Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is the author of “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article belong to the author.
At first glance, the West’s recent messages to Russia could hardly look more confused.
In the US on diplomatic business, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for ratcheting up sanctions on Russia amid fresh evidence of Kremlin meddling in UK and American politics.
President Trump, under investigation in the US for consorting with Russia during the 2016 election campaign, has zigzagged wildly on Russia, making it nearly impossible to discern a strategy. But the Trump administration is considering penalties beyond those currently slapped on Russia for invading Ukraine in 2014 and other breaches of international law.
Blurring the picture further are Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steadfast friends in Europe, most of them found among the far right, including in Austria’s right-wing government.
On August 18, the Russian leader had been a guest of honor at the wedding of Austria’s nationally minded foreign minister, Karin Kneissl – and, to the amusement of a global audience – two-stepped with the glowing Kneissl, a big fan of his, who wore a long white and cream dirndl dress.
But later the same day, Putin’s appointment with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was of far greater import – for Russia and for all of Europe, as well as other continents.
In Germany, Merkel’s frank one-on-one with Putin, the first such Germany-based working session in years, was neither chummy nor combative.
Germany’s gravitas, commercial interests and geography position it – not the US, the UK or the Central Europeans – to set the course of future relations with Russia.
And despite there being no official declaration from the tête-à-tête, the contours of a modus vivendi emerged from Merkel’s bilateral chat with Putin.
Much like during the tensest Cold War years, Germany (and presumably, behind it, most of the European Union) will stand firmly against Moscow’s authoritarian ideology and human rights violations. But beneath the surface friction, they will also engage with Russia on urgent practical matters – such as energy, Eastern Europe and the Middle East – that serve common interests in Europe and beyond.
In doing so, Merkel lifts a page from the playbook of West Germany, which during the height of the Cold War did serious business with the communist bloc.
Ostpolitik, or eastern policy, was the label used for the brand of diplomacy that West Germany – a staunch US ally and NATO member – practiced with the Soviet Union, the West’s nemesis.
The West Germans managed to circumvent the recriminations and saber-rattling between Moscow and Washington and reach practical agreements with the eastern bloc states, for example, on West Berlin’s status, international borders, relations between the two Germanies and even arms control.
Some observers argue that by normalizing relations with the Soviet camp, West Germany’s diplomats eased tensions between the superpowers and paved the way for détente and human rights agreements such as the Helsinki Accords in the 1970s, which led to the democracy movements that tore down the Iron Curtain.
But critics contend that West Germany’s amiable dealings with the Soviet bloc left those regimes’ opponents – such as persecuted political dissidents – in the lurch. Their jailings and expulsions were soft-pedaled, say critics, in order to keep transactions with the East’s leaderships on track. This coddling of dictatorships simply prolonged the life of the unstable, unpopular regimes, the critics contend.
There are striking parallels between Germany’s constructive truck with today’s Russia and that during the Cold War years – which shed light on both the promise and the pitfalls of Merkel’s ever-clearer approach to Russia.
Relations with Russia are at an all-time low, with Moscow more isolated than at any time since Soviet communism’s implosion. Russia not only gets the cold shoulder, it is suspended from bodies such as the G8, which leaves too few opportunities for Europe and the US to confer with Moscow. It’s Merkel’s worthy conviction that channels of communication with Moscow can be kept open while not accepting such atrocities as the annexation of Crimea and the alleged poisoning in the UK of Russia’s ex-spies.
On the one hand, a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts rapport with Moscow certainly makes sense because Europe, and the US, too, needs Russian cooperation in many critical areas.
In Syria, for example, Russia is key to negotiating with the Assad regime on designing a stable postwar order there – which would halt refugee flows to Europe, a lasting thorn in Merkel’s side. Putin has told Merkel that he’s open to collaboration, not least in terms of European aid for reconstruction efforts.
And Moscow is also significant in relations with Iran, which have been upended by President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal that relieved sanctions in return for an end to Tehran’s military nuclear ambitions. Russia is a signatory of the pact and stands to lose, as would Europe, should the agreement crumble completely.
And then there’s the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s cyberwarfare and other dirty tricks launched against NATO’s Central European members, such as the Baltic states. From the onset of the Ukraine crisis, Germany has led negotiations to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, which are ongoing. And Central Europe is its front yard.
On the other hand, there are dangers involved for Germany. Partnering with Moscow – ironically on resolution of conflicts that it started – runs the risk of going soft on its human rights violations and breaches of international law. Putin desperately wants sanctions – which have badly dragged down the economy – lifted as soon as possible.
Berlin cannot – and Merkel maintains it will not – lift key sanctions until Russia withdraws from Crimea. But there are voices in German politics at the highest level that advocate easing sanctions that also hurt German and European companies.
In economic self-interest, Germany is going forward with the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will run from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. The project rattles the Eastern and Central Europeans who feel sold out. They fear that the pipeline will increase Europe’s dependence on Russia, endanger their own energy imports and cost them millions in lost transit fees that Russia currently pays them.
The moment is opportune for Germany and Russia to work together more closely. Not only is the unpredictability of the US under President Trump destabilizing geopolitics but both Merkel and Putin are suffering crises at home and sinking popularity. This makes them more open for compromise – and indeed more such bilateral sessions are planned.
This is to be welcomed as long as the diplomacy doesn’t come at the expense of international norms and the vulnerable nations caught between the larger regional powers. In the postwar Ostpolitik, there’s historical precedent that they can make it work.