Germany's Relations with Russia: Willing Fools or Trusted Intermediaries? Stuart McMillan Comments on the Global Impact of the Relationship between Berlin and Moscow

By McMillan, Stuart | New Zealand International Review, July-August 2016 | Go to article overview

Germany's Relations with Russia: Willing Fools or Trusted Intermediaries? Stuart McMillan Comments on the Global Impact of the Relationship between Berlin and Moscow


McMillan, Stuart, New Zealand International Review


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.

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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. …

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