Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Road To Resetting Moscow Ties Passes Through Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Berlin in 2009
Many European commentators have characterized U.S. President Barack Obama’s refusal to attend a May U.S.-European summit as a snub. It provides convincing evidence that the Americans have lost interest in Europe, and they are preoccupied with the awakening giant in Asia -- China. Others note that their colleagues have no cause to be upset because there is no pressing reason for a summit and the Obama administration is merely acknowledging that fact.

But there is a compelling reason for a U.S.-EU May summit: to formulate a common Western response to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal that a new European security system be constructed to replace the existing, “dysfunctional” one. Also a host of disputes need to be addressed, including Russian-Georgian enmity.

To a significant degree, a common resolute, European approach to Russia depends largely upon one country, Germany, so the meeting place should be Berlin. Germany enjoys a special relationship with Moscow that cannot be matched by London, Paris, or Rome. This relationship rests on a number of factors.

The first involves extensive commercial relations that are likely to expand further over time. In Germany’s case, economic growth based on exports has fed a social contract that has fostered stability within the country for decades -- a condition deemed more important by German leaders than the projection of German power abroad. In Russia’s case, economic prosperity is vital to those who want to restore the power of the state so that it is capable of projecting power outside of Russia’s borders. Simultaneously, it is critical to those who wish to modernize Russia so that it can function like a “normal” European country and one day enjoy true democracy.

Germany depends upon Russia for 46 percent of its natural gas and 36 percent of its oil. The export-driven German business community in turn looks with great expectation toward 140 million plus Russian customers for its products. The existing economic crisis and reports that China will soon replace Germany as the world’s premier exporter are powerful incentives for Berlin looking with even greater expectations toward expanding economic opportunities with Moscow.

Conversely, in addition to the vast profits that Russia earns from its hydrocarbon sales, it relies upon economic and technological transfers from Germany to help the Kremlin in its drive to modernize and diversify Russia’s economy. Last July, when Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Medvedev to discuss economic relations, the meeting ended with the announcement that Berlin would provide a 500 million euro ($678 million) credit to help Russia purchase German goods and industrial installations.

This year the Nord Stream project -- the German-Russian joint venture to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea -- has been finalized in the face of bitter opposition from the Baltic countries and Poland. They characterize it as environmentally dangerous and a threat to their economic security. Such complaints are ignored by many in Germany as further evidence that the Poles and Balts remain mired in Cold War enmity and therefore are incapable of developing harmonious relations with Russia. In short, their “obstructionist” policies are providing a new line of friction between East and West.

Here we see another basis for German-Russian harmony. Neither side believes the other represents a military threat. Consequently, Merkel has given lip service to further NATO enlargement eastward, but she tipped her hand at the last NATO summit when she said that the door for membership remained open to Georgia and Ukraine but not at “this time.”

A third and more recent reason why the German ruling elite is disinclined to support a common approach to the Russian question is growing doubt about the viability of the European Project. Many Germans are having second thoughts about the wisdom of surrendering their currency to the eurozone. German business interests, taxpayers, and workers fear that they ultimately will pay much of the bill associated with the capricious fiscal practices of Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.

To make matters worse, the long-anticipated Lisbon treaty has not provided the EU with a stronger executive, but with four weak and competing entities that defuse power in Brussels. It does not help either that the two recent additions to the EU’s governing bodies have been characterized as “nobodies.” The blase attitude of the continent’s voters toward European parliamentary elections and the growing influence of Euro-skeptics in Brussels also have led leaders in Europe’s largest country to conclude that Germany’s authority has been diminished as a consequence of its association with the EU.

At the same time, complaints about the British and French acting as if they, and not Germany, were the true powerhouse of Europe continue to resonate in German ruling circles. German leaders also deem it unseemly that the British “poodle” continues to support whatever policy is hatched in Washington. Likewise, they find it pretentious that their French counterparts continue to harbor international ambitions that far exceed their capabilities.

Russia's New Security System

German-American relations have improved with a new occupant in the White House, but differences over how to handle the current global economic crisis, how to engage Russia, and how to handle NATO’s out-of-area missions -- most specifically military operations in Afghanistan -- linger. Moreover, while some in Berlin applaud a lower U.S. profile in Europe, many of these same commentators harbor fears about an American-Russian condominium. Still others complain that the United States has little time for Europe as it courts the Chinese and Indians in an attempt to sell the Asians American, and not German, products. Obama’s decision not to attend the EU May summit has been cited to justify this claim.

It is against this backdrop that Medvedev’s call for a new European security system should be considered. Let us concede that there are influential members of the Kremlin leadership that truly desire joint-security ventures with the West -- to stabilize Europe through arms control, confidence building, and crisis-management measures; to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons and fissile material to rogue states and terrorist cells; and to construct an antimissile system that protects Americans, Europeans, and Russians alike. For these reform-minded individuals this is the road to East-West cooperation, one they hope ultimately leads to a stable and prosperous Russia functioning like a “normal” European country. Consequently, those in Russia who favor democratic reform are especially eager to enjoy comprehensive joint ventures with the West.

But what about the Kremlin hardliners who harbor neo-imperialist ambitions? Well, even they may be prepared to cooperate with the West on vital security matters if only on an ad hoc basis. The current economic crisis has compelled many of them to acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, that their drive to restore Russia’s power is hopeless without close cooperation with the West on a range of fronts -- diplomatic, economic, and military.

OK, but what about those hardliners in Russia who view the Medvedev proposal as a chance to foster disunity in the trans-Atlantic alliance? Well, those who think in such confrontational terms clearly see Berlin’s growing reservations about the EU and NATO as an opportunity to divide the West while enhancing Russia’s influence in the process. Dissolving both pillars of the Western alliance is beyond their reach, but if Germany rejects a common approach to Russia in favor of a bilateral one, both bodies can be marginalized.

It would be a major function of the proposed U.S.-EU summit to convince Berlin that a unified approach to Russia is in Germany’s vital national interest.

Once again, the linkage between economic and national security comes into play. Only this time, stunned by the realization that Germany’s past economic successes will not be guaranteed in a global economic system undergoing monumental shocks, prudent members of the ruling elite may conclude that Germany’s interests will be better served if they confront global turmoil as part of a powerful and unified West, rather than as a lone actor.

What is more, important developments are changing the dynamics of the German-Russian energy relationship. Many energy experts believe that Russia cannot provide the product to make the Nord Stream project an economic success, while new sources of natural gas are becoming available on the world market as a result of technological breakthroughs in extraction.

These and other matters could be discussed at a summit with the purpose of maintaining good economic relations with Russia while making certain that they don’t cause serious friction among alliance members.

Finally, U.S. foreign-policy makers have a stake in improving relations with Berlin that have been sullied over differences associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, the proper response to the global economic crisis, as well as conflicting views regarding relations with Moscow. To promote more harmonious relations with the largest and richest country in Europe, the United States could develop a special working group with Germany to resolve -- or at least mollify -- outstanding differences between both countries.

Washington, in short, should acknowledge that it must reengage Berlin at the same time that it resumes relations with Moscow. A May summit in Berlin could advance that agenda.

Richard J. Krickus is a professor emeritus at Mary Washington University and is the author of “Medvedev’s Plan: Giving Russia A Voice But Not A Veto In A New European Security System.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.