Ukraine Crisis: Where Will Germany Go?

Germany is a powerful nation, but its power is confined. The Ukraine crisis demonstrates the necessity of a new German policy towards Russia. Despite its reluctance, Germany must embrace its strength and become the confident leader Europe needs. Pressure is mounting and time may be running out.

Posted on 04/18/14
By Alexander Müller | Via Turkish Weekly
German and Russian flags. (Photo by One Way Stock, Creative Commons License)
German and Russian flags. (Photo by One Way Stock, Creative Commons License)

The ongoing political tensions between Russia and the West surrounding Crimea, and the continuing social unrests in Ukraine, serve as a trial for German foreign policy. Germany is expected to figure prominently in the crisis given the strong ties between Moscow and Berlin. The crisis may also demonstrate that Germany’s policy towards Russia could risk becoming obsolete, and that the German-Russian relationship appears to have arrived at a crossroads. The Ukraine crisis should therefore compel Germany to assume European leadership and to shoulder greater international responsibility. Germany has considerable resources but also suffers from considerable constraints. Specifically, the major obstacle to benign German hegemony may be the Germans themselves.


Foundations of power

Germany has often been coined an economic giant and a political dwarf. German power is strongly correlated to its economic muscle. It is officially ranked 4th worldwide in terms GDP. It exercises its power through groupings such as the G8. This bestows the country with international influence, eminence, and relative independence in decision-making. Furthermore, Germany emerged from the financial and Euro crises relatively unscathed and in good condition compared to other European countries. The success of German economic power stems from a solid manufacturing base, and the presence of globally operating German enterprises that draw worldwide admiration. Nevertheless, the country has been criticized for its strong export-oriented economy and budget surplus.


Geography constitutes another important factor in German power. Located in the heart of Europe, it lies at a central crossroads of trans-European flows of goods, services, people and capital. As a result of its location, it retains strong economic, political and social ties with its neighbors. If Germany desires to assume leadership in the EU, it should capitalize on such relations in order to gain the favor and confidence of its partners. Concurrently, Germany must act as a mediator between the different views, interests and attitudes prevalent in Europe. Though Germany remains a large country, it is too weak and too small to dominate the continent. German power is therefore dependent on the relations with its European neighbors and the ability to cooperate with them.


Germany and the EU

Since German power is embedded within a European context, the EU both enhances and impedes German foreign policy capabilities. The EU provides Germany with a mechanism and network of cooperation through which it can interact with its neighbors and merge the different interests and viewpoints. In addition, by being integrated in Europe, Germany is protected from geopolitical isolation and it remains a key anchor in European stability. Given its EU membership, Germany’s weight in European and global politics is multiplied, which enhances its ability to shape policy. If Berlin manages to assert its position within the EU, it will receive the support of a potent union of 28 states including two classical great powers with Britain and France. However, it faces the challenging task of incorporating and balancing the interests of its key partners, whilst preserving European unity when it comes to foreign policy.


More importantly, Germany has been a driving force for European integration and in EU political reform. It rose to this position during the Euro crisis as a result of its aptitude for sustainable crisis management. Hence, it must aid the Eurozone in recovering from the crisis and developing towards a fiscal union. Nevertheless, Germany’s role should not be confined to the stewardship of Europe’s economics and finances. If German politicians could relieve themselves of the Ostpolitik, it may induce a fresh start and renewed commitment to a common European foreign policy.


Ostpolitik: Outdated or in need of revision?

Germany’s relations with Eastern Europe and Russia were generally pursued within the framework of the country’s Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy). Conceived by the Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1960s, the policy was based on mutual dialogue and détente, and advocated the belief that bilateral trade, cultural exchange, and personal contacts would gradually erode communism over time. However, Germany’s recurrent attempts at modernizing Russia’s economy, and thereby developing its political system, have failed. Reforms have not compelled Russia to realign itself with and join the West in some form of associate capacity. Investing considerable economic, political and social capital in its relations with Russia, Germany may have realized that those efforts have been to no avail.


The Ukraine crisis demonstrates the necessity of a new German policy towards Russia. Berlin has been intent on consistently pursuing a diplomatic track with Moscow, with the aim of deescalating the crisis. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel hoped that Russia would fulfill its obligations and agree to an international “contact-group”, in order to initiate some form of dialogue between Moscow and the transition government in Kiev. Conversely, the Kremlin signaled that is has no intentions of negotiating with Ukraine’s interim leaders, which it accuses of being radical, violent, corrupt and incompetent. Germany was forced to conclude that Russia is unwilling to cooperate or deescalate. This proved a major blow for German diplomacy but also acted as a catalyst to re-think its relations with Russia. Rejection of German diplomatic efforts on part of Russia may cost Moscow its most valuable ally in Europe. The Kremlin has often employed Germany to advance its interests in the EU and thwart European initiatives harmful to Russia. For certain, the Ostpolitik is outdated and in need of urgent overhaul.


Enter Merkel 

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has assumed a more hardline approach towards Russia. Ms. Merkel repeatedly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin in attempting to steer Russia’s neighbors away from the EU. She also remains outspoken about the Kremlin’s attempt to quell the media, banning NGO’s on the basis of espionage accusations, the spread of corruption, and violation of human rights. Previous Chancellors rarely dared to address such issues and Merkel’s predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, considers Putin as “an impeccable democrat”.


From a European perspective, Ms. Merkel’s tough stance towards the Russian regime has fostered a sense of unity within the EU regarding Moscow. Merkel’s ability to match hard words with concrete action, such as approving the first phase of sanctions, may have tied her hands. Merkel may talk tough but she remains reluctant to oppose the Kremlin, given her strong influence in Moscow. However, retreating now would undermine this rare occasion of European unity and cohesion. The time has for Germany to decide whether it values its relations more with Brussels or Moscow, or whether it will opt for a middle-route.


Internal opposition

In truth, Germany may appear reluctant to confront Russia since German political culture restrains action. German political elites do not wish to risk irritating Russia nor are they willing to jeopardize their economic ties with Moscow. A new German foreign policy is constrained by the preference of German politicians to maintain the status quo rather than altering it. Thus, the substance of Ostpolitik has become distorted. Vital normative components are excluded, with the main focus concentrating on trade and economic exchange. The Ostpolitik is ultimately pursuing an obsolete strategy, hoping that commercial activities will induce societal change in authoritarian countries.


The main opposition to Merkel and a new German foreign policy may originate from within government circles. The Social Democrats are traditionally perceived as Russian sympathizers and favor the Ostpolitik approach. Merkel’s coalition partners believe that a modern and contemporary version of Ostpolitik offers the best approach for fostering change and democratic transition in Russia. The Christian Democrats condemned Russia for its deteriorating human rights record and suppression of pro-democracy movements, while the Social democrats toned-down the rhetoric and the language and continue to see Russia as an indispensable partner. Obviously the difference in values, interests and obligations has spawned a rift within the German coalition government. The Social Democrats may undermine European unity given their pro-Russian stance. A fractured German policy and the accompanying fissures would have serious ramifications on the EU’s response.


The economics of a partnership

Critics have accused Germany of not getting tough with Russia due to the country’s strong ties with Moscow. Bilateral trade is at a record high of €76 billion, and Germany enjoys a lucrative relation with the Kremlin given that 6,500 German firms operate in Russia. As such, German businesses and lobbyists have heavily criticized Merkel’s policies for further EU sanctions. Industry leaders argue that damaged trade ties would jeopardize investments, and invite potential Russian retaliation via property confiscation and asset freezes. The unenviable position of imposing economic sanctions against Russia would not only hurt German firms but also exhaust diplomatic alternatives and end the Ostpolitik. German politicians remain intent on keeping the Ostpolitik on life-support. However, Merkel downplayed such allegations and stated that Germany could absorb the loss of Russian trade incomes. In part, the interdependence is reversed. Germany is Russia’s 3rd biggest trading partner whereas Russia only achieves rank 11 on Germany’s customer list. Nevertheless, only time will tell whether Germany manages to balance its economic and political interests concerning Russia.


Europe’s anti-power

The ultimate obstacle to a more active German foreign policy continues to be the German public and popular political mentalities. German society has a profound aversion to all things military, and the public is convinced that the use of force is wrong. This pacifist outlook has rebuffed its allied partners. However, Germany’s allies expect it to share in the burden and participate in military operations and not just provide logistical support. Germany also has no national narrative to reinforce its foreign policy. Germans do not consider themselves defenders of universal values or international peace. The country has developed the notion of an “antipower”. Upon the collapse of the Nazi regime, Germany constructed its political identity and social system around the rejection of classic power politics.


Germany’s role as conductor of European affairs is also inhibited by an outdated strategic culture. It remains timid, pacifist and avoids strategic discourse. 50 years of allied custodianship relieved Germany of the need to defend itself and guarantee its survival. This bred a culture of irresponsibility and ignorance. Germany abstained in Libya, caveats emerged in Afghanistan, it chartered its own path during the Eurocrisis, and remains reluctant to contribute to NATO development. It continues to rely on its allies for security, which undermines its foreign policy capabilities, as Germans do not view military power as a useful tool in achieving geopolitical objectives. Germany refuses to assume leadership given the feelings of guilt and reservation prevalent in Germany since the Second World War. German prefers to lead from the rear and remain politically modest. Berlin does not realize how important Germany is in global affairs nor does the German government seek to exploit its power on the international stage.


Conclusion: A more engaged Germany?

For one, the crises in Ukraine and Crimea have compelled Berlin to re-evaluate the nature of its relationship with Russia. It is no longer Moscow’s advocate, but it has failed to formulate a strategic vision of both Germany’s and Europe’s future relations with Moscow. In this regard, German politicians should abandon the Ostpolitik since it does not correspond to current political realities, and is no longer applicable to Germany’s relationship with Russia. Instead, Berlin should tackle the challenging security and geopolitical questions materialized by today’s interdependent, globalized and multipolar world.


Germany needs to provide leadership in a EU seeking to reform and re-energize itself. It must foster a new sense of identity, mission and purpose within the union. Berlin also has the eminent role of shaping a unified and coherent EU foreign policy. Yet so far Berlin has been found wanting on leadership and strategizing. If Germany manages to discard the obsolete Ostpolitik, then it could consolidate the EU around a long-overdue European foreign policy, especially towards Russia.


Germany is a powerful nation, but its power is confined. Despite its reluctance, Germany must embrace its strength and become the confident leader Europe needs. Pressure is mounting and time may be running out. The US is disengaging from Europe and shifting its attention towards Asia. Washington is indisposed to invest in European security or managing crises in the EU’s neighborhood. To maximize its potential and international profile, Germany must work with and capitalize on its good relations with European and global partners. Berlin’s future approach should be characterized by cooperation with France in Africa, and with Poland in Eastern Europe.


However, it remains to be seen whether the shift in German-Russian relations will induce Berlin to become more active on the European and global scene. Nevertheless, without a strong and assertive Germany there can be no strong, self-confident, harmonious EU. Germany must start investing in an order from which it benefitted during the past decades.


This article first appeared in the Turkish Weekly. Click here to go to the original.

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