Germany’s role in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia is that of a neutral arbiter, at least if the German government’s position is to be taken at face value (even though one is led to wonder why a western country would want to be neutral in this conflict). But in reality, Berlin seems much more interested in restoring good relations with Russia than in preventing another frozen conflict on European soil. What is so difficult to grasp, however, is why this government officially shared western concerns and then did its utmost to stop any decisive action in the face of the most daring aggression Europe has witnessed in decades?
It seems that two aspects might offer a glimpse into what drives German foreign policy at this stage. The first involves a fundamental misreading of what the Kremlin is trying to achieve. The second aspect, even more worryingly, is a considerable confusion among the political elite regarding the purposes of the instruments of diplomacy. The implications are frightening: Steinmeier and the government’s envoy for Eastern Europe and Russia, Gernot Erler, are putting the brakes on any action Europe considers. Yet, what they fail to realise is that by doing so, they invite further aggression.
Misreading Russian intentions
When Russian soldiers began occupying administrative buildings in Crimea, western nations were still struggling to understand Russian objectives. The Kremlin insisted that the “little green men” were local self-defence forces. European and American leaders still considered what had started in Moldova and continued in Georgia in 2008 as isolated conflicts. But with Russia beginning to encircle Ukrainian bases in Crimea, a pattern had in fact emerged. In what was blatant aggression, the Kremlin simply redrew the borders of Europe, casting aside international law and agreements signed by the Kremlin itself. Yet, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, certainly anticipated his revanchist policies would elicit some punitive action by western and European nations. Standing idly by was not an option if the West wanted to avoid similar episodes in the future. Standing by, however, is exactly what the West did. And few nations put as much effort into doing nothing as Germany.
The Kremlin masterfully played western sentiments against western interests and nowhere did this strategy work as well as in Germany. A recent poll conducted on behalf of Germany’s foreign ministry found that 51 per cent of Germans think the most important goal of foreign policy is world peace. The same poll found that a meagre 15 per cent want Germany to defend freedom. Unsurprisingly, German diplomacy was hesitant to embrace sanctions. Steinmeier portrayed diplomacy as the opposite of sanctions and argued that pursuing sanctions would harm diplomatic efforts.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, devised a strategy that took German sentiments into account and offered small steps that could, with an abundance of optimism, be interpreted as tentative signs of de-escalation. It created the impression that Germany’s quest for a diplomatic solution was not totally in vain, even though Russia significantly upped the ante shortly after making the smallest conciliatory gestures. The strategy worked. Berlin never embraced sanctions and became convinced that a diplomatic solution was just around the corner.
On July 2nd 2014, shortly before the Malaysian airliner was shot down,the German government invited the Russian, Ukrainian and French foreign ministers to Berlin and exerted pressure on Ukraine to sign a ceasefire, even though Ukrainian forces were finally beginning to seize the initiative on the battlefield. Germany tried again for a ceasefire on August 17th, even though the rebel forces seemed on the verge of collapse. If preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and deterring future aggression was to be the driving motivation of German foreign policy, than its policies did not make any sense. To the contrary, the moment Ukrainian forces could be expected to re-establish control, Berlin was doing its utmost to freeze the conflict.
The push for a ceasefire coupled with the establishment of a contact group would cement the gains achieved by rebel forces. It would create exactly the sort of frozen conflict that Putin wanted to achieve in the first place.
From the start of the conflict, Germany proposed a contact group to initiate a diplomatic process. Tellingly, it never went into more detail about the contact group’s purpose. After Russia had first seized and then annexed Crimea, Steinmeier and Erler were eager to return to the status quo. Effectively acknowledging the loss of Crimea, they worked hard to reinstate good relations with the Kremlin and continue the policy Steinmeier had created during his first stint as foreign minister, called the modernisation partnership (Modernisierungspartnerschaft).
The partnership was built on the premise that good trade relations would eventually foster liberalisation and modernisation of Russia itself. When first proposed, it seemed like a good idea and allowed Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, to claim foreign policy as a field in which Social Democrats excel. After all, had it not been Willy Brandt, Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor, who had introduced the new Eastern policy (Neue Ostpolitik) and its unique approach described as change through rapprochement (Wandel durch Annäherung)?
The new Eastern policy was meant to bridge the gap between the East and the West during the Cold War, building trust and confidence whilst reducing the threat of war. Until today, the approach is considered a resounding success. It was the first time Germany did not simply follow its western allies after the end of the Second World War, but designed and implemented its own foreign policy.
The modernisation partnership was meant to replicate that success even though it ignored some basic realities. The most obvious is the different nature of the world today. Eastern European nations now follow their own political interests and no longer serve as Soviet proxies, yet more than the new Eastern policy, the modernisation partnership is centred on Russia alone. Put differently, even though Eastern Europe is more heterogeneous and complex than ever, Germany’s foreign policy towards the East is focused primarily on one country, Russia.
Secondly, the new Eastern policy of the 1960s and 1970s was first and foremost of a political nature, whereas the modernisation partnership is solely built around trade and economic relations. The results thus far have been devastating. Nearly a decade after Steinmeier launched the modernisation partnership Russia is more authoritarian and aggressive than it has ever been since the fall of the Berlin wall.
The modernisation partnership did more than simply forge a closer relationship with Russia. Steinmeier had effectively re-positioned German foreign policy. Berlin had embraced a policy of equal distance to both the West and Russia. While the institutional framework might suggest otherwise, Berlin is in fact no longer a staunch western ally.
The crisis Russia has created in Ukraine constitutes the most serious aggression the continent had witnessed in decades. Russian-led separatists have established a reign of terror in the territories they control, taken hostages, shot down planes and tortured and executed opponents. Yet, German foreign policy is still driven by the desire to return to the economically beneficial relationship that dominated its approach to Russia over the past several years. To that end, the German government seemed ready to sacrifice not just the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also its relationship with its Eastern European allies. If good policy is about adapting to the changing nature of the conflict, then German foreign policy would fail any test. Yet, if its goal is simply to salvage beneficial relations with Russia, no matter what happens to Ukraine, it makes perfect sense.
Still, Steinmeier is genuine in his desire to establish peace. But this time around, his good intentions clearly pave an autobahn to hell and his stubborn insistence on peace, even if it means abandoning freedom, the rule of law, and nurturing aggression is as ill-fated as it is naïve. The reluctance with which Germany reacted to the annexation of Crimea invited Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the many chess-related metaphors, the current crisis seems more like a game of poker. The German position involves throwing away all its cards, boldly declaring that it will not pick up any new ones, hoping to achieve a draw. It even managed to call this approach diplomacy. When the dust over the ruins of Donetsk settles, Germany will have to re-examine its policies. More than anyone else, intentionally or not, Berlin has contributed to the prolonging of the crisis. And more than any other western party, Berlin needs to take a hard look at what it has done over the past couple of months.
Dustin Dehez is a managing partner at Manatee Global Advisors, a German-based political and international relations consultancy firm.