Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The Russian ‘taboo’ and the German election

When it comes to Germany and Russia, pragmatic economic interests run up against a philosophical commitment to human rights and a liberal European order, and adherence to the positions of NATO and the EU.

The German Christian Democrats Union (CDU) federal election campaign opening rally in Dortmund, Germany.
The German Christian Democrats Union (CDU) federal election campaign opening rally in Dortmund, Germany.
Published 22 Aug 2017 

We need to come out of the dead end … Something must be offered so that Putin can change his policy without a loss of face … To express a taboo: I fear that the Crimea must be regarded as a permanent provisional solution.

These words caused something of a sensation in Germany earlier this month. They were spoken by Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP) which, after the election on 24 September, will likely enter a governing coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and supply Germany’s next Foreign Minister. A possible occupant of that portfolio, Lindner’s colleague Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, defended the comments, even while stressing that his party had in no way become Putin apologists. The talk was of a ‘new start’ with Moscow, offering concessions even before Russia has fulfilled its obligations to the Minsk agreement.

Lindner was swiftly rebuked by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, along with a number of prominent figures within his own country. In the view of his critics, Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, its bellicosity in the Ukraine, its draconian treatment of homosexuals, and its disrespect for the rule of law and a free press together require a principled diplomatic distance on Germany’s part, whatever the economic or political cost. The problem, however, is that Lindner was articulating a major concern of his core constituency – the German business sector – which has become frustrated with the political stalemate. Even though its leading companies have rarely complained publicly, sanctions against Russia over the past three years have hurt German industry. The US Congress’ latest round of sanctions was widely seen as a cynical attempt to enhance America’s position in the European energy market, especially in light of the risk it poses to Nord Stream II, the planned natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. The FDP’s problem is that of Germany in microcosm: it must draw some consistency between pragmatic economic interests, its philosophical commitment to human rights and a liberal European order, and adherence to the positions of NATO and the EU.

But delve a little deeper, and it is clear that the ‘Russia problem’ in Germany extends far beyond this issue alone. For very different political reasons, Linder’s comments were welcomed by the Left party (die Linke), which has demonstrated an ambiguous relationship with Russia, to put it mildly. On the one hand, it shares Russia’s anti-NATO stance, and as such has refused to publicly condemn its annexation of the Crimea or its role in the Ukraine conflict. On the other, it has condemned Russia’s system of ‘mafia capitalism’ and contribution to the Syrian war. But this ambiguity is not limited to the far-left, as a slew of recent events has brightly illuminated: connections between the German far-right and Russia have assumed ever-greater levels of intimacy; former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has attracted the ire of both major parties for his impending appointment to the board of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil giant; and – most consequentially – the German public seems to share the cynicism and anger of its political class in relation to the American sanctions. Far from being a fringe issue, then, the spectre of Russia is haunting this election at every turn.

These flashpoints alone should demonstrate the meaninglessness of a basic ‘good Russia/bad Russia’ binary when applied to Germany. For Germans, it must be remembered, the Russian bear is no mere abstraction or remote bogeyman. There is a fallacy to think of Germany as geographically as well as culturally ‘Western’: in reality, its politics and history have long been determined as much by Russia as by France. There is a deeper history here, one that dates back centuries. Prussian and German leaders from Frederick the Great through Bismarck and beyond have always been forced to calculate Russia into their immediate foreign policy concerns. Angela Merkel inhabits a very different world and confronts a very different Russia, but the basic political problem remains essentially the same.

In Merkel’s Germany, relations between Russia and Germany run particularly deep. As a child in the German Democratic Republic, the Chancellor excelled at the Russian language, while Putin spent five years working in Dresden for the KGB. His German is as fluent as her Russian. More importantly though, there are about two million Russo-Germans resident in Germany, and up to four million Russian speakers. The importance of this group was crystallised in the ‘Lisa Case’ of early 2016, in which a thirteen year-old Russian-German girl alleged she had been raped by three non-German speaking ‘southern’ men. The case became a lightning rod for Russo-German protests against Merkel’s refugee policy, spurred on by right-wing agitators within Germany. Defence Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian media attacked the German government for ‘covering up’ the case in the name of ‘political correctness’. Yet even before the comments from Lavrov, German police knew the alleged rape was a fabrication, as the girl later admitted. But in the propaganda war, the damage was already done.

It is of course wholly untrue that all Russo-Germans are Putin disciples or thoughtless consumers of Russian state media. But the ‘Lisa Case’ was a lightning rod for the themes that have defined German and Western European politics over the past couple of years: Russian tensions, fake news, populism, anti-migrant sentiments and the curious camaraderie of the far-right with the Kremlin. This toxic mix has generated widespread fears of Russian interference in September’s election through fictitious news reports, hacked documents and cyber-attacks. These have not yet materialised in the manner seen in France and the USA, though with over a month still to run, the fears have not abated.

In foreign policy, Trump and Europe have grabbed most of the headlines in this election so far. But scratch the surface, and the presence of Russia is never far away. Politically speaking, Lindner’s statement may have been somewhat naïve, but the ‘Russia problem’ will not disappear simply because campaigns demand a greater focus on domestic issues. After all, the Donbass conflict continues without any resolution in sight, and the question of European energy supplies is now tightly bound to American domestic tensions between Congress and President. Lindner is perhaps right to believe that an election can provide a small window in which to seize new opportunities and generate new international amities; and he is certainly correct in arguing that a stalemate is no solution. But if history is any guide, ‘new starts’ with Russia often lead only to new dead-ends.

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