Germany’s tentative crackdown on Russia: A hint of strategy

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin at the Libya Summit in Berlin in January 2020. [EPA-EFE | Hayoung Jeon]

After years of balancing pressure and dialogue with Russia, Germany is becoming noticeably more confrontational, a process that was sparked a year ago by a shooting in Berlin. But the country still lacks a long-term strategy. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Germany seems to be losing its hesitancy to confront Russia. Poisoned opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny was welcomed in Berlin for lifesaving treatment by Angela Merkel, fully aware that the Kremlin could be connected to the attack.

In Brussels, the German Council Presidency then successfully advocated for sanctions against Russia, and the government even thought aloud about stopping construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Although the pipeline is now nearing completion, Berlin’s actions are, on the whole, a sign of an ongoing paradigm shift in foreign policy, says Sarah Pagung, political scientist and Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

“The change from ‘containment and engagement’ to ‘containment’ is a creeping process,” she said in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

EU sanctions senior Putin aides over Navalny, Libya

The EU on Thursday (15 October) sanctioned senior aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the man known as his chef, over the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and Kremlin meddling in Libya’s civil war.

A difficult balance

Since the early 2000s, Berlin has pursued a strategy of “containment and dialogue” in its dealings with Moscow. It has always wanted to remain open to each other given the close historical and economic ties between the two countries.

However, since the annexation of Crimea, Europe – Germany included – has had to come to terms with new geopolitical realities, according to Pagung.

Sanctions followed. Nevertheless, Berlin repeatedly stressed that it always wanted to keep the dialogue with Moscow open. A knock-on effect of this was the start of construction on Nord Stream 2 in 2015.

But the final trigger for the tougher German course was the “Tiergarten murder” in August 2019 in Berlin, and Russia’s behaviour afterwards, the expert said.

Germany and Russia caught in diplomatic spat over Berlin killing

In today’s edition of the Capitals, find out about Germany’s diplomatic spat with Russia, as well as so much more. The Capitals brings you the latest news from across Europe, through on-the-ground reporting by EURACTIV’s media network.

German reality check

At that time, a Chechen with a Georgian passport, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, was shot in a park near the Bundestag and the Chancellor’s Office.

A suspect was soon found, after the DNA of a Russian was found on the murder weapon. The public prosecutors assume a state-ordered murder, based also on research of the investigative platform Bellingcat. At the start of the trial in early October, the Kremlin was indirectly a defendant.

Germany had hoped for Russian concessions during the investigation, because despite all the tensions, they have always shown a willingness to engage in dialogue over the past few years. But they were disappointed, says Pagung.

Moscow condemned the murder and denied any part in it but also blocked cooperation. “It [merely] sat out and lit a few smoke candles,” the researcher said. “This was not what Berlin had expected.”

It was a reality check: the special German-Russian relationship was perhaps not so special.

Moscow withdraws from MH17 talks with Netherlands, Australia

Russia said Thursday (15 October) it would withdraw from consultations with the Netherlands and Australia over the MH17 flight shot down over Ukraine in 2014, complaining of “vicious” attempts to pin blame on Moscow.

Cyber attack 2015: “Outrageous” operation

Since then, Germany has been acting tougher and not just since Navalny’s poisoning. Although this is currently in the spotlight, the new pace could already be felt in May.

At that time, Merkel spoke for the first time of Russian involvement in the cyber attack against the Bundestag in 2015. She claimed there was “hard evidence” of this.

It was an “outrageous” operation. During the attack, emails were siphoned off, including those of the Chancellor herself. “Of course we always reserve the right to take measures, also against Russia,” Merkel made clear at the time.

It was also Germany that during its presidency actively promoted sanctions against close Putin confidants over the Navalny poisoning.

However, as soon as these were over, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas took a step back and repeated the old saying: “Dialogue with Russia must nevertheless be maintained.”

The fact that Nord Stream 2 is now being completed after all, even though politicians suggested halting the project before, was probably a tactic to convey the seriousness of the situation to Moscow.

But tactics are not a strategy. The new tough talk is a paradigm shift, but it is not yet clear where the journey will lead.

This is due to a number of factors: Germany’s upcoming elections, uncertain relations with the United States and NATO, and also domestic political issues. Especially in the SPD there are still many who would like to have an open relationship with Russia, said Pagung.

[Edited by Sam Morgan]

Subscribe to our newsletters