Leonid Brezhnev is welcomed by Helmut Schmidt in Bonn, 1981.
As the fighting on the frontlines at the edge of East Ukraine has drifted into a brutal stalemate, the regular renewal by the EU of sanctions imposed on Russian state institutions and economic sectors in the summer of 2014 in response to the seizure of Ukrainian territory by the Putin regime has become a matter of routine. Occasionally moments of tension around flashpoints such as the Sea of Azov, where Ukrainian naval vessels were seized and twenty four sailors taken prisoner by the Russian Navy in November 2018, occasionally grip the headlines in Ukrainian, Russian and European media for a few days before receding swiftly again into the background. Over time, other serious geopolitical crises such as the Syrian War have opened up opportunities for a Russian state leadership trying to rollback this onerous sanctions regime to engage with European governments desperate to foster stability around the collective borders of the EU. With Vladimir Putin asserting that he will leave office by 2024 at the latest, emerging tensions over his succession within Russia’s state elite as well as growing social discontent among the wider Russian population have also opened up debate within EU member states about how far renewed engagement with Russia could help guide it towards a reform process that could promote the rule of law and help de-escalate regional tensions.
For Angela Merkel and her coalition partners in the SPD, a renewed focus on dialogue with the Russian state has increasingly shaped diplomatic strategy towards the EU’s Eastern borders five years after the Putin regime coordinated the annexation of Crimea and escalated to full conventional warfare against the Ukrainian army in Ukraine’s Eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The necessity to sustain the EU’s credibility as a global actor coupled with fears of Russian expansionism among its East European member states make a softening of EU policy anytime soon extremely unlikely. By contrast, reversing the removal of Russian delegates in response to the crisis of 2014 from the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe, crucial to oversight of the European Court of Human Rights and wider attempts to secure the rule of law across Europe, has for Germany and other key EU member states become a means through which to reengage with the Russian state.
It is a move that has elicited a furious walkout from PACE by Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian and other East European delegations over what they considered to be an act of appeasement for which the payment of substantial contributions owed to the Council seems to be the only concession Russia has had to make. Despite these ferocious protests, the German and other European governments hoping to reengage with Russia without affecting the EU sanctions regime have systematically removed all obstructions to the return of the Russian delegation. While concerns over the financial health of the Council of Europe as well as access to the ECHR for Russian citizens did affect these calculations in Berlin and other EU capitals, the removal of PACE sanctions is an attempt to put relations with Russia on a less hostile footing without incurring the much greater wrath from a Ukrainian ally and East European member states of the EU that would flow from any move to loosen the EU’s economic sanctions regime.
In the case of the CDU/CSU, business opportunities for German manufacturers in Russian regions as well as the North Stream 2 gas pipeline have dampened what are still substantial suspicions over the extent to which such engagement can effectively achieve Germany’s strategic goals. For the SPD, however, the possibility of renewed engagement with Russia strikes a much deeper emotional chord. As the reluctant junior partner of the CDU/CSU, the SPD has jealously guarded its power to shape key aspects of German foreign policy through control of the Auswärtiges Amt under Frank Walter Steinmeier, Sigmar Gabriel and now Heiko Maas. Ministers and parliamentary state secretaries deeply immersed in a particular party narrative surrounding the policies of engagement with the Soviet bloc promoted by the SPD governments led by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s have played a key role in shaping Germany’s diplomatic relations with the Russian state before and after its seizure of Crimea. In the years since reunification, many senior German Social Democrats have remained mesmerised by a deeply entrenched historical consensus within the SPD over the extent to which these ‘Ostpolitik’ policies of engagement and dialogue with the USSR helped pave the way towards the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. As a consequence, SPD politicians and the diplomatic apparatus they have shaped over twenty years in power have often seemed to value dialogue with the Russian state as an end in itself, rather than as a means to achieve specific strategic ends through a combination of targeted pressure mixed with strategic incentives.
This focus on achieving change in Russia through intensive engagement with the Russian state that so pervades German strategic thinking rests on a fundamental misreading of the actual strategic approach the SPD governments of the 1970s developed through Ostpolitik. In contrast to the more recent fixation of SPD leaders on grand bargains with Russia, Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt focused as much on expanding relations with neighbouring East European states such as Poland or Czechoslovakia as the USSR itself. Moreover, though dominated by Moscow, the ramshackle multi-national structure of the USSR was taken into account by both Helmut Schmidt and the CDU/CSU-dominated Helmut Kohl government that followed him. Both developed intensive contacts with the leaderships of various Soviet Republics, who often transitioned to dominate the politics of their successor states after they achieved independence in 1991. And while Ostpolitik certainly contributed towards intensifying the contacts between the Soviet bloc states with Western institutions and financial markets, their socio-political order ultimately collapsed because of the internal contradictions of their political systems rather than any action taken by West German governments.
Yet rather than reflecting on the complex and mixed legacies of Ostpolitik, the myths that have grown up around it in Germany since the late 1990s have led a succession of SPD leaders to focus on engagement with Russia at the expense of the concerns of the EU’s East European member states and its Ukrainian allies. This clumsy effort by the German government to use the Council of Europe as a stepping stone towards a policy of encouraging change in Russia through engagement with the Russian state based on such a faulty reading of history is actively undermining Germany’s wider strategic interests.
By damaging its relations with East European EU partners such as Lithuania or Poland, it is alienating states whose help it needs to assert shared interests in the wider reform and consolidation process that is transforming European integration. Moreover, removing Council of Europe sanctions without receiving any clear Russian concessions in return has deeply weakened German credibility with a Ukraine that has built a formidable military and security apparatus of its own in response to the aggression of the Putin regime. Though Angela Merkel has shown a considerable level of sympathy with Ukrainian concerns, such empathy and engagement with Ukraine has often been lacking within the SPD leadership. With such a one-eyed focus on influencing the direction of travel of a Russian society that once again seems in flux, the SPD leadership has lost sight of the fact that binding in a Ukrainian state that now deploys one of the largest armies in Europe into shared norms of democratic governance and the rule of law is also of fundamental strategic importance to Germany and the European Union.
In its pivotal role surrounding the removal of Council of Europe sanctions on Russia, the SPD leadership still does not seem to have been able to extricate itself from a party mythology surrounding Germany’s historic relations with the Russian state that often seem detached from the realities of Late Putinism. Often linked with the crude self-advancement of SPD politicians, these entanglements have more often than not caused embarrassment for their own party as well as Germany’s wider diplomatic position. Even in what are probably its final months in power, when it comes to Russia the SPD still seems to remember everything yet learn nothing.