Germany's Russian lobby

Germany's Russian lobby

The recent proposal put forward by Gazprom to extend its gas delivery capacity to Western Europe, calling it “The Northern Stream-II”, has aroused a great deal of controversy in the Western political circles. Bearing in mind that the first Northern Stream was largely undertaken bilaterally by Russia and Germany, much to the detriment of the countries on the EU’s eastern flank, as well as the high degree of dependency of Germany on the Russian energy supplies, the issue has revived deep-seated mistrust of the genuineness of Germany’s willingness to pursue the Western agenda of actively containing what is believed to be Russian aggression against Ukraine. Indeed, in no other big Western country was the discontent about the harsh stance taken by the EU and United States felt more intensely than in Germany. This unwillingness of different political and economic forces in Germany to acquiesce to spoiling relations with Russia has profound roots. But what are these roots and can these forces undermine the consolidated Western policy of containing Russia? These are the two questions this article will try to answer. 

First of all, German business circles have been traditionally strongly linked to the Russian market. The annual trade turnover between the two countries had exceeded the $80 billion-level just before the sanctions were imposed. It is estimated that mutual sanctions entailed the decline in the bilateral trade volume of up to 20 % that meant billions of losses for the German economy and, obviously, many jobs being cut. By early 2014, when the conflict was about to start, not only did German exports to Russia constitute the third of the whole EU’s, but more than 6,200 German firms operated in Russia itself. The Lobby Association of German industry (BDI), one of the most influential of this kind in Germany, was always known as a strong champion of at least neutral, if not outrightly positive, relations with Putin’s Russia, a point of view that became increasingly difficult to defend after the annexation of Crimea and ignition of armed separatism in Ukraine’s eastern provinces by Putin’s emissaries. Moreover, the very name “Northern Stream” is a paradigmatic example of the ties connecting German economy to Russia: so much was this project believed to matter for Germany that the former Chancellor from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Gerhard Schröder, was offered a leading post in the Gazprom-created daughter company that presided over the construction of the pipeline.

However, it would be superficial to attribute the substantial sympathy Russia enjoys among the German political circles, simply to the overwhelming interests of the German business, though they indeed loom especially large in the German politics. Losses for German business have been, in relative terms, less substantial than for smaller European economies whose exports to Russia mostly consisted of alimentary products, for example Poland, that, before the Russian countersanctions were implemented, used to be a huge source of apples on the Russian market. The positive perception of Russia and its role for Germany, in contrast with the traditionally skeptical Atlantic approach, has deeper intellectual roots.It is not a coincidence that many pro-Russian elements in Germany trace their ideas back to those of Bismarck, whose strategy towards the giant empire to the east was to appease and keep it neutral in any possible continental conflict Germany would enter, abstaining from intruding into what Russian rulers believed to be their legitimate sphere of vital interest. The gruesome experience of the world wars also led many Germans to think that hostility with Russia was absolutely fatal for the German state and argue that the two countries are geopolitically bound to recognize and support each other’s interests. The other common feature for German understanding of the world that originates in geopolitical conservatism, is their deep mistrust of the smaller Eastern European nations that are often said to be “insufficiently European” and “irresponsible”- for example, different surveys held in Germany since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis reveal that many people don’t believe Ukraine can be ever seriously regarded as a candidate for the wholesale European integration. These people are naturally likely to agree to view the Kremlin’s “Near abroad” as its natural sphere of influence.

While this first wave of pro-Russian thinking in Germany owed to classical geopolitical approach, in the second part of the XXth century this camp received new recruits representing a very different strand of thought, the German Social Democrats. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) whose leader, Willy Brandt, led it to the first term in power from 1969 to 1974, introduced the concept of so-called “Ostpolitik” that implied officially recognizing the independence of the then-existing GDR and improving the relationships with the Soviet Union that were at a very low point during the previous 20 years of the CDU rule. Hardly did the ideology of the German center-left resemble in any significant manner the Soviet one; it was rather the appeal to the feeling of repentance and guilt widespread especially among the younger generation of the Germans at the time, many of whom believed the conservative CDU elite to retain certain nationalistic sympathies. This CDU electorate thus was receptive to the party’s preaching of promoting pacifism and international harmony in Europe as the only way for Germany to restore its shattered reputation. Later on, it took the form of “pan-economic” understanding of the German foreign policy, void of ideological commitments and powerful ambitions. Regarding growingly authoritarian state in Russia, a concept of “change through trade” was elaborated that believed common interests would in the end make political regimes converge, too.

Then, what is the possible development of the German policy towards Russia in the upcoming years? The influence of the pro-Russian lobby should not be deemed high enough to push Germany away from the coordinated European and overall Western policy strand that will imply keeping sanctions in force until all the consequences of Russia’s illegal intervention into Ukrainian domestic politics are eliminated. It is important that after several occasions when Mr. Putin did not behave in the usual manner of friendliness and cooperativeness towards German colleagues, he is said to have lost the credit of greater trust and respect he used to enjoy in Berlin, and definite harshening in Chancellor Merkel’s tone observed since late 2014, is due to her disappointment in the way Russia started to assert itself. Therefore, she is now unlikely to think of Mr. Putin differently than any other key leaders of the West, seeming to be more reserved due to remaining business interests only.

However, the unity of Europe itself is now experiencing hard times; already shaken by the Grexit saga, it is now further put into question by the ongoing refugee crisis.

The walls that many states of the Central and Eastern Europe are now planning to erect along the borders with their fellow EU members in an attempt to shield themselves from the refugee streams, bear a direct symbolic threat to the idea of common Europe. The very existence of the ever-deepening European integration owes not only to pragmatic interests of a win-win game, but a respective mentality that endorses trust and cooperation between the nations- that is in no way bound to endure forever, given the continent’s war-torn history.

The contradictions over refugees, though relatively peripheric for European politics, may potentially give a blow to this mentality undermining the very mechanisms of consolidated decision-making. It is no coincidence that Russian media were covering the situation in Germany so extensively and lopsidedly, the overall tone sounding more than some far-right spokesmen than that more appropriate for the state channels. The “failure of multiculturalism” and “the end of European civilization” became commonplace, the protests of the anti-Islamic PEGIDA group were represented as the genuine voice of the German people oppressed in the undemocratic Europe of today. The crisis revealed what had been predicted by specialists in European politics long ago; Mr. Putin’s strategy towards Europe will be to use any means and any forces possible to weaken it from inside and revive old fears and hatreds. And, having in mind the rise of the far right not only now in the minor EU countries but France and Netherlands- and even now UK- the pessimistic scenario of the single Europe torn apart now seems not that far from reality. If it comes true, then Germany would likely behave much more assertively than now to protect its economic dominance of Europe, bringing old good geopolitics back to life.