Entering their final year in government together, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, the Social Democrat Heiko Maas, have suddenly become something of a double act, at least when it comes to the difficult task of urgently rethinking what passes for a Russia policy these days. It took the poisoning of opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny with a globally outlawed chemical weapon (“Novichok”) to get there. By a chain of lucky events, Navalny did not die on a return flight to Moscow from Siberia but ended up, gravely ill, in Berlin’s Charité hospital, within walking distance of Merkel’s chancellery.
On August 24, Merkel and Maas took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement, confirming that Navalny had indeed been poisoned. They called upon the Russian authorities “to fully investigate this act as a matter of urgency—and to do so in a completely transparent way.” “Those responsible must be identified and brought to justice,” they added.
Given the Kremlin’s form under Vladimir Putin—opponents of the Russian president have been murdered ever since journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down on the staircase of her Moscow apartment building in 2006 and former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died a horrible death at a London hospital from highly radio-active polonium poisoning that same year—this sounded a little naïve. Could the most likely perpetrators really be expected to prosecute themselves?
Confused and Contradictory
The statement, however, spoke volumes about Germany’s—and by extension: the EU’s—deeply confused and contradictory attitude toward Putin’s Russia. In fact, on closer inspection, Berlin no longer has anything resembling a Russia policy, or Ostpolitik.
On the one hand, Merkel took the lead in 2014 in stopping Putin from going the whole hog and also grabbing “Novorossiya” from Ukraine after illegally annexing Crimea, by pressing sanctions. Together with France, she then managed and contained the Moscow-stoked separatists’ war in eastern Ukraine—no small feat for a country that’s not a nuclear power and whose military isn’t up to much. On the other hand, the chancellor kept up her support for the Baltic Sea pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, which is supposed to bring more Russian natural gas to western Europe, by circumventing Ukraine, Poland, and other countries in-between. Energy or wider economic relations, Merkel insisted, should be kept separate.
This anachronistic stance in a geo-economic age was always very strange; it seems to be ending now, and about time, too. First Maas and then Merkel have suggested over the last couple of days that that Russian obstructiveness in the Navalny case could lead them to advocate halting or completely abandoning the—almost completed—project, which the Trump administration has started targeting with sanctions. This went hand in hand with the German government becoming certain that a Russian secret service must have committed the crime, using a novel Novichok variant that only a state-run laboratory can handle. In other words, the attempted murder was clearly government-sponsored, likely with an eye on events in Belarus, where the opposition to “Europe’s last dictator” Aleksander Lukashenka after crudely rigged elections continues to mobilize mass demonstrations, in spite of brutal attacks by the security forces.
A Harder Line
Merkel and Maas have emphasized that the response will be a coordinated one, at EU and NATO level. While US President Donald Trump at first took the Kremlin “Who can say?” line (“We should look to China,” Trump initially suggested), the G7 foreign ministers’ statement issued on September 8 was a first step toward building Western unity. It will certainly help that French President Emmanuel Macron (with a heavy heart, apparently) has put his ill-thought-out “strategic dialogue” with Moscow on ice. Harder still than issuing statements and coordinating with allies, however, will be formulating a new, far more robust line on the Putin regime than previously, also against domestic opposition (representatives of Germany’s Die Linke party as well as of the far-right AfD have proved themselves staunch defenders of the Putin regime in recent days).
My former DGAP colleague Stefan Meister, who is presently heading the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s office in Tiblisi, Georgia, offered some pointers this week. One key sentence: “The analysis of the Putin regime [System Putin] should form the foundation of Germany’s Russia policy, not the wish for peaceful coexistence.” Pointing to the fact that Putin’s Russia has attacked and undermined Europe’s post-Cold War security order in order to stabilize the Putin regime internally, thus making Germany its enemy, he recommends a course of action that would demonstrate to the Kremlin the increasing cost of its destructive behavior, be it at home, in Syria (where its pilots have bombed hospitals and enabled mass war crimes perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad), Libya, or elsewhere, and in undermining Europe by means of corruption, disinformation, hacking operations, and assassinations.
This would include reducing European energy dependence on Russia and using the Kremlin’s need to export oil and gas as a pressure point; picking up the fight against endemic corruption and money laundering, inter alia by hitting Russia’s kleptocratic “offshore elite” where it hurts them, by limiting their access to international financial systems as well as their ill-gotten property in Spain, France, or the United Kingdom (“Londongrad”); becoming a more plausible military opponent; supporting Russia’s besieged civil society, which still dares trying to hold the powerful to account, like Navalny fearlessly did.
It is time for Germany to “get real” on Putin’s Russia, which has skillfully played on German guilt regarding the many crimes Germany committed against the Soviet Union in World War II and fear of a confrontation. This, however, should no longer stop Berlin from starting to treat the Putin regime for what it is. The EU’s handling of Belarus will form an important part of this. For German diplomacy as well as those German and European institutions fighting the export of the Russian regime’s corrupt and corrupting policies and practices, this should now mean: game on!
Henning Hoff is executive editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.