These days hardly a week goes by, it seems, without Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel bumping into each other. The last meeting between the Russian president and German chancellor occurred in Brazil on Sunday at the World Cup final—an event that becomes more and more reminiscent of ancient rituals, such as the Mesoamerican ball game, when sports went hand in hand with high-level politics.
Merkel was cheering on the German team (which eventually won a 1-0 victory over Argentina), and Putin just happened to be touring a number of South American countries and dropping in on the Brazilians, who were both World Cup hosts and fellow members of the once-rising-and-now-troubled group of “BRIC” nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) said to be next in line for global influence. With Russia hosting the next world soccer championship four years from now, Putin had a good excuse to claim a prominent box seat very close to the German leader, amid other the global celebrities. Shunning the world’s best-paid supermodel—Brazilian Gretchen Bundchen, who was also seated nearby—Putin then proceeded to flirt with Merkel.
In a manner of speaking, of course. It wasn’t personal. It was just geopolitical.
Only a few months ago, a meeting between the Russian and German leaders would have raised few eyebrows in Washington. Now, in the middle of the most severe crisis in German-American relations in decades—and sharply escalated tensions between the West and Russia following the shooting-down of a civilian Malaysian airliner with many Westerners on board Thursday—there is a lot more at stake. A profound distrust has developed in U.S. governmental circles about what the Germans and Russians are discussing and whether Berlin is going its own way, especially as the Ukraine crisis has festered on.
Even as Obama imposed tougher sanctions this week, targeting major Russian energy companies like Rosneft and OA Novatek that are led by Putin’s friends, Merkel has shown reluctance to do so. An angry pall of mistrust hangs over German-American cooperation at precisely the moment it is needed most: Recent tit-for-tat retaliation between the U.S. and German intelligence services has been unprecedented, smacking of Cold War-style reprisals between Washington and Moscow. Germany expelled the CIA chief at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in response to arrest of two German intelligence experts found working as U.S. agents inside the German government.
And suddenly the dangerously escalating crisis over Ukraine has put the durable but deteriorating relationship between Berlin and Washington to a real test. With the horrific news of the downing of a civilian airliner with 295 people on board—including many Europeans—Putin appears to have overreached in Ukraine, abetting the rise of out-of-control separatists who have gotten their hands on sophisticated weapons systems and brought the region to the brink of all-out war. Some experts are calling for Obama, Putin and Merkel—along with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—to meet immediately to avoid a further spiral into large-scale violence.
Merkel is the woman in the middle of all this—geographically as well as geopolitically—so the question is: Which way will she go? Will she stand with Obama once again as he is forced to apply more pressure on Putin, or will she continue to temporize? Is Germany increasingly moving toward a truly independent foreign policy, effectively beginning the slow breakup of the transatlantic alliance? Or does Germany want to remain part of the NATO family?
Certainly there seems reason for suspicion that Washington is the one being left alone on the dance floor. Merkel grew up in Eastern Germany and speaks fluent Russian, while Putin, who was stationed in Dresden for the KGB, speaks very good German. During their fairly frequent meetings, including one before the World Cup match, they are often seen talking animatedly to each other (without translators, of course). The two countries also have deep and abiding common interests: Russia is one of Germany’s foremost trade partners in Eastern Europe. And Russian gas deliveries to Europe, including Germany, are vital for the Europeans. Moreover, it was Germany (and France) that vetoed, offering a path to membership status in NATO to Georgia and Ukraine—a U.S. proposal—in 2008. During a recent German-Georgian security conference in Tbilisi, German representatives also disabused their Georgian partners about the idea that Berlin might support a membership action plan for Georgia at the forthcoming NATO meeting in September.
Anti-Americanism has been steadily on the rise in Germany—and not just on the extreme fringes of society—ever since George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although President Obama has been generally liked and trusted by Germans—in 2008, he drew a crowd of more than 200,000 people in Berlin’s Teirgarten before he was even president—that only exacerbated the German sense of betrayal over revelations that Merkel’s cell phone was being monitored by the National Security Agency. It came as a shock to the German political elite that its foremost ally deeply distrusted Germany’s foreign policy. Despite all the rhetoric about transatlantic cooperation and coherence, Washington hardly seemed to trust Merkel more than the Russian or Chinese leaders.
As for Putin, the Russian president has always tried to exploit the differences between the United States and European Union. During Bush’s presidency, he developed friendly relations for a time with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, both of whom disliked the U.S. president and vehemently opposed the American invasion of Iraq.
And so on its face, the moment might seem ripe for a dramatic shift in German foreign policy—maybe even another Treaty of Rapallo, the notorious 1922 pact of friendship and cooperation between the Soviet Union and Germany that included several top-secret clauses about military cooperation.
In truth, especially after the Ukraine air disaster—which more than anything exposed Putin for the Machiavellian manipulator he is—Merkel is far more likely to pursue something like former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s famous policy of détente (Ostpolitik) with East Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Like some U.S. officials now, American officials then were very suspicious of what the chancellor was up to. President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were convinced, for the better part of two years, that the Germans were about to trade their membership in the Western alliance for Soviet agreement to allow West and East Germany to unify. Instead, Nixon and Kissinger ended up following Brandt’s lead and pursuing their own brand of détente with Moscow.
Merkel knows she’s uniquely qualified for the task of developing a latter-day détente with a new Russia. Having grown up in the communist east, she clearly understands Russian culture and mentality much better than most other Western politicians, including Obama and his experts on the National Security Council. She also must be well aware of the fact that many Russian people view large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine as inherent parts of Russia—calling them malorossiya (small Russia)—and that Putin is looking for some understanding of that in “Old Europe” in a way he would never find in America or certainly Eastern Europe.
There is also no one else, perhaps, with the requisite combination of geopolitical heft and Russian trust to make a difference—and to prevent the Western-Russian gulf from endangering other critical diplomatic efforts like the Iran nuclear talks. Following the latest round of U.S. sanctions, the gap between Washington and Moscow appeared nearly unbridgeable. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—once considered one of the Russian “good guys”—called the sanctions “evil” and the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that international cooperation of many issues would be threatened.
As with Brandt—whose devotion to the West proved durable in the end—Merkel’s empathy for Russian designs will hardly tempt her to throw in her lot with the men in Moscow. She is fully aware that Putin is a man of yesteryear who wants only to re-create a Russian sphere of influence—and among German elites, there is little sympathy for this ambition or any brand of neocolonialism. Germany itself, after all, has lost a lot of its “historic” lands over the last century, yet it is clearly not trying to do anything about it.
Moreover, Merkel knows that while Germany has become an economic powerhouse thanks to its alliance with the West and its enthusiastic participation in the global system, Russia since the end of the Cold War has not been able to develop a solid industrial base. The Russian economy is actually quite weak and burdened with difficult economic problems in many of Russia’s vast territories, including Crimea now. Nor does Putin’s autocratic leadership style appeal to Merkel, who is said to be much put off by his aggressive male chauvinism and his semi-dictatorial manners.
Still, the chancellor is, as always, well aware of the German mood. A number of German intellectuals are pushing for a more independent German foreign policy, and the recent intelligence scandals as well as Obama’s apparently laissez-faire approach to Europe may well encourage them. Peter Scholl-Latour, a well-known Franco-German author, recently declared: “Were I a Russian, I would not want the Americans on my southern coast.” He also drew attention to the obvious fact that Russia was more important to Germany than Ukraine. Gregor Gysi, the charismatic head of the left party in the Bundestag, recently blamed the West for the crisis for extending NATO to Russia’s borders, and by ridiculing the Ukrainian revolution as a fascist coup d’état.
Merkel undoubtedly knows that the best way out of this foreign-policy vice—with tensions pressing at her from both borders, east and west—is to push for a deal that could solve the Ukrainian crisis. Here she can perhaps follow the lead of Brandt, who showed that the simultaneous strengthening of West German links with NATO and the EU (and an increase in the West German financial contribution to the Atlantic alliance) soon reassured Washington, Paris and London that the West Germans were staying in the West. Merkel, too, should work to reassure both sides as she looks for a compromise—one that Putin too may want more than ever as he deals with the international opprobrium stemming from the airliner downing.
She’s already showed her hand: Due largely to the painstaking work of German diplomats, the long-imprisoned former Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from jail in the far north of Russia and flown to Berlin late last year. Many people in Europe—fearing what may come now—will no doubt be hoping that Merkel will broker a larger peace deal between Ukraine and Russia, especially in the absence of the diplomacy-shy Obama. Unlike the young generation of Americans, both Germans and Russians are raised with memories of World War II and would prefer, at any price, to avoid a major new war in Europe. To do that, a new style of Ostpolitik might be badly needed.
Klaus Larres is the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Peter Eltsov is a Washington-based political analyst and writer who has held positions at Harvard, Free University in Berlin, the Library of Congress and Wellesley College. [myad]