Merkel in the Middle

The German chancellor is caught between her country’s Amerika-Freunde and Putin-Versteher.

Getty Images
Getty Images

BERLIN — In Germany these days, there are two camps when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They’re referred to here as Amerika-Freunde (America-friends) and Putin-Versteher (Putin-sympathizers) and can apply to foreign-policy circles as well as the person on the street. In navigating the Ukraine crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is leading the international community’s negotiations with Putin, is currently caught between them. In fact, the fault lines run right through her own cabinet of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

Merkel’s task is to chart a middle ground — or formulate a new vision, if she’s up to it — that will ultimately define not only German foreign policy but the country’s function in 21st-century Europe. Is this Germany a steadfast member of the Western alliance, essentially the linchpin in a new, long-term standoff with Russia? Or is it a bridge between East and West, a more neutral negotiator in search of acceptable compromises with the Kremlin? Or is there another way for Germany to navigate between these poles?

Indeed, with the situation on the ground deteriorating from day to day, pressure is building on Merkel to act with resolution and impact. In desperation, she has yanked her country’s top diplomat out of retirement to broker enough stability on the ground for Ukraine to hold nationwide elections on May 25. So far, however, she shows no signs of extricating Germany from anachronistic Cold War categories and, at long last, defining a post-reunification German foreign policy for the future.

Let’s start with the America-friends, even though they’re rapidly dwindling. In the Cold War decades, they were as plentiful as weisswürste at Oktoberfest, usually but not exclusively found in the conservative parties, like the Christian Democrats, and personified by chancellors such as Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Merkel and her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, are America-friends, even if the NSA spy scandal, the unceasing drone war, and Guantánamo, to name just a few Obama disappointments, have made this alliance considerably less attractive and its ranks thinner than ever before. (Indeed, impressive statesmen of any sort in Merkel’s party are hard to find, at least compared with the better-stocked Social Democrats.)

The reflex of dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticists is to believe that, in terms of foreign policy, the United States is almost always right, whatever the issue, be it West Germany joining NATO in the 1950s, deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Northern Europe in the 1980s, or invading Iraq in 2003. America-friends in Germany aren’t going to harbor Edward Snowden or even allow him to testify at Bundestag committee hearings as long as Washington objects. This much Merkel will do for her buddy Barack Obama.

The America-friends in Berlin insist that never again will Germany plot a Sonderweg, namely a separate path between East and West. Germany is in the Western camp to stay: a loyal member of NATO, the indispensable military alliance of choice, and of a European Union firmly anchored in the West — and exclusively so.

In the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the remaining America-friends, like the Christian Democrats’ Ruprecht Polenz and Friedrich Merz, more or less echo Washington, demanding tougher sanctions against Russia and sharper rhetoric against Kremlin policies, and gladly see a new raison d’être for NATO. The America-friends are viscerally distrustful of Putin’s Kremlin and believe that force is the language it understands best. Putin should be dealt with the same way the West knocked out the Soviet Union: with tough talk, punishment when necessary, and overwhelming arsenals.

Although by nature an America-friend and deeply wary of ex-KGB officer Putin from the beginning, Merkel is understandably hesitant to throw caution to the wind and declare Russia the enemy. Rigorous sanctions would hurt German industry and imperil its shaky economic recovery; the United States, on the other hand, has little to lose. Moreover, it wasn’t so long ago that Germany was the front line in the East-West conflict — and Merkel was on the eastern side of the wall, living under a dictatorship. As someone who profited so immensely from the close of the East-West conflict, she is hard-pressed to redraw the lines of confrontation in a newly divided Europe.

On the other side are the so-called "Putin-sympathizers." Cooperation, not confrontation, with Russia is their mantra, incidentally the same one Obama adopted when he took office in 2009. It’s important to note that the members of this camp (with some exceptions) aren’t enamored with Putin himself, but rather underscore the necessity of reaching out to Russia and including it in Europe — but not in the EU itself. Even though there are Putin-sympathizers across the party spectrum in Germany — from the far left to the far right — the most important are the Social Democrats, including former statesmen with considerable gravitas such as former chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, as well as the late Willy Brandt’s confidant, Egon Bahr.

Indeed, the heirs of Brandt call their approach to Eastern Europe and Russia the New Ostpolitik, after Brandt’s visionary Cold War-era policies. The original Ostpolitik of Germany’s Social Democrats broke the ice in the emotional, nuclear-charged East-West conflict, reaching out over the Iron Curtain to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and offering rewards — foremost trade and diplomatic status — in return for humanitarian concessions, more open borders, and arms control. The idea at its core was Wandel durch Annäherung ("change through rapprochement"), inducing change gradually through diplomacy and dialogue.

If you ask Social Democrats today, they’ll tell you that it was the Cold War-era Ostpolitik that paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent and set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. (If you ask former Central European dissidents, however, they’ll say that Ostpolitik caused the German Social Democrats to ignore them, opting instead to be chummy with the communist leadership.)

Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the man in Brandt’s shoes today. By far the most influential Putin-sympathizer, though a comparatively moderate one compared with the likes of Schmidt and Schröder, he is Merkel’s partner in Ukraine crisis management. Steinmeier began plotting a New Ostpolitik for Germany during the 1998-2005 Social Democrat-Green government, when he served as Schröder’s chief of staff, by putting Germany-Russia relations on a new footing. These ties deepened from 2005 to 2009 when Steinmeier was foreign minister in the first grand coalition under Merkel and persisted behind the scenes even when the Social Democrats left office for a term. Although he’s considerably more Putin-friendly than Merkel, she obviously trusts and relies heavily on Steinmeier, who has been racing around Europe without pause to halt Ukraine from falling apart.

The Putin-sympathizers insist that Germany has to understand where Russia is coming from and judge it by relative criteria, not those, say, of European Union members or presumptive candidates. In the spirit of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, they argue that through intensive trade and diplomacy, Germany and its EU peers can turn Russia into an indispensable partner, which implicitly lends Europe leverage to sway Moscow. The more closely linked, the more clout Germany has. Sanctions and isolation are thus exactly the wrong way to deal with a contrary Kreml
in. Even when Russia goes astray, such as by jailing gays, punk rockers, and opposition business tycoons, or by violating international borders, the Putin-sympathizers call for patience, condemning Moscow in soft tones, if at all. The priority is to keep Moscow in the game at all costs.

In relations with Russia, Germany has a special role. Through a 21st-century Ostpolitik, Germany can craft a new identity: Instead of the belligerent Deutschland of the past or the Western foot soldier of the Cold War era, a new, peaceful, conciliatory Berlin will broker peace on the continent. In contrast to the America-friends, the Putin-sympathizers don’t see "Europe" as exclusively a club of liberal democracies rooted in the West. Like it or not, they reason, there are also authoritarian democracies like Russia in play. Germany simply has to deal with it. This is the essence of realpolitik, another term handed down from the postwar years.

In the German media as well as on the floor of the Bundestag, the Putin-sympathizers are quick to "explain" Putin, even if it can sound more like an apology. They point out again and again that Russia objected to the eastward encroachment of NATO and the EU every step of the way — and was willfully ignored. The same goes for the missile systems deployed in Central Europe. They also concede that Moscow has legitimate special interests in Eastern Europe — even a "sphere of influence." They condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea — but are quite understanding about why Putin did it.

Since the New Ostpolitik began in the late 1990s, the Social Democrats have bent over backward to accommodate Putin. Although no longer an active politician, Schröder personifies this course, having struck up a friendship with Putin and serving as a paid lobbyist for Russian gas giant Gazprom since leaving office. Even many of his fellow Social Democrats cringed when in April he gave Putin a warm hug at the Russian president’s birthday party in St. Petersburg, an image that made it into every newspaper in Germany. But many also confessed that Schröder’s visit could be a legitimate means to get Putin to bend on Ukraine — not pretty, but effective. Again, realpolitik. (Schröder did speak to Putin about the OSCE hostages, who were released shortly thereafter.)

The Schröder-Putin embrace, and Russia sympathy in general, galls no one more than the Central Europeans, who are among the staunchest critics of a new German Ostpolitik. (Indeed, they’re first-row America-friends.) The Visegrad states and the Baltics are invested heavily in this debate, knowing full well that their interests will be sacrificed if Berlin and Moscow negotiate over their heads. This is exactly what happened in 2005, when Schröder, as chancellor, and Putin signed off on a new natural gas pipeline (Nord Stream) that directly linked Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea, skirting Poland and all of Central Europe. The message was clear: Regardless of what happens in Central Europe, Germany will get its gas. The Poles screamed foul at the top of their lungs, but to no avail. (When he left office, Schröder became the chairman of Nord Stream, a joint venture between Russia’s Gazprom and two German companies.)

So, if the proof is in the pudding, then what has all this painstaking diplomacy (and groveling) brought Germany? It seems next to nothing. Putin looks intent on upending the European order and refuses to budge on even the smallest German requests from Merkel, like allowing observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) into Crimea or getting the eastern Ukrainians to call off their phony referendums. He lies to Merkel and Steinmeier over the phone in one conversation after another: about joining a contact group, about Russian special forces in Crimea, about stirring up trouble in eastern Ukraine. The list is long. Indeed, these days Germany doesn’t appear to have any more clout in Moscow than France or Britain.

The Social Democrats are obviously crestfallen, but they intend to keep their course, arguing that there is no other way forward. In a recent interview, Brandt’s former aide, Bahr, a top Social Democratic strategist, told a German daily: "I think Putin is a rational person. Chaos in Ukraine is not in his interests." Bahr’s recommendation, just when everybody else is trying to lessen dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, is to build yet another gas pipeline from Russia to Germany in order to intensify ties further.

* * *

Merkel is hamstrung between two ostensibly irreconcilable paths that divide her own government: the Amerika-Freunde on the one side and the Putin-Versteher on the other. But neither track has born results. The sanctions already imposed and the threat of more to come, NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics, booting Russia out of the G-8 — none of this seems to faze Putin in the least. Nor have the carrots — Germany’s close relations with Putin and immense trade and energy linkages — moved him either. The pillar of the Social Democrats’ foreign-policy vision, namely making Russia a "strategic partner," has obviously failed. Indeed, it didn’t slow the radicalization of Putinism over the last decade one bit.

The impasse has prompted Merkel and Steinmeier to reach out to one of Germany’s most respected and able statesmen, Wolfgang Ischinger, to head up a round table that will bring together Ukraine’s government, the opposition, and Russian-speaking regional representatives. The round table is part of an OSCE mission to Ukraine that is ramping up and will try to smooth the way to free elections on May 25. Coming out of retirement for the posting, the 68-year-old Ischinger is a career diplomat widely respected in both Moscow and Washington. Ischinger played a key role in negotiating reunification, which is how the Russians know him. And he helped U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke end the Balkan wars, as well as served as German ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006.

Ischinger might be just the person to aid Merkel and Steinmeier in the ongoing crisis management. In the short term, the Germans need to help Kiev hold legitimate, nationwide elections on May 25. Once elected representatives are in place, then hopefully Russia will join in talks.

But even if this eleventh-hour crisis management bears fruit, which seems increasingly unlikely, it doesn’t answer the big questions about the nature of Berlin’s relationship with Moscow or of Germany’s role in Europe, issues that loom over Merkel and her coalition government. The current fiasco is, in part, a consequence of Berlin’s not having a foreign policy in place. Merkel isn’t one for sweeping, big-picture decisions. But these are the old German Questions, which no German leader can escape. As the Ukraine crisis shows, they can’t be put off any longer.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola