The relationship between Berlin and Moscow has always been critical to EU policy towards Russia. After all, Germany is not only one of the most important trading partners of Russia, but also the traditional German Eastern policy has always been based on the expectation that the expansion of contacts can turn Russia into a modern and open society and a constructive partner in international affairs.
During the Ukrainian crisis, Germany’s perceptions of Russia changed drastically. Growing interdependence could not prevent the Kremlin from challenging the European security order, annexing Crimea, and intervening militarily in eastern Ukraine. In close cooperation with the French President, German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally became the coordinator of negotiations on a political settlement in Ukraine within the Normandy format. Merkel’s regular telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin eventually led her to the conclusion that he was living in a different reality, and she insisted at the European Council that economic and financial sanctions be associated with full implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Germany had a strong influence on EU policy towards Russia, which resulted in the adoption of the five guiding principles for relations with Russia, which also took into account the interests of the Eastern Partnership countries such as Ukraine, including by strengthening resilience against Russian operations of detrimental influence. Recently, these principles have been further developed in EU policy along three lines: “push back, constrain and engage”. Also in this discussion, Germany played a key role after the Navalny case, in which Merkel also took a personal part, offering him treatment in a Berlin hospital.
The reasonableness of dialogue with Moscow in the current circumstances and the possibility of selective engagement were the most hotly debated topics within the European Council. Beyond the conflicts with Russia, Merkel still wants to keep lines of communication with Moscow open, although she is not naive about the results. Oddly enough, she recently teamed up with French President Macron to call for an EU-Putin summit to mend relations amid the recent Biden-Putin summit. However, this proposal was immediately rejected by an overwhelming majority of EU members.
While Macron had previously made an ill-fated attempt to take steps towards Russia, Merkel was considered as a more neutral power broker, willing to accept that Russian counter-sanctions would also harm the German economy. However, there has always been one exception: energy relations and especially the construction of the Nord Stream 2 (NS-2) gas pipeline.
However, as a result of the Ukrainian crisis, Merkel agreed that NS-2 is not a purely commercial project and could have serious geopolitical implications for partners in Central and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. Therefore, Merkel is consistently trying to secure the future of gas transit through Ukraine even after the completion of the NS-2 construction this summer. But the question remains whether the NS-2 will ever be used, given the EU regulatory framework for separating the owners and users of the pipeline.
Last year, a study by the Pew Research Center showed that Merkel is the most trusted political leader around the world. For ten consequent years, Forbes has named her the most powerful woman in the world. And in the EU context, Merkel is often considered as a person who makes sure that countries with conflicting interests are not out of the ordinary when it comes to crisis.
After Merkel leaves office, the fundamentals of Germany’s (and the EU’s) relationship with Russia are likely to remain unchanged. The new Chancellor of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is expected to ensure further continuity, even if a coalition with the Green Party could mean more critical attitudes towards Russia regarding its repressive domestic policies and aggressive foreign policies, coupled with a renewed commitment to closer cooperation on Russia with neighbors from Central and Eastern Europe. But this more critical attitude to Russian domestic and foreign policy had already begun to manifest itself earlier, when Merkel was at the helm.