Foreign policy

Germany’s Next Russia Policy

Dmitry Stratievski considers the future of Russo-German relations under Berlin’s next government

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Photo: Scanpix

Germany’s parliamentary elections saw the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) take 25.7% of the vote, overtaking the centre-right CDU/CSU bloc, which slumped to 24.1%. Besides these two factions, the Bundestag will include the same parties as before: the Greens (14.8%), the FDP (11.5%), AfD (10.3%), and The Left (4.9%). How will these results impact German-Russian relations?

Scholz is not Schroeder

The potential members of a ruling coalition sat down for their initial negotiations not long after exit polls came in. At the moment, the most likely deal looks like a union between the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP. The results also make other coalitions arithmetically possible, such as continuing a ‘grand coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the SPD with the addition of the Greens and/or the Liberals (FDP). A union between the CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the FDP is another option. The latter option would leave the SPD outside the new government but is unlikely. That is why the current Social Democrat leader, vice chancellor, and finance minister Olaf Scholz has the best chances of becoming Germany’s next chancellor.

Scholz has been a serious political player for over two decades. All his work has been focused on internal politics and governance. Scholz held his last globally-oriented position in the late 1980s when he double hatted as the SPD youth wing’s deputy chairman and vice president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. He regularly made international visits deputising for Angela Merkel and as a candidate for chancellor, including to the United States in July 2021. But his foreign policy interests, like relations with eastern Europe, were always secondary. As mayor of Hamburg for seven years, Scholz never went out of his way to deal with Russian big business, unlike his predecessor Henning Voscherau, who became Chairman of the Board of Directors of South Steam Transport AG after resigning the mayorship. Scholz did meet with Russian counterparts at ceremonial functions, of course, as Hamburg is a sister city with Saint Petersburg. But he never expressed a special interest in Russia.

That said, a politician at his level cannot simply avoid commenting on the Kremlin’s activities. Especially during election season. Scholz’s comments on Russia last summer proved he is not ready to warm up to Moscow in the footsteps of another well-known Social Democrat, Gerhard Schroeder. Speaking at the influential German Council on Foreign Relations, the SDP candidate for chancellor emphasized the need for a “multilateral approach” to Russia. Messaging Moscow, he said, “if you are afraid of open societies in the West and in the European Union because you think that they can spread like a virus, then we cannot help you.” He assured Russia that “Europe does not contemplate a scenario other than peaceful cooperation” and hoped that Russian citizens will bring democracy to their own country. In an interview for Deutsche Welle, Scholz called on Russia to “return to the rule of law, might does not make right” and that “we need a new policy towards the east.” Scholz remains a strong advocate of a united Europe and supports delegating significant foreign policy powers to Brussels. Back in 2018, he spoke in favor of strengthening the EU, crafting an “all-European Eastern Policy,” and developing the OSCE as an “instrument of collective security.”

In September 2020, the weekly Die Zeit reported that Finance Minister Scholz offered U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin a deal to build two terminals for receiving American LNG at Berlin’s expense in exchange for Washington’s acquiescence to the construction of Nord Stream 2. Germany could have invested up to one billion euros into the project. Green candidates chastised Scholz for the alleged offer during the election; the federal government never confirmed whether such a deal was on the table.

If we deem Die Zeit’s information to be credible, then this step could not have been at Scholz’s own initiative. First, a minister cannot secretly appropriate such a huge sum of money for such a complex logistical project without the consent of the rest of the government and parliament. Second, such high-level affairs are not just discussed on the cabinet level, but on the coalition council. If Germany made such an offer, it naturally would have at least been approved by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Minister for Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier. Scholz is in line with the incumbent government’s support for the pipeline. When asked if Nord Stream 2’s construction would be halted by 2025, the SDP candidate gave a curt answer: “No.” Meanwhile, Scholz warned Russia against using the pipeline to put economic pressure on Kyiv. He clearly hinted at the threat of halting construction if problems arise: “The impairment of gas transit and the security of Ukraine will have consequences for the possible transit through the then-completed pipeline,” he sasid. “This has to be talked about.”

It is not yet clear which Social Democrats will get key positions dealing with Russia if their party takes charge. The ‘Russophile’ camp includes the Minister President of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania Manuela Schwesig; the SDP’s leader in the Bundestag Rolf Mützenich; and the SDP’s deputy leader Ralf Stegner. On the more critical side are incumbent Foreign Minister Heiko Maas; former Coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia Dirk Wiese; Foreign Office State Minister and former SDP committee chairman for foreign affairs Niels Annen; and his successor Nils Schmid. Germany’s complex political tradition hinders a more accurate political forecast. First, politicians change their issue priorities over the course of their careers. Maas headed the Ministry of Justice before becoming Foreign Minister. Schmid specialized in finance before winning a Bundestag seat in 2017. Wiese dealt with the economy. These career shifts are not unique to Social Democrats. The current chairman of the Bundestag’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, Norbert Röttgen (CDU), was a Minister for Environment. It cannot be ruled out that the next Social Democrats in key foreign policy posts will not have specialized experience in their fields.

Second, a politician’s importance does not equal influence on federal foreign policy. For example, Manuela Schwesig’s profile rose after winning success for her party at Landtag elections. She frequently defends Nord Stream 2, calls for easing sanctions on Russia (because they “have not achieved their goal”), and insisted on organizing ‘Russia Day’ events in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. Schwesig also co-founded a foundation with Gazprom. Even so, Germany’s regional leaders are practically removed from federal foreign policymaking. Schwesig, like her colleagues in Germany’s East, is simply out to maximize benefits for her region. They are willing to play the ‘Russian card’ to do so.

A “Green” pivot?

If the negotiations successfully lead to a new government of Social Democrats, Greens, and liberals, then a Green can aim for the post of foreign minister, which traditionally goes to the junior coalition partner in German politics. Since the Greens won almost 3% more votes than the Liberals, they have the senior privilege of selecting positions in government. Russian media is often concerned about a “Green” pivot in German foreign policy toward a tougher stance against Russia, a prediction shared by many Germans.

The Greens are the only party in Germany’s parliament that consistently resists the construction and activation of Nord Stream 2. Prominent Greens like the candidate for chancellor Annalena Baerbock, her party co-chair Robert Habeck, and foreign policy expert Cem Özdemir are well-known for their critical views of the Kremlin. Baerbock has called to “increase the pressure on Russia.” Habeck expressed openness to sending arms to Ukraine. Özdemir demanded that the EU sanction Russia for its actions in Syria. He sees Vladimir Putin as trying to “mobilize the masses for his politics with excessive nationalism” and “causing massive damage to his country.” Could a Green foreign minister actually have a strong influence on Germany’s Russia policy?

Only to a certain extent. The German political system contains an array of checks and counterweights that prevents the political decision-making process from falling into a single institution’s hands. Foreign policy is no exception. The Bundestag, particularly its Committee on Foreign Affairs, has the lead in this area. No serious strategic decision can be made without being discussed in parliament, which frequently exercises its power to block the government’s initiatives. The committee chairman’s portfolio traditionally goes to the leader of the party that formed the coalition, so he or she will most likely be a Social Democrat. The federal chancellor also has considerable influence on foreign policy. The Chancellery (Kanzleramt) has a directorate for foreign, security, and international development policy. This post’s occupant serves as the chancellor’s right hand and closest foreign policy advisor. Within this office, there is a department for eastern and central Europe, with its director serving as an intermediary between the Chancellery and the Foreign Office. It is not rare for officials to move from one center of power to another. Matthias Lüttenberg, the department’s director until June 2021, now works as the Foreign Office’s representative to the same region.

State secretaries in the Foreign Office, who are politically appointed like the minister, also wield significant influence. At the present moment, all four of them are SPD members. Once the new government is formed, these portfolios will go to the junior coalition partners. But because three parties will make up the new majority instead of two, it is likely that the Greens will not get every key post in the ministry.

It cannot be ruled out that the FDP’s liberals can seize some levers of power in foreign policy. Their position towards Russia and the Kremlin has changed depending on political circumstances. In their 2021 campaign platform, the FDP supports preserving the sanctions regime against Russia, urging that “Russia’s support for dictators like Alexander Lukashenko or Bashar al-Assad endangers international security, as does Kremlin-controlled disinformation campaigns and hacker attacks in Europe.” Yet it also notes that “Russia remains closely linked to Germany and Europe in human, cultural and economic terms.” Germany’s liberals have not always been so unequivocal. During the 2017 electoral season, FDP leader Christian Lindner called for accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea as the new status quo, saying that “security and prosperity in Europe also depend on relations with Moscow.” His party deputy, Wolfgang Kubicki, took a contrary stance on Russia. In response to the poisoning of Alexey Navalny in 2020, he suggested banning Russian gas imports, although two years earlier he called for a “critical review” of sanctions on Russia because they have “not made any discernible progress” toward de-escalation.

This is why a single party cannot form Germany’s foreign policy alone. It will have to partner up and make compromises.

Future trajectories

Scholz, as the most likely chancellor, will probably reflect the stable Euro-Atlantic wing of the Social Democratic establishment. His first priority will be domestic. Foreign policy will be focused on further strengthening EU institutions; countering ‘spoiler’ movements within the union; and maximizing Germany and the EU’s benefits from cooperation with President Joe Biden’s administration. Scholz is serious about the North Atlantic Alliance too. It is no accident the SDP candidate for chancellor said shortly before the elections that he would only form a government with the Left Party if they committed to NATO.

The ‘Eastern Policy’ (Ostpolitik) will not become a priority for Germany. This is not only due to Scholz’s personal interests. At the start of his tenure as foreign minister, Heiko Maas tried to bring more clarity and toughness to German-Russian relations, which spawned discussions of a possible end to Ostpolitik. He ultimately did not succeed — unable to find supporters within his own party or his partners in the CDU/CSU, including Chancellor Merkel. Scholz understands that views toward Russia within a possible ‘red, green, blue’ coalition will be even more contradictory. There are plenty of other sore points on the path to forming a new majority about which German society cares a lot more, including environmental policy and its potential cost, transitioning the economy to new energy sources, raising the minimum wage, and tax and healthcare reform. The three parties hardly see eye to eye on these issues.

The difficulty of distributing cabinet portfolios is also a factor. It is already known that the Greens and the Liberals want the same ministries. Scholz will be tempted to put ‘secondary’ problems on the back burner to avoid extra barriers for the new government. German-Russian relations could become a bargaining chip to toss into the mix. They can be left alone in their current half-frozen state, staying on Merkel’s course, and balancing the Greens’ “radicalism” with conciliatory signals from the Chancellery and from parliament. From Berlin’s point of view, there is no need for immediate action. For example, German-Russian trade is completely satisfactory to Berlin (especially in sensitive industries for Germany). Real change can only occur if current conflicts with Russia start to boil over or if new ones arise.

Whether one is hoping for the Social Democrats to improve bilateral relations or is counting on the Greens to toughen them, both sides are likely to be disappointed.

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