This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


Germany’s willingness to enter into dialogue is explained by the fact that it feels a special responsibility towards Russia stemming from complicated history.

This paper is part of a series of papers presenting views from experts in various European capitals on Russia policy, including those from Finland, Spain, Italy, Poland, Austria, and Hungary.

The European Union has responded to Russia’s actions on the Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine with strategic sanctions. The EU’s ability to reach an agreement on these sanctions took the Kremlin by surprise. Their effects in Russia have clearly been felt. In this way, the sanctions can be called a success. However, it is not clear that the sanctions are effecting a change of policy in Moscow.

The German Federal Government advocated the sanctions. Germany’s willingness to enter into dialogue is explained by the fact that it feels a special responsibility towards Russia that stems from its history, not only due to Germany’s role in the Second World War, but also stemming from the close relations between the two countries over the past 25 years. Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel often speaks with Vladimir Putin, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has frequent conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But German politicians have found that dialogue with Russia’s political leaders leads nowhere. For this reason, the dialogue has been discontinued at many levels. Even politicians known as “Russian-friendly” now get very few appointments in Russia. Regardless, dialogue should, whenever possible, be continued. Silence is not a good alternative.

The EU’s ability to reach an agreement on these sanctions took the Kremlin by surprise [but] it is not clear that the sanctions are effecting a change of policy in Moscow.

Many Germans have a critical view of sanctions against Russia. In March, according to a survey by the Institute Forsa, only 24 percent supported economic sanctions. In the same month, according to a survey by Infratest, 54 percent of respondents believed that the West should accept Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. And just as many sympathised with Putin’s vision of Ukraine and Crimea as Russian zones of influence. But since then, the picture has changed. In July, according to a survey by Infratest, 52 percent supported more severe sanctions, while 39 percent opposed sanctions. A survey by the Political Barometer of the ZDF at the beginning of September had similar results: 54 percent favoured more severe sanctions and 38 percent were opposed.

German sympathy for Vladimir Putin and for Russia is also limited. According to a survey by Infratest in March, only 15 percent of Germans considered the Russian president to be a trustworthy partner, and that has not changed since. A study conducted by the German Marshall Fund in September found that 70 percent of Germans do not have a good opinion of Russia. But at the same time, Germans have a critical stance on the United States that to some degree gives them a certain understanding for Russia. Only 45 percent of Germans, according to ARD-Deutschlandtrend in April, regard Germany’s place as “firmly in the Western alliance”, while 49 percent want Germany to take a “place in the middle” between the West and Russia. Therefore, many Germans are ambivalent in their evaluation of Russian politics. Furthermore, Germans are grateful to Russia for the Soviet government’s stance at the time of reunification. This was again demonstrated by the celebration on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the welcome extended to Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin. Therefore, the German government has to continue to justify its policies towards Russia, especially with regard to the sanctions.

German sympathy for Vladimir Putin and for Russia is also limited.

Within the EU, Germany has to recommend a unified course towards Moscow. This is a difficult task; some states (such as Great Britain and the East European and Baltic countries) support uncompromising sanctions, but other states (for example, Italy) reject the current sanctions or consider them too severe. In addition, various EU countries are to different degrees economically dependent on Russia. It would be fatal if Moscow managed to tear apart the EU.

Moscow is relying on the instability of Ukraine. Europe should aid in preventing chaos and instability in Ukraine. The EU must keep Kyiv from engaging in military adventures that would provide Russia with the opportunity to strengthen its oblique military intervention. At the same time, Kyiv must press ahead with domestic political reforms. Since Ukraine is a barely functioning state and its state institutions are weak, the EU must make its economic aid contingent on conditions. In the weeks to come, it will be crucial that the pro-European parties keep from falling out with each other, especially the two camps around President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk. In their coalition agreement, they must stipulate reforms, for instance, in the Ukrainian energy sector, the fight against corruption, and the establishment of effective state institutions. Only under these conditions can international organisations, and primarily the International Monetary Fund, provide the necessary support. Ukrainian oligarchs have no interest in Moscow dictating to Ukraine. But as long as Ukraine is a state ruled by oligarchs, it will be impossible to institute democracy, a constitutional state, and economic competitiveness.

Western military action in Ukraine is not an option. Russia has a strategic advantage here. It can intensify the conflict in Ukraine at any time but then tactically retreat. A recent example: Moscow broke the Minsk Protocol when it allowed elections in the “People’s Republics” Lugansk and Donetsk and “respected” the results. But afterwards, the Kremlin claimed to want to adhere to the Minsk Protocol.

Europe has believed for too long that Russia’s economic success would create a middle class invested in developing a constitutional state and political participation.

How should Europe respond to further possible aggression from Moscow? Sanctions in the financial sector will be most effective. It is already apparent that this would cause Russia to suffer. The EU must plan more sanctions and vote on them now, so as to be able to react quickly if necessary.

Europe has to revive the almost forgotten policy of deterrence, which means putting into action the measures decided on by NATO – for example, a rapid reaction force for the Baltic States. Anything other than that would be perceived by Moscow as weakness.

Europe should pursue a sober policy on Russia. So far, this policy has been absent. It has for too long been ignored that Russia’s authoritarian domestic policy would have an effect on its foreign policy. Europe has believed for too long that Russia’s economic success would create a middle class invested in developing a constitutional state and political participation. This has proven to be an illusion.

Vladimir Putin is set on creating a strong Russia. To that end, the Kremlin tries to force its neighbouring states into allegiance through economic and military pressure. The goal is a world in which Russia can be on par with the West. The measure of all things is the United States. Putin will continue to pursue this goal with tenacity. But this does not mean that Europe and Russia have no common interests. Their interests intersect on the economy but also on questions of security, such as, for example, the fight against Islamist terror. Many international crises, such as Iran’s nuclear programme, cannot be solved without Russia. Cooperation with Russia must remain an objective. But a partnership with Russia that rests on shared values has failed. Europe must pursue a new policy on Russia. In creating this policy, it will have to take a tough and unwavering stance.

Markus Wehner is a journalist with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. He is a historian with a focus on Russia/Soviet Union and was a correspondent in Moscow for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from 1999-2004.

This paper is part of the Wider Europe Forum and is one in a series of five papers presented on 17 November at ECFR’s EU-Russia Strategy Group. This Group was set up in 2014 to provide a venue for a restricted group of European policymakers and experts to have an informal and high-level dialogue on Russia. It is supported by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German and Polish foreign ministries.

Read more on: Wider Europe Forum, View from the Capitals, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.