Ever since Gerhard Schröder's tenure as Chancellor, Germany has moved to improve its economic ties with Russia beyond all regard for the interests and fears of its allies, especially Poland and its partners across the Atlantic Ocean. A striking example of this policy is Berlin's support for the Nord Stream project, a proposed pipeline which would directly connect Russian gas fields with Germany under circumvention of the states adjacent to the Baltic Sea. However, the German belief in being able to go alone on the critical issue of energy supply is only the most visible manifestation of a general attitude. Germany is showing a tendency to lose focus on geostrategic matters while moving its own economic considerations to the center of attention. As the almost religiously followed collective aspiration to remain Exportweltmeister (a leading world power in exports) shows, this trend is not limited to the German government alone.
The country has always been the economic powerhouse of Europe, which has also directly translated into great political leverage within the European Union. Until the policy turn of the past few years, this strength had been used to foster the integration of the continent and promote common goals shared by the Union members. Now, however, Berlin prefers pursuing its individual economic interests and in doing so, is largely supported by the German people. This became especially apparent during the recent escalation of the Euro crisis in May, when Germany's hesitant attitude - due to mostly domestic concerns - brought the Monetary Union to the brink of collapse. It is arguable that the Merkel government only finally acted because of the Euro's extraordinary advantages for Germany. A clear signal that in Berlin, it is "Germany first, Europe second (or possibly third?)" was sent out not only to Greece and the other stricken European economies, but to the whole world.
This type of policy does not only hurt the European idea, but also damages transatlantic relations. America - challenged by domestic issues itself - needs a strong partner across the ocean in order to keep realizing its foreign agenda - which, for the most part, is congruent with European interests. Germany alone cannot be that partner, and a Germany prioritizing its own goals will actually jeopardize achievements already attained. US influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus region is waning, with Russia and China at the same time extending theirs. A united Europe would have enough weight to counterbalance this development. Germany, instead of being the driving force behind a comprehensive European policy towards these strategic regions, is content to trade them for the security of its own energy supply. In order not to endanger this security, Berlin follows a soft and appeasing approach towards Moscow and is careful not to aggravate the Putin-Medvedev tandem. The often mentioned "critical dialog" is little more than a hollow phrase.
Russia and its people are not helped by this either. They are historically very much connected to the West on a multitude of levels. While this relationship has often been rocky and seldom without challenges, it is clear that Russia has always been a European, not an Asian power. For instance, while it does seek to diversify, the vast majority of trade - both imports and exports (especially oil and gas) - was and still is conducted with European states. Pressing for alternatives to a seemingly intrusive Europe, Moscow has found a highly convenient alternative within Europe: Germany.
The current leadership is facilitated by Berlin's policies in its attempt to reduce connections to the economic (and to a lesser and more debatable degree, security) level and to unlink issues. The geostrategic shortsightedness of Berlin risks dispelling a historic chain, on top of estranging its allies. A continued deterioration of human rights in Russia will move it farther away from Europe, and instill Poland and the Baltic states with even more distrust towards their big neighbor. A further lack of EU engagement with Russia in the Caucasus will consolidate the frozen conflicts there and lead to an even bigger division between Moscow and Washington. A German policy minding economic issues alone will thus hurt relations between Russia and the West.
What Berlin now needs to do is to revive its vision of a united Europe. Despite recent hiccups, the Union is just as important to Germany as vice versa. This would also mark a return to the geostrategic thinking that has suited and benefitted the country for so many decades. Germany's economic policy once again would be harmonized with its neighbors and global partners, as well as linked to other issues, which due to its heterogeneity, the European Union is naturally inclined to do. Moscow would be forced to deal with all of Europe and perhaps more importantly, the broader range of issues which the EU would bring to the table.
While this re-linking might be painful to the current Moscow leaders, it also carries a high potential for success exactly because Russia is (inter)dependent on its partners to the West. Berlin is in a position to initiate the transformation of existing ties into a multitude of connections. Thematizing human and minority rights could be made a condition for tangible discussions on new or extended European security architecture. This would be comparable perhaps to the linkage of these topics in the Helsinki Accords, which later provided fertile ground for the work of civil right movements in the Eastern Bloc.
Both Russia and the West have to gain from a less confrontational attitude towards each other. Washington, for instance, has repeatedly sought cooperation with Moscow over questions of non-proliferation and the conflict in Afghanistan. The latter issue is directly related to the struggle for influence in Central Asia, where a European Union and Russia in agreement could better respect each other's concerns and thus both gain a better position against the interests of China and perhaps India.
A solution to the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus without Russian approval and assistance is at the moment unthinkable, but would become conceivable under the proposed new security arrangements. Russia and its people, likewise, would benefit from an even deeper connection with Europe, not only on the economy or in security, but also on a social and cultural level. A more open, democratic, less assertive and cooperative Moscow would make all of these visions a lot easier to follow for the majority of Western capitals. It is up to Berlin now to try to make it happen.
Benjamin Hanke is a student of International Relations at the University of Leipzig.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's student
competition "Ideas with Impact: Policy Workshop 2010" sponsored by the
U.S. Mission to Germany.
Read the other shortlisted articles in the category "Russia and the West" here.