Jan 21, 2021

The End of the Merkel-Putin Couple

Angela Merkel leaving office in the fall will also have consequences for Russia. Vladimir Putin’s government will be tempted to test the mettle of her successor—and the EU’s willingness to engage in its Eastern neighborhood.

Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Vladimir Putin
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The coming September 2021 elections and the departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in office will not only be a caesura for Germany and Europe, but also for the rest of the world—including Russia.

There is no other European leader with whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a longer-lasting working relationship than Angela Merkel. Some even argue the relationship is the most important in global politics right now. During Merkel’s time in office, three French presidents have tried their hand at relations with Russia, more or less successfully: Nicolas Sarkozy during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, François Hollande during the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, and Emmanuel Macron since 2017. Merkel has been the steady constant throughout this time: Backing Sarkozy’s sometimes erratic leadership, taking Hollande by the hand in 2014, and indulgently observing Macron’s rapprochement efforts with Russia—from the outset deemed unlikely to succeed after Berlin’s own bitter experiences.

Merkel was one of the few politicians able to keep the Russian president in check—at least to a certain extent. Although she has been unwilling to change her stance on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, she hardened Germany’s Russia policy during her last two terms in office. For their final year together, the Russian president expressed his hope recently in a letter to the chancellor that it would be possible to improve relations. At the same time, the prompt arrest of opposition politician Alexey Navalny—who survived what was highly likely an FSB attempt on his life with the globally outlawed “Novichok” nerve agent with the help of Berlin’s Charité hospital—demonstrated once again to Berlin that hopes for a change in Putin’s worldview are naïve.

What should be expected in Russia policy after Merkel’s departure, and with Macron facing elections in France in 2022? And how will Moscow react? Three developments are worth observing.

That Tempting “Reset”

First, European powers are unlikely to play a big role in formulating future Russia policy in the next two years. In Germany, it will take time until a new chancellor can fill Angela Merkel’s shoes—her standing and reputation both in Brussels and Moscow is unparalleled. Also, it is not yet clear that a new chancellor will continue Merkel’s tougher approach toward Russia. For a new leader, there is always a temptation to try out one’s own “reset” with Russia, as Macron has demonstrated.

This can certainly be excluded for the Germany’s Greens, who are very likely going to be part of the next German government and have the most critical approach vis-à-vis Moscow. But for a Christian Democrat chancellor—whether that will be Armin Laschet, the new CDU chairman, Markus Söder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, or Health Minister Jens Spahn—a new outreach could be an alluring policy option, especially against the backdrop of the post-COVID-19 economic crisis.

Although none of these possible candidates have questioned the EU’s sanctions regime in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Laschet has been criticized for his dovish positions, and Markus Söder has warned against “moral rigorism” toward Russia. Whether German-Russian relations will be off to a “restart” under a new chancellor also depends on Russia’s signaling—whether it will refrain from another attempt to undermine Germany’s democracy, such as the hacking of the German parliament in 2015, or another covert or open intervention in the neighborhood and beyond.

While Germany sorts out its new leadership later this year, France will have to step in and continue to push for progress in Eastern Ukraine within the “Normandy format,” which brings together Moscow, Kyiv, Paris, and Berlin. In the past, talks were driven in particular by Merkel’s personal engagement; it would be unfortunate if the Normandy format were rendered dormant. In 2022, Macron will be embroiled in his own re-election campaign, which puts the onus back on Berlin—although none of the candidates have so far expressed any strong views on what happens in the EU’s eastern neighborhood.  

In America’s Shadow

Second, relations with Russia are likely to be dominated by US policy. The top priority of the new administration of US President Joe Biden will be the extension of New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which runs out on February 5. Beyond that, Biden’s foreign policy team at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA includes many former Obama administration officials with experience in the region, such as NSC director Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, and CIA director William Burns. This suggests a strong focus and a tough stance on Russia’s global influence, especially when it comes to cyber operations, disinformation, corruption, the undermining of democracy, and the growing Russian-Chinese alignment.

Nevertheless, there will be areas of cooperation and diplomacy, for instance on climate policy and Iran. But US assistance to Ukraine will remain a critical bipartisan issue; and strengthening NATO will be an important part of US Russia policy. However, the legacy of Nord Stream 2 will remain a burden for US-German cooperation on Russia.

A Mixed Bag for the Kremlin

Third, Russia will likely try to underpin and substantiate its claim for a sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood. In 2020, Russia was able to strengthen its position both in Belarus and in the South Caucasus, with a Russian peacekeeping force now involved in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow maintaining Alexander Lukashenka in power until a political transition takes place on Russian terms. This also demonstrates the EU’s inability, or unwillingness, to shape and assume responsibility in the region. In Belarus, Europe has been afraid of provoking Russia by getting more deeply involved. In the South Caucasus, the EU has played no role at all—although all these countries are part of the Eastern Partnership, a region where the EU has clearly stated its ambition to be more present. This trend of European retreat and Russian advance is likely to continue over the next two years.  

Despite this pessimistic outlook, it is important to remember that Moscow will not get a free ride when it comes to its own domestic challenges in the coming years. The arrest of Navalny and the tightening of Russia’s “foreign agent” laws demonstrates the Kremlin’s nervousness ahead of the Duma elections, which will have to take place on or before September 19. To ensure the desired election results, a lot of “engineering” will be necessary. This might limit Moscow’s appetite for foreign policy adventures. Nevertheless, post-Merkel Russia will test the limits of its scope for action. Any successor in the chancellery should arrive well-prepared.

Liana Fix is Program Director International Affairs at Körber Stiftung.