Germany’s New-Old Approach to Russia: Strong in Rhetoric But Weak in Substance?

November 18, 2021
Liana Fix

As autumn inches closer to winter, Germany is in the midst of coalition negotiations after its Sept. 26 parliamentary elections, with a draft agreement expected next week. In all likelihood, a so-called traffic light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Liberals headed by current Finance Minister Olaf Scholz will form a new government. The coalition treaty expected from the three parties’ working groups is the precondition for Scholz’s election as chancellor.

Negotiations in the foreign policy working group are being closely watched not only in Washington and European capitals but also in Moscow. While little information has been released to the public, the parties’ exploratory paper and negotiations so far, as well as party positions laid out in advance, allow for some preliminary conclusions about the direction of Berlin’s new-old Russia policy. The most important take-away: To understand Germany’s future approach to Russia, look beyond it. Security and energy policy, more than foreign policy alone, will play an important role, and the repercussions of decisions in these areas will affect Russia’s leverage toward the EU and its eastern neighbors. 

First, the good news for those afraid of Angela Merkel’s departure: Scholz has positioned himself as the successor to her legacy—in foreign policy, as well as other matters. He represents the pragmatist wing of the Social Democratic Party. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, this part of the SPD has become disillusioned with Moscow and has given up hopes for “change through rapprochement,” the traditional SPD approach toward Moscow, inspired by Willy Brandt’s Eastern Policy. With Frank-Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister, the SPD supported sanctions against Russia and the Minsk agreements. There is little reason to expect a break with this approach. Although Scholz has called in interviews for a “new Eastern Policy” (to satisfy his party’s expectations) and is less familiar with Eastern Europe than Merkel, he will continue her policies and has emphasized the necessity to defend the rules-based order in Europe and to demonstrate toward Russia that might does not make right. However, there is also little hope to expect new initiatives or breakthroughs in conflicts, especially in eastern Ukraine. The Minsk agreements have become a (weak) tool for volatile conflict management, not conflict resolution. This will not change under Scholz.

At the same time, the SPD has moved overall to the left in the last two years, weakening the positions of the pragmatists in the party. Scholz lost the competition for party leader in 2019 to left-wing candidates and is a future chancellor without full control over his party. In security policy, under the leadership of Rolf Mützenich, the SPD’s parliamentary group has put in question Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing—that is, whether Germany should continue to host U.S. nuclear weapons on its soil and provide aircraft for their delivery. Within the left wing of the SPD, there is little appetite to spend more on defense and great interest in disarmament initiatives, often paired with hopes that Moscow will respond reciprocally—which are regarded with concern by eastern neighbors who consider such hopes naïve. In sum, while there are few changes to be expected in Russia policy per se, shifts in Germany’s security policy, especially in nuclear sharing and disarmament, would send messages to Moscow that could be interpreted as weakened alliance solidarity and, possibly, deterrence credibility.

Although the Green Party, the second-biggest coalition partner, has called for a tougher stance on Russia, its approach to security policy is similar to left-wing Social Democrats’, which makes the prospects for hawkishness toward Moscow hazy. The Greens have in general campaigned on a ticket of change, in contrast to Scholz’s continuity approach. Germany’s foreign policy, especially toward autocratic countries such as China and Russia, should have a greater focus on human rights in the Greens’ view and generally reflect a more normative approach. Party leader Robert Habeck has even supported weapon deliveries to Ukraine, a position for which he was strongly criticized by parts of his party and the public. This demonstrates that the Greens have moved toward the center and have given up their principled pacifist position, but it remains unclear—especially for eastern neighbors—how normative positions will be backed up with credible security policy, especially given the Greens’ skepticism toward the traditional concept of deterrence.

Another major area of Russia-related policy where the future coalition members disagree is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, delayed this week by Germany’s regulator. For now, however, it seems most likely that the project will eventually proceed as planned. The SPD is nearly united in its support for the pipeline, a legacy of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and sees little reason to change this approach since an agreement with Washington was reached over the summer. Also, prominent regional SPD representatives are eager to reap the economic benefits and see future opportunities to cooperate with Russia on hydrogen transported via the pipeline. In contrast to the Social Democrats, the Greens firmly oppose the project, focusing on its role in Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and its negative climate impact. It is unlikely, however, that the Greens will prioritize the issue and use their political capital to stop the pipeline from opening, as there are other, more important issues for them on both the domestic and foreign policy agendas. The same can be said of the priorities of the Free Liberals—the third, smallest coalition partner—who are also skeptical toward the project. It is telling that, in coalition talks, Nord Stream 2 is discussed by negotiators of the energy policy working group, not the foreign policy working group, de-emphasizing its geopolitical dimension. (In general, the Free Democratic Party is divided in two: An economy-friendly wing and a liberal, human rights-focused wing, which supports a credible security and defense policy. The tensions between the two will become particularly apparent when it comes to policy toward Russia.)

German economic interests beyond energy also ensure a degree of continuity and caution in Berlin's Russia policy. In 2020, Russia imported 23.1 billion euros' worth of German goods, ranking No. 15 among import destinations and No. 14 among trade partners overall, according to the German statistics agency. (Top German exports to Russia include cars and car parts, pharmaceuticals and machinery.) An anecdote in foreign-policy circles suggests that Merkel had come to power intending to get tough on Russia but changed tack after meeting with some German business leaders. 

If coalition negotiators are successful, Moscow will have to deal with a new traffic light government in Berlin and, overall, this will result in continuity: For a new German government, there is little scope to change Russia policy in terms of sanctions or new political outreach toward Russia. Moscow’s past behavior suggests it is likely to create a new headache before the temptation of rapprochement can bear fruit. Furthermore, Russia policy is just not high enough on the priority list of Germany’s new coalition to stimulate a cardinal rethink. However, beyond the traditional Russia file, it is security and energy policy—from the future of nuclear sharing and disarmament to Berlin’s reaction in case of further gas crises—that can have significant implications for future Russia policy and can potentially strengthen Moscow’s leverage toward Europe, though this prospect has not yet been fully recognized. A new Russia policy that is strong in rhetoric but weak in substance would be a disappointing outcome for Germany’s neighbors and partners—especially at a time when Moscow is testing the new, not-yet-in-place German government with troop movements at the Ukrainian border and tacit approval of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s policies at the Polish border. With French elections looming next spring, a vacuum in leadership toward Russia is something the Transatlantic alliance cannot afford. 


Liana Fix

Liana Fix is a historian and political scientist focusing on German foreign policy, Russia and Eastern Europe as well as European security.

Photo by tvjoern shared under a Pixabay license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.