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Germany's relations with Russia: willing fools or trusted intermediaries? Stuart McMillan comments on the global impact of the relationship between Berlin and Moscow.

Europe's problems have been compounded by rising tensions between Russia and Europe and Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. These have been exacerbated by a number of developments, including Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria. Sanctions have been imposed on Russia by the West. For some years during the Cold War the then West Germany adopted policies towards the then Soviet Union that helped to maintain peace. That traditional role between Germany and Russia, now under severe challenges, will be critical in maintaining peace on the European and Euro-Asian continents in the decades ahead.


In his thriller, 2017: War With Russia, Sir Richard Shirreff, a general formerly deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, gives short shrift to the Germans. According to the Financial Times, which has seen the book, the German leaders are craven apologists for Moscow and the Russian foreign minister is made to say: 'In Germany we can count on the willing fools which believe what they read about Russia in Spiegel'.

As the title suggests, the book is an apocalyptic treatment. But ShirrefF, who appeared on TV One's Q+A programme in May, was not much less apocalyptic when he spoke as an analyst. Other senior NATO officials have been warning about dangerous developments in Russia and Europe.

The big question in this is what role Germany will play. The country has long seen itself, and been, the main interlocutor between Russia and the West. In this role it has had a modifying effect on some of the more confrontational attitudes embraced by various other countries in Western or Eastern Europe, by NATO and by the United States. That mediatory role, most evident during the Cold War but continued later, has been appreciated by Russia.

Much will depend on how Angela Merkel, federal chancellor of Germany, and Vladimir Putin, president of the Russia Federation, get on with one another. Merkel became Germany's chancellor in 2005. While Dimitri Medvedev was president of Russia, Merkel cultivated good relations with Russia. It had been predicted that because of her East Germany origins she would take a tougher stand against Russia. Although she proved more outspoken than some of her predecessors, she did not abandon the policy under which a number of West German chancellors, particularly, but not exclusively, Willy Brandt of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), nursed West Germany's relationship with the then Soviet Union. West Germany recognised a number of countries then under Soviet domination, including East Germany. This policy of rapprochement, known as ostpolitik, led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the reuniting of the German people and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The reunited Germany continued the special relationship it had had with the Soviet Union after that country had become the Russian Federation.



The reuniting of the German peoples and the avoidance of war were strong West German motivations in ostpolitik. So, too, was a sense of German guilt towards Russia over the Second World War and the loss of millions of Russian lives during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The Russian intervention in Georgia and Russia's recognition of South Ossetia occurred while Medvedev was president, but Merkel continued good relations with Russia after that.

When Vladimir Putin reassumed the presidency of Russia, Merkel lost faith in him initially because of a number of human rights incidents. These included the arrest of members of Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk band which, among other performances, produced a video called 'Punk Prayer--Mother of God Chase Putin Away'. The group considered Putin a dictator and objected to the Russian Orthodox Church assisting his election. Merkel also objected to Russian restrictions on homosexuals and to moves forcing non-government organisations that received foreign funding to register as foreign agents.

Merkel and Putin nevertherless talked to one another frequently. They had no difficulty communicating: having been brought up in East Germany, she speaks Russian; having been a KGB agent in Dresden, he speaks German.

But it was the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the subsequent referendum and the Russian intervention in Ukraine, most apparent by November of that year, that brought about a dramatic change. The European Union, the United States and a number of other countries imposed sanctions on Russia, froze the assets of a number of Russians and imposed a limited number of travel bans. Merkel led the EU move. Although she was under pressure from the United States to adopt that stand, she did so with apparent conviction, even if doubts have been raised about her personal enthusiasm. (1)


Various constraints

In dealing with Russia, Merkel faced and still faces various political, historical and business constraints. First, she is aware that in the former East Germany there is a readier acceptance both of Russia's annexation of Crimea and Russia's seeming resolve to exert a sphere of influence in Ukraine. Germany also has hundreds of thousands of migrants, many living in the former East Germany, from Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Most migrated there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secondly, views favouring ostpolitik are strong within Germany. Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, of the SDP, which is in a grand coalition with the Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), continues to believe in ostpolitik despite its belief having taken a few knocks. For a while views being put forward by Steinmeier and Merkel seemed inconsistent with each other, though Steinmeier eventually moved his pronouncements closer to those of Merkel. A former chancellor, Gerhard Shroeder, of the SDP, is friends with Putin and celebrated his 70th birthday with him (though he was much criticised within Germany for doing so). Schroeder is chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, a company which brings gas from Russia to Germany.

Thirdly, German business leaders, some of whom had major investments in Russia, were at first very reluctant to see sanctions placed on Russia. About 6000 German businesses invest in Russia. Their cumulated investments are worth about 20 billion [euro]. (2) Fourthly, a number of other European countries did not want to see sanctions placed on Russia. Europe is facing deep unemployment problems and anything limiting trade was bound to be viewed with reluctance. At the end of April this year the French National Assembly, for instance, voted to lift sanctions on Russia. Italy also opposes the sanctions. Moreover, the European Union was facing a eurozone crisis and tensions over the austerity measures, particularly in Greece, and Germany was getting some of the blame for the rigidity of the measures taken. Fifthly, much of Western Europe, including Germany, where nuclear power has been abolished, relies heavily on gas pumped from Russia. There is both Russian and German investment in the gas supply. Some other EU countries hold that Germany has pursued its own energy and economic interests with Russia while stifling the links that others have forged and argue that the establishment of the Nord Stream 2, whose pipeline goes under the Baltic Sea bypassing Ukraine and Poland, is against the spirit of the sanctions. The United States, Poland and the president of the European Council were among the critics of Nord Stream 2.

Hopes dashed

Putin at first hoped that the sanctions would be rejected or would fail. When it became clear that they would go ahead, he ordered retaliatory measures. They included bans on imported agricultural products and food imports from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Norway and Australia. Certain American and EU individuals were also banned from visiting Russia.

New Zealand was not included in the Russian list, but New Zealand agricultural exporters were asked by John Key, the prime minister, not to exploit the market gaps left by the bans on those named in the Russian sanctions. In 2010 New Zealand started negotiations with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the latter two in a customs union, for a comprehensive and modern free trade agreement. Progress was suspended in 2014 by New Zealand after the events in Ukraine.

For Russia the effect of the sanctions made its economic problems worse. The economy depended heavily on oil and gas exports and the country had been hit hard by a drop in the price of oil. For about three years from 2011, the price of oil was somewhere between US$90 and $120 a barrel. During 2015 it fell to half of that and by February of this year it was down to $30 a barrel.

German--Russian relations were further affected by two major developments in 2015: the increased number of people who migrated from the Middle East and Africa to Europe; and Russia's September intervention in Syria.

Although Greece and Italy, as the countries which were often the migrants' point of entry into Europe, were profoundly affected, Germany was at the heart of the issue. It was in Germany that many of the arriving peoples wanted to settle. Merkel extended a welcome to the migrants and refugees. She also took a lead within the European Union in promoting a plan to allocate the migrants and refugees to EU countries and the later plan of getting Turkey to accommodate refugees and to prevent them entering the European Union. Germany took more migrants than any other EU country.

Security risk

Medvedev, by then Russian prime minister, called Merkel's migration policy stupid. He commented that allowing migrants to enter Europe without controlling them was a security risk. He said: 'Some of these people--and it's not just a few strange individuals or utter scoundrels, but hundreds and possibly thousands--are entering Europe as potential time bombs, and they will fulfil their missions as robots when they are told to.' (3)

After Russia entered the Syrian conflict at the end of September 2015, the flow of migrants from Syria continued, a development that caused General Philip Breedlove, then NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, to draw the conclusion that: 'Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.' (4)

That view must have had wide currency in NATO. Shirreff, in his thriller, makes a Putin-like character say: 'My strategy of increasing the flow of refugees into Turkey by bombing civilian targets in Syria and so putting ever greater pressure on the EU has worked better than I ever thought possible.'

But is this true? Although there is little doubt that Merkel and the European Union were being undermined by the migration crisis, saying, as Breedlove did, that Syria and Russia were using it as a deliberate policy is sweeping. It could be considered more a dramatic flourish than as a solid piece of analysis. Russia was surely establishing itself as an important player in the Middle East when it sent bombers to Syria. It might have been pleased by the damage the migrant flow was having on Europe and the way in which it was undermining Merkel but probably considered those effects to be unintended consequences rather than a primary motivation.

Nevertheless, Russia exploited Europe's migration crisis in an information or misinformation campaign, About the same time as General Breedlove outlined his views, Janis Sarts, director of NATO's Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, based in Riga, Latvia, an organisation that became functional in 2014, argued that Russia was waging an information campaign intended to stir up anger in Germany over refugees, and was agitating against Merkel.

Solid evidence

There is solid evidence for Sarts's comment. The information campaign had begun before the heaviest flow of migration and was directed towards Russian speakers in Europe, including the Russiandeutsche, the ethnic Russians who emigrated to Germany. It initially sought to justify the annexation of Crimea and Russia's intervention in Ukraine, but later the focus was on the migration crisis. RT, once Russia Today, a government-funded network, and Sputnik International were the main networks, but there are alleged to be a very large number of people who are paid to flood social media sites with views compatible with those of the Kremlin. The official Russian view is that RT and Sputnik are challenging domination of news presentation by such organisations as the BBC, CNN and Deutsche Welle and are presenting a Russian viewpoint. RT has programmes broadcast in English, German, Spanish, French and Arabic as well as Russian. The information war is not one-way and Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, which receive US government funding, provide news and information to countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. The BBC broadcasts in Russian and other news organisations are available in Russia. Al Jazeera has a large audience.

An interesting example of the information war occurred at the beginning of this year. A 13-year-old girl of Russian origin living in Berlin disappeared for about 30 hours. She apparently told her mother that some Mediterranean-looking men had forced her into a car, taken her to an apartment and raped her. The Berlin police investigated and came to the conclusion that she was neither kidnapped nor raped but that she had spent the time with friends. The incident had happened after the sex attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve. The Berlin police were restrained in what they felt they could say because they did not want to reveal details that would harm the girl. Russian media made much of the story and social media in Germany was rampant. RT and Sputnik began covering the case in German. Even Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, asked why there had been a cover-up. This upset the German foreign minister, who blamed Russian propaganda. The Russian ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Grinin, was called in to the German foreign ministry and a protest delivered to him. Despite the police denials, the story that she had been kidnapped and raped, probably by Middle East men, persisted and there were a number of demonstrations alleging a cover-up and against immigration. The Russian versions of the incident made much of the fact that the girl was of Russian origin.

In March this year the BND, Germany's intelligence service, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution began an investigation to check whether Russia is using the old KGB methods in order to weaken the position of Angela Merkel. The focus is on the methods of disinformation. During the Cold War these were called 'active measures'. The investigation is being conducted on behalf of the German government. During the Munich Security Conference last year Merkel used the phrase 'hybrid warfare' referring to Russia. Hybrid warfare is generally defined as using conventional warfare methods by military means, irregular warfare, information warfare and cyber warfare. (5)

Newspaper stresses

It is probably easier to conduct an information or disinformation campaign now because of the stresses that Western media sources are under. Newspapers are struggling to survive. They have fewer staff, and those staff have less time to do analysis and investigations or to challenge what is being written, spoken or shown elsewhere. In many television networks audience ratings dominate, greatly limiting coverage. On the other side, there has been an outstanding growth in the blogosphere. Some blogs and websites are highly informed, but many do not feel the restraints of good journalistic practice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people tend to read only material that reflects their viewpoint. In the days of far fewer news sources there was a wider group of people reading, listening to or viewing the same sources, which helped the public discourse.

A notable example of how a newspaper can expose propaganda occurred during May when Le Petit Journal, a French newspaper, examined a Russian television broadcast that depicted France in chaos. Le Petit Journal consulted all those quoted on the Russian broadcast and found they had been misquoted and sometimes their comments had been invented. (6)

One of the effects of the migration crisis in Europe has been the growth in support for far right and anti-immigration parties, some of which are also anti-EU. Norbert Hofer, of the far right Freedom Party, was only narrowly defeated by Alexander Van der Bailen, an independent but formerly a Green, in an election for the presidency of Austria late in May. The Freedom Party is eurosceptic. Russia seems interested in encouraging divisions in Europe. A Russian bank has given a loan to France's National Front (FN), a socially conservative anti-immigration party that opposes the European Union. Marine Le Pen, its leader, had supported Russia over the annexation of Crimea. A number of other organisations of both left and right opposed to the European Union are reported to have received Russian loans. In the days of the Soviet Union an inclination towards the left was a requirement to arouse Soviet interest.

Military moves

Europe's tensions have been increased by military actions and statements. Russia has several times made specific reference to the use of nuclear weapons. Whether this is intended to make clear that no armed clash of any sort should occur is unclear. Russia has also developed a new nuclear missile, the SS-30, with independently-targetable warheads. The United States has withdrawn most of its non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe, but some remain there.

In May this year Germany decided to boost its troop numbers for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Part of the reason given was Russia's increased assertiveness.

Curtis Scaparrotti, a US Army general, has been appointed to replace General Breedlove as NATO commander. He previously headed the United Nations Command in South Korea. A resurgent Russia [is] striving to project itself as a world power,' Scaparrotti said after being sworn in on 4 May. He is also on record as saying: 'We face a resurgent Russia and its aggressive behaviour that challenges international norms.' He added that the Atlantic alliance's forces must be 'ready to fight should deterrence fail'.

Also during May the United States activated a missile shield in Romania. The shield is officially intended to provide protection from missile attacks from the Middle East, but Russia regards it as directed against Russia. A similar missile defence system is planned for Poland.

It is difficult to know how seriously to take the present threats. There is, for instance, a concern about the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Is Russia likely to move against them? Feeding those fears is the fact that there are large populations of ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking people within these states. During the time of the Soviet Union, the Baltic states were under Soviet domination. Part of the justification Russia used for intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea was that there were substantial numbers of Russian people in those areas and also that they traditionally were a part of Russia's sphere. The make-up of the populations and previously being within the Soviet bloc make for parallel conditions. Yet Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all members of NATO and any attack on them would bring about a NATO response. Putin has so far operated in circumstances in which there is not a direct risk of war. It is reasonable to assume that he will continue to make the same calculations.

Good reason

On the NATO side, besides any belief in the need for deterrence there is a good reason to call for more troops. Both of the leading candidates for the American presidency are putting forward the view that US allies should do more for their own defence. There is a profound belief within NATO, with considerable justification, that NATO relies on US commitment. So a boost in the troops of European NATO members might pre-empt criticism that US allies were not doing enough for themselves.

The fate of the German-Russian relationship does not depend on the two countries alone. How Merkel and Putin get on with one another will remain critical while they hold their present posts, but there is no reason to believe that their successors will not face the same or similar issues. The annexation of Crimea looks irreversible. Russia's hankering after the status it had when it was the Soviet Union will linger. Russia's sensitivity to any enlargement of NATO will persist. Russia will continue to believe that it needs geographical space between its borders and any threat it perceives.

In any case, there is no reason to believe that the Merkel--Putin relationship will remain frozen in the same shape. Merkel is a pragmatic politician much too sophisticated to put personal feelings or ideology in the way of maintaining peace in her time. If the absorption of the Middle East migrants in Germany is successful and not disrupted by acts of terrorism or other violence, the Russian propaganda campaign will either have to find another cause or taper off. What must persist is the conviction in Germany and Russia that if there is widespread conflict those two countries will be at the heart of it and suffer hugely.

Permanent damage

If Germany became merely subservient to the United States, whether through NATO or in some other way, the relationship would be permanently damaged. Enough Russians now believe that Germany simply reflects US policy. Germany would make a mistake if it abandoned its independent voice and approach.

The developments between Germany and Russia and more broadly NATO and Russia have implications for New Zealand. There are undoubtedly dangers for world peace in the situation as it has developed and is developing within Europe. The military moves make it clear that the tensions are not confined to rhetoric. New Zealand should avoid any action or statement that might cause Russia to think that its development or influence is being contained--a policy that New Zealand has adopted in relation to China. Similarly, it should use its influence within NATO, with which it has a partnership agreement, and within the Security Council to discourage any policies that might make Russia believe it is being contained. New Zealand should continue to embrace and advocate its well-established policies against nuclear proliferation and warfare. It should emphasise the rule of law and the norms of international behaviour.

Germany will continue to be highly significant in keeping peace with Russia. It would serve New Zealand's interest to encourage a continued independent German role in Europe and in dealing with Russia. Germany's approach is nuanced, not that of the 'willing fools' of General Sir Richard Shirreff's imaginings.

Stuart McMillan is a senior fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and NZIIA life member.



(2.) For an excellent treatment of shifting attitudes within the German political parties, public opinion and various groups in Germany see chathamhouse/publications/ia/INTA92_l_02_Forsberg. pdf.


(4.);www. html#axzz4815nff4N.

(5.) A Wilson Centre article thinks the term 'hybrid warfare' is inadequate to cover Russia's actions (www.wilsoncenter. org/sites/default/files/7-KENNAN%20CABLEROJANSKY%20KOFMAN.pdf).

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Author:McMillan, Stuart
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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