From Merkel to Scholz, what Russian policy for Germany?

During her four terms in the Chancellery since 2005, Angela Merkel has drawn up a realpolitik Russian under the double sign of economic pragmatism, even of assumed mercantilism, and strategic vigilance. It combined the strengthening of economic ties with Russian companies, including the Nord Stream 2 project is the simplest incarnation, and solidarity with France to offer a sanctions policy vis-à-vis Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Will his successor be his heir in the matter? Nothing is less sure.

Scholz, heir to Brandt and Schmidt?

On September 26, the results of the German general elections led to the formation of a new parliamentary coalition made up of the SPD, the Greens and the Liberals. This “Traffic light coalition” [Ampelkoalition] is based on a parliamentary majority of 416 seats out of 725 in the Bundestag against a still powerful CDU-CSU with 197 seats. Since then, the party headquarters have been hard at work to co-construct a political line synthesized in a coalition contract. Despite differing doctrinal traditions and international perspectives, this contract resulted in the formation of a new executive to turn the Merkel page. The distribution of posts is essential: the Russian policy of Germany will be defined between the SPD, which will lead the Chancellery and Defense, and the Greens, who take over the foreign affairs portfolio, twenty-three years later. Joschka Fischer, which left its mark on theMinistry of Foreign Affairs until 2005.

These two parties are often in coalition at the federal level as well as at the level of the Länder. But they have heterogeneous and even divergent geopolitical heritages and horizons, the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz follows in the wake of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. These Chancellors of the Cold War had developed a real policy of openness and detente (the “Change through reconciliation”, [Wandel durch Annäherung], popularized by Willy Brandt’s political advisor Egon Bahr) in eastern Germany.

This Ostpolitik [politique orientale] stemmed from a realistic analysis of the East-West confrontation and aimed at a certain appeasement with the USSR in the name of the state pacifism of the FRG, as well as a political will to assume the historical responsibility of the FRG vis-à-vis with regard to the crimes of IIIe Reich (especially vis-à-vis Poland). The new chancellor is their heir even if the geopolitical context has changed drastically: mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018, he led the twinning of his Hanseatic municipality with St. Petersburg under Vladimir Poutin. But that did not mean that he had to deal in a significant way with Russian economic partners.

The unexpected Atlanticism of the Greens

Opposite toOstpolitik, Annalena Baerbock, leader of the Greens since 2018, strongly attacked the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project pushed by the former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005), member of the Board of Gazprombank, and supported by Angela Merkel despite the pressure from the United States and critics from Poland. Annalena Baerbock, promised to the Foreign Ministry in the Scholz government, today calls for a more offensive policy towards Russia: she would notably consider supporting Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union and NATO. What a paradox for Greens, whose current is so often suspicious of Germany’s alliance with the United States, especially on the question of military bases on German territory!

Annalena Baerbock, in Berlin, October 17, 2021. | Christof Stache / AFP

The Merkel balance sheet, its results and its ambiguities

Does this mean that the Russian policy of the now former Chancellor will soon be outdated? In her dealings with Putin’s Russia, Angela Merkel enjoyed an incomparable advantage, namely direct knowledge of Russia, of the Soviet heritage and of the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. Russian speaking, born in East Germany and also trained in Czechoslovakia, she was very familiar with Russian political reflexes and Moscow ambitions.

Thanks to this experience and her longevity in the Chancellery, Angela Merkel had succeeded in establishing herself in the balance of power with Vladimir Poutine. If it continued to develop bilateral economic relations, it had adopted, from 2014, a hard line on Ukraine. On the strength of a solid alliance with successive French presidents, it had succeeded in cementing the European Union around a policy of sanctions against the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and the political repression against supporters of Alexei Navalny. She had also denounced political interference, the negative, destabilizing and biased influence of the Russian media, the computer hacking of the Bundestag or the murder of a former Chechen commander in Berlin. And she even welcomed Alexeï Navalny after his poisoning by a nerve agent administered by GRU agents.

Merkelism was the meeting between support for political liberalism in Russia and constant support for German mercantile interests.

In Russia, Angela Merkel’s exercise of power has been praised as a time of predictability and stability. Political scientist Dmitrij Trenin of Carnegie Moscow associates these fifteen years in power with three trends. First, the confirmation of the Atlanticist orientation of Germany. Secondly, obtaining a privileged position by Germany within the European Union. Finally, he notes a distance with Russia, largely due to the conflict in Ukraine, while keeping in touch with her.

Merkelism was therefore the meeting between support for political liberalism in Russia and constant support for German mercantile interests, in short, a fairly pragmatic foreign policy. Angela Merkel held Russia as an important international player, wishing for a substantial and stable relationship which should be favorable to the whole continent – and first of all to the German business community, very favorable to a relaxation of sanctions (to the ‘image of Eastern Committee of the German Economy, main bilateral lobbying body). However, she did not lose interest in the fate of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, and their European aspirations.

From domestic policy to foreign policy

How will the new coalition find a point of balance between these different tendencies: continuity with the merkelism, affirmation of a more sovereign Europe vis-à-vis Russia, cohesion of the new majority and legacy ofOstpolitik? A domestic policy issue, the relationship with Russia is also an issue for German foreign policy.

In its coalition contract, the new majority affirms its wish to move in the direction of a more sovereign European policy. The latter must be “Less vulnerable in important strategic areas, such as energy supply, health, raw material imports and digital technology, without isolating Europe”. Unlike France, the question of the armed forces and that of armament programs are not mentioned directly in this founding document for the term of office. Is it the guarantee of being able to hold a constructive dialogue with Russia in respect of the European partners (Baltic countries in particular), whose perception of the threat is not the same for geographical and historical reasons?

L’Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt’s main achievements were the recognition of the intangibility of the borders resulting from the end of the Second World War, the normalization of relations with the USSR, the intensification of economic relations with the COMECON countries, and the reestablishment of ‘a climate of detente with the GDR, so as not to close the option of reunification: the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine called into question this first Westphalian principle.

Willy Brandt (left) and Helmut Schmidt attend an SPD congress in April 1982 in Munich. | AFP

“Nevertheless, we need a new Ostpolitik, this time European, which takes into account the interests of Russia”, according to Olaf Scholz. In the absence of an agreement on short-term security issues, cooperation will be sought in areas such as hydrogen or health. The coalition contract aims to create the possibility of visa-free travel from Russia to Germany for particularly important target groups, in order to bring civil societies closer together.

And the Franco-German couple?

While the coalition contract emphasizes peace, human rights, conflict prevention and the fight against climate change, relations between Germany and Russia constitute a key challenge for the security and stability of the continent. An unknown remains in this geopolitical equation: the place of France. Developments in the Franco-German couple will also be decisive for the Russian policy of the European Union.

Seen from Berlin, French policy has recorded some results, in particular opposition to any questioning of borders. But the Franco-Russian cooperation attempts launched by François Hollande and then Emmanuel Macron appear doomed to failure in the eyes of German politicians: in 2015, military cooperation in the Levant did not produce tangible results; and the Trianon Dialogue was not crowned with success either, just as the outstretched hand of the French president to his Russian counterpart remained without concrete action.

In 2022, at least in the first half of the year, it will essentially be up to the new chancellor to set the tone in relations with Russia. France will in fact be concentrated on the French presidency of the European Union (PFUE) and the electoral campaign for the presidential and legislative elections. Among the European leaders, only Olaf Scholz will appear in Moscow as having the solidity and political longevity sufficient to weigh.

Between a Ostpolitik inherited and assumed as the social-democratic DNA in terms of foreign policy, renewed and ritual Atlanticism, a Franco-German couple cemented by sanctions and awareness of external threats, and taking into account the fears of countries Baltic Sea and Poland, with which German diplomacy maintains a “Special relationship”, Olaf Scholz will have the difficult task of affirming, and no doubt of developing, his German-Russian policy in this complex field of constraints.

As for China, the difficulty will be to arbitrate between the weight of economic interests and the significant commercial footprint of German companies in Russia and the assertion of clear political values ​​(on human rights, respect for the rule of law , political interference, etc.). Otherwise, he will return his country to the status of economic giant and strategic dwarf from which the Chancellor had torn it, with the risk of being used by the Kremlin as a corner stuck in its relationship with the EU.

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