Germany and Russia: Berlin’s Deadly Self-delusions


There is a German word for nearly everything. An unquestioned lifelong self-delusion is referred to as a life-lie, a Lebenslüge. When it comes to Germany’s policies vis-à-vis Russia there are plenty of such self-delusions that drive Berlin’s foreign policy. This fact is more important given that Berlin heads the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which runs the two observer missions that are supposed to monitor the implementation of the Minsk II agreements in Ukraine. In January 2016, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, laid out the priorities for the OSCE chairmanship — and they could hardly be more revealing. They indicate all that is wrong with the German approach to European security. Steinmeier seems to believe that the current insecurity in Europe is the result of a lack of trust stemming from a breakdown in communications between Moscow and Western nations. No wonder, then, that Germany’s emphasis is on dialogue to restore trust and ultimately make Europe secure again.

Unfortunately, this logic has it backwards. There is indeed a lack of trust. However, that lack of trust is a direct consequence of Russian aggression, not Western miscommunication. Approaching Russia with suspicion and mistrust — as many Eastern European nations do — is the only sane reaction, given that Russia has invaded a neighbor, annexed part of its territory, and tried to divide the rest of the country while threatening half a dozen other countries in Europe, all based on a “blood and soil” ideology.

Trusting an authoritarian regime is never a good idea to begin with, but in Europe’s current situation it would be outright foolish. Yet the topsy-turvy logic with which Germany approaches the Kremlin should hardly come as a surprise. It is the result of five self-delusions that plague German foreign policy.

“Both Sides”

There is virtually no statement by the German foreign office on Ukraine that does not urge “both sides” to honor the Minsk agreements and show restraint. However, always and equally requesting “both sides” to pull back and show restraint when one side clearly is the aggressor is by no means an act of impartiality. In fact, it belittles the aggression and calls upon the victim to essentially surrender parts of its territory. In calling for both sides to do the same thing, Berlin also gives the aggressor a free pass, accepting the gains he has made. Even after the Minsk agreements were signed and fighting continued, the German foreign ministry found it difficult to change its tone. If the German government faulted anyone, it always made sure share the blame equally.

“The West too has made mistakes…”

The most common refrain to be heard in Berlin is that “the West too has made mistakes” when it comes to its relationship with Russia. German politicians are referring here to their belief that Western governments did not pay enough attention to the Kremlin’s misgivings about NATO enlargement and that the deterioration of the relationship with Moscow is at least partly a result of the West’s misreading of or willful ignorance toward Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe.

There are two fundamental problems with this argument. First, it is by no means a transatlantic consensus that the West was simply too hard on Russia after the end of the Cold War. Many influential intellectuals, from Edward Lucas to Russian dissident Gary Kasparov, argue otherwise. To simply state that “the West too has made mistakes” is therefore nothing but an intellectual shortcut that obfuscates an honest consideration of the successes and failures of German policy toward Russia rather than facilitating that urgent re-examination. In addition, the claim is factually wrong. In fact, the West has done its utmost to ensure that Russia would view the enlargement of NATO and the European Union not as threat, but rather as the natural extension of Europe’s political unification. That is why, for instance, NATO created the NATO–Russia Council, and Washington and European capitals alike pushed for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization.

“…though Germany has not”

There is an important and unquestioned subtext to the assertion that the West too has made mistakes — German politicians are actually saying that Germany has made none at all. After all, it was Germany that all along pushed for an even more forgiving stance vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Berlin led the opposition against extending a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine at the NATO Bucharest summit in early 2008. After Russia invaded parts of Georgia, Germany refused to punish the Kremlin and instead put forward what it dubbed a “modernization partnership” only weeks after Russia had recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in blatant violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and the six-point ceasefire the EU had just negotiated with the Kremlin. The modernization partnership was based on the assumption that more trade between Germany and Russia would provide the Kremlin with an incentive to play by the rules. The tool was devised in the tradition of “change through rapprochement,” an approach first tried under chancellor Willy Brandt. So when the Kremlin occupied and annexed Crimea, Berlin again refused to impose broad sanctions, instead waiting until Russian-backed separatists downed a Malaysian airliner. In fact, the German government never questioned the basic tenets of its so-called modernization partnership.

Even though this partnership has clearly failed to produce changes in Russian behavior, Berlin has doubled down. The German foreign minister and his allies still believe that, had the United States and the Eastern Europeans only followed Germany’s soft approach towards the Kremlin, some of the confrontations in recent years could have been avoided. Arguing that the West too has made mistakes, hence, is not an acknowledgement that Germany’s approach towards Russia might have failed. Rather, it is a criticism directed at the United States and Eastern European NATO members.

Moreover, all of this completely ignores the fact that Eastern European nations and Washington actually had followed the German approach since 2009. Under the leadership of Barack Obama, the United States used the much-vaunted “reset” to replicate Berlin’s approach towards the Kremlin, and Eastern Europe went along, albeit grudgingly. In essence, Germany is misreading both the Kremlin and its own allies.

“Treat Russia as an equal”

A few months ago, I debated a German member of parliament from the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the party of Angela Merkel. He argued that Washington had failed to treat Russia as a power of equal status, referring to president Obama’s statement that Russia is at best a regional power. This MP’s argument resembles that of many others in Germany’s foreign policy community. As the argument goes, the failure to approach the Kremlin as an equal has contributed to Russia’s geopolitical revisionism.

Ignoring the faulty premise for a moment, there is a deep irony to this line of argument. Germany’s Eastern European allies often and rightly feel that Berlin is not treating them as equals. Poland’s old and new government, as different as they are, actually agree on that. While Germany is happy to talk to Russia, Warsaw often finds itself relegated to the sidelines. In fact, Poland was intentionally kept out of the so-called Normandy-format, in which Berlin, Paris, Kiev and Moscow are supposedly sorting out the war in Ukraine. Germany could have instead pushed for the so-called Weimar triangle, wherein Poland, Germany, and France coordinate their foreign policies, to represent Europe in the talks with Russia and Ukraine. After all, Poland’s participation would have undoubtedly strengthened Europe’s hand. However, the German foreign office probably felt that the Polish government would have pushed too hard for the re-establishment of the status quo ante and made it more difficult to make the conflict go away quickly. The Polish grievance is often summarized by Polish intellectuals in fluent German: While Berlin is all too happy to talk to Russia, what it offers Poland is akin to reconciliation-kitsch, or Versöhnungskitsch.

“We need Russia to solve international crises”

The desire to have Russia treated as a geopolitical superpower finds another expression in the assertion that while the West might disapprove of the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, we have no choice but to cooperate with Russia to manage crises elsewhere, be they in Syria or Iran.

It is certainly true that the Kremlin’s cooperation could often be helpful, but the question remains: Can the West justify sacrificing the freedom of Ukraine for the remote prospect of Russian cooperation in other places? Even worse, when what is sold as “Russian cooperation” is in fact an acceptance of the Russian position that Assad does not have to leave, no matter how many people he barrel-bombed? It is stunning how Russia has succeeded in selling the West on the idea of accepting the root cause of the civil war in Syria — the totalitarian Assad regime — as the war’s solution. That, in essence, explains why the Kremlin has ordered the Russian military to bomb all opposition to Assad. For Assad to be the smaller evil, he has to be the only alternative. Even in light of these facts, there is a growing chorus among German politicians willing to cut a deal with Assad.

Of Dialogue and Deterrence — Germany needs to learn how to play hardball

The German desire to pursue cooperation with Russia is deeply wired into Berlin’s foreign policy traditions. Ever since the introduction of the new Eastern policy or Neue Ostpolitik in the late 1960s, Germany has hoped to effect change in Eastern Europe by embracing Moscow. While that policy helped during détente, its contribution to the end of the Soviet Union is greatly exaggerated in Germany’s foreign policy circles. There’s a great irony in this argument: Though even the proponents of outreach to Moscow acknowledge that the new Eastern policy was essentially a contribution to regime change in Moscow, the self-proclaimed descendants of that policy always maintain that they do not want the regime to change, arguing that whatever might come next in Moscow could well be worse. In the same vein, Social Democrats want to dangle another carrot, hoping to sell Russia on the idea of a free-trade zone ranging from the Atlantic to the Pacific — even as the same party still frets about a free trade deal with the United States.

All this prompts the question: Why does German self-delusion in foreign policymaking matter? Germany is not the first or only country to maintain self-delusions in its foreign policymaking, but its geopolitical position renders its self-delusions particularly important matters for two reasons. First, Germany is chairing the OSCE at a critical juncture. Though no one can say for certain what Russia’s endgame in Ukraine is, the Kremlin is definitely hoping to undercut not only Ukrainian sovereignty, but the European security architecture as a whole. It does not accept the sovereignty of any former Soviet state, it disregards the principles laid down in the OSCE and the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act, it has withdrawn from the CFE (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) Treaty and violated numerous others, and it seeks to institutionalize its veto power over Ukraine’s future by freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

What would a freezing of the war in eastern Ukraine look like? The Kremlin clearly hopes to see the sanctions under which it suffers lifted without having to pull out of eastern Ukraine. Were it to succeed, it would constitute a tacit acknowledgement by Western powers that Russian forces would stay in eastern Ukraine, and the conflict would effectively be frozen. German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel voiced his support for such a premature easing of sanctions, hastening to add that this was his private opinion. Foreign Minister Steinmeier wants to begin this process by re-inviting Russia into the G7. So far, these voices have not carried the day, but now even the head of the sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU has paid a visit to the Kremlin. Easing out of sanctions, even with continued Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine has become known as “decoupling.” Sanctions, it is said in Berlin, could be eased to incentivize further progress on Russia’s part. Yet decoupling sanctions would be the final and most important step towards freezing the conflict and would destroy what little leverage the West has over the Kremlin in a goodwill gesture destined to fail. When German policymakers argue for the removal of sanctions without a re-establishment of Ukrainian control over eastern Ukraine, they must realize that while Russia may be seeking a frozen conflict, it is Germany that would be doing the freezing.

That leads to the second reason why Germany’s self-delusions matter. Its constant display of goodwill toward Russia is often combined with lip service to NATO’s promise of common defense and the idea of deterrence. There is little reflection, however, on what deterrence would entail. Analytically, deterrence is the credible promise to disproportionately overreact. For deterrence to be credible, aggressions that would not trigger the promise of deterrence must be met with proportional responses. That does not mean that in response to the war in Ukraine, NATO should have intervened militarily itself. But it does mean that NATO should have done something proportional the moment little green men entered Crimea. Put differently, massive economic sanctions should have immediately followed. Instead, the Western powers — led by Berlin — chose to underreact. They dragged out the imposition of sanctions and only pulled the trigger after the Malaysian airliner was shot down by separatist forces, long after regular Russian units had made massive inroads into eastern Ukraine. When military aggression that challenges the foundation of Europe’s security is not met proportionally, why should the Kremlin ever believe that Berlin will keep its vague promise of deterrence? This is why Germany’s actual allies suspect that should little green men ever show up in the Baltics, Berlin will set up another Normandy-like format rather than mobilize troops.


Dustin Dehez is Managing partner at Manatee Global Advisors, an international strategy consultancy. He is a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States and the Young Foreign Policy Working Group of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation. His first book, Kalter Kaffee in Tiflis, was published by Random House in 2013 in Germany. Follow him on twitter @dustindehez.


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