanctions against Russia in the wake of the war with Georgia. A Black-Gold coalition between the CDU and FDP could conceivably push German foreign policy in a more strongly Atlanticist direction. But don't bet on it - the economic and energy links appear to have tied the chancellor's hands.

Theodore Reinert is a M.A. student at Johns Hopkins SAIS and a research assistant at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

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