BERLIN — When NATO’s faithful gather to discuss the Alliance’s latest challenge, a flurry of adjectives fills the air — mercurial, unpredictable, self-righteous.
The object of the frustration isn’t the bloc’s longtime nemesis to the east, however. It’s Germany.
As many Alliance members become increasingly nervous over Russia’s incursions into neighboring territories and demand a harsher tone with Moscow, powerful voices in Berlin have pushed in the opposite direction.
“What we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation further with loud saber-rattling and warmongering,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Germany’s Bild last month. “Anyone who believes that a symbolic tank parade on the Alliance’s Eastern frontier will create security is mistaken.”
As NATO leaders convene in Warsaw this weekend for a summit to debate the Alliance’s stance on Russia, Germany’s increasingly dovish position is frustrating efforts to present a united front.
While Western sanctions and efforts to bolster NATO’s presence in the Baltics and Poland enjoy support across most of Europe, in Germany the measures are subject of constant criticism at the highest levels of government. Given Germany’s political clout in Europe and status as a pillar of NATO, its internal squabbling on Russia has unnerved many of the countries that are counting on its help.
“They’re not a reliable ally,” said John Kornblum, a former U.S. undersecretary of state for Europe and ambassador to Germany. “You can’t really count on them.”
‘Can’t count on Washington’
Steinmeier’s comments came at the conclusion of a 10-day NATO military exercise in Poland, the largest such maneuver ever staged by the Alliance. Though Steinmeier didn’t specifically criticize the exercise, his comments were widely interpreted as a broadside against it — an impression his ministry did little to counter.
“Such developments lead to uncontrollable situations, all the way up to war,” Gernot Erler, a Steinmeier deputy and the government’s point man on Russia, warned a few days later.
So far, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose center-right alliance governs in coalition with Steinmeier’s Social Democrats, has shied away from the debate, leaving it to party colleagues to express annoyance at the “irritations” the foreign minister’s remarks have created with allies. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble accused Steinmeier this week of trying to score political points at NATO’s expense, saying his cabinet colleague’s remarks “were not just a rhetorical mistake.”
Therein lies the problem for proponents of a tougher line on Russia. Though the Social Democrats are plumbing historic depths in the polls, Steinmeier is far and away Germany’s most popular politician with an approval rating of about 75 percent. A clear majority of Germans, roughly two-thirds, supports his stance on Russia, according to a recent YouGov poll. Only 9 percent of those polled approved of Berlin’s decision to reinforce NATO forces in the Baltics.
Resistance in Central Europe to taking in refugees, and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of Poland’s nationalist government toward Germany, has done little to win over Berlin. Merkel also likely has an eye on German elections next year and doesn’t want to spend the political capital necessary to argue for a more robust response.
Washington also bears some responsibility for the situation for not engaging more on European security and leaving the Germans to their own devices.
“The U.S. has also dropped the ball,” Kornblum said.
That’s particularly worrying to Moscow’s former satellites. “They’re saying ‘we can’t count on either Washington or Berlin’ and that’s making them doubly nervous,” said Gustav Gressel, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
While Steinmeier’s Social Democrats are the strongest proponents of a soft-shoe approach to Russia, many in Merkel’s conservative alliance, in particular the leaders of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, also endorse his position.
“The CSU supports phasing out the sanctions against Russia,” CSU party leader Horst Seehofer said last week. “Sanctions shouldn’t be permanent. A bloc mentality is not suited for these times.”
What lies behind the German appeasement reflex is a potent combination of cultural affinity, history and business interests.
Though the former East Germany was under Moscow’s control for decades during the Cold War, it was never subjugated in the same way Poland and other satellites were and most Germans don’t harbor a visceral dislike of Russia. Indeed, many who grew up in the GDR maintain a deep affection for Russian culture. Some, including Merkel, speak fluent Russian. Some 81 percent of Germans favor closer ties with Russia, second only to France, according to an April poll by the Körber Foundation.
Germans see Russia, in contrast to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as an equal, a great power with a rich culture and history. A common refrain in any discussion about Russia in Berlin these days is that the West needs “to respect” its eastern neighbor.
For most German elites both East and West, it was not the American-led arms race that was decisive in winning the Cold War, but Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the policy of rapprochement that Bonn began pursuing in the late 1960s.
Steinmeier’s remarks “reflect what have been core Social Democratic principles for decades,” Thomas Oppermann, the head of the party’s parliamentary group, said in defense of the minister.
While that is true, a key factor in understanding Germany’s deep connection with Russia is the war. As is the case with both France and Poland, Germany’s relationship with Russia is defined by guilt over the slaughter of World War II.
At a recent symposium on Germany-Russia relations in Berlin, Andreas Peschke, a senior German diplomat, began his presentation with a homily about the Nazis’ “assault on the Soviet Union” 75 years ago. While he stressed the necessity for “easing the tensions and dialogue,” he made no demands on Russia to reassure its neighbors. Russia’s role in the downing of a Malaysian airliner, killing 298, was left unmentioned.
Jürgen Fitschen in the bank’s Berlin office, was that the West needs to do more to repair relations with Moscow.
“We need to have the courage to pursue new paths,” August Henning, the former head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, told the assembly.
Such voices are often derided in Berlin as Putinversteher, literally “Putin understanders.”
Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a close friend of the Russian leader and senior executive at an affiliate of state-owned Gazprom, has been at the forefront of this group for years. Once a minority, the Putinvertehers’ ranks have swelled the longer the West’s standoff with Russia has gone on.
The push is partly driven by the business community. Though Russia ranks only 16th among Germany’s export markets, a number of influential companies, from Siemens to Volkswagen, invested heavily in the country and are feeling the pinch of sanctions. A lobby for German businesses in Russia, known the Ost-Auschuss, has been tireless in urging an end to the sanctions.
“It’s clear that the Putinversteher see the NATO summit and the policy of reassurance toward Poland and the Baltics as bad for business,” Gressel said.
Pressure from those interests was behind Merkel’s reluctance to impose economic sanctions on Russia to begin with. It was only after the Malaysian airliner was downed that she finally relented.
Merkel under pressure
While the chancellor has toed the Western line by insisting Moscow must comply with the Minsk peace accords before sanctions can be lifted, she faces constant pressure from within her grand coalition to change course.
Both Steinmeier and SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel, who is also economy minister, have pushed for a gradual relaxation of sanctions. Even with the sanctions in place, Germany has continued to pursue important business projects with Russia.
For example, Berlin is pushing ahead with plans to build a second gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea linking Russia and Germany, despite opposition from several European allies. The pipeline would rob Central European countries of billions in transit fees they now receive for transporting gas and concentrate about 80 percent of Russian supplies to Europe along one route.
The political rationale behind such moves is that increased interdependence between Russia and Germany will help lessen the threat Moscow poses.
That strategy is underpinned by perpetual calls from leading German politicians and foreign policy experts to continue discussions with Russia.
“Russia is not particularly interested in dialogue at the moment but we should shower it with offers,” Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and former German ambassador to Washington, wrote in an op-ed for Spiegel Online this week.
The Russian leadership presented Germans with a new forum to engage in such discussions last week in Berlin. Putin confidante Vladimir Jakunin opened a new think tank called “Dialogue of Civilizations” in the German capital on Friday.
Former SPD chief Matthias Platzeck was among the 120 guests at the opening ceremony.
“Sometimes I have the impression that the mere mention of President Putin’s name prompts a lowering of the blinds. We should stop that because it impedes progress,” he told Russia’s RT television.