The re-election of Angela Merkel as German chancellor in a grand coalition government means the return of Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. Among his main challenges is the need to recalibrate Germany’s – and, by extension, Europe’s – foreign policy towards Russia.
A return to the cozy relations with the Kremlin that defined much of Steinmeier’s first tenure as foreign minister is unlikely. But finding a way to work with Russia, while keeping some distance from Vladimir Putin will be difficult for Steinmeier's foreign policy team.
Germany’s relations with Russia are at an all-time low after the last foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, riled the Kremlin by visiting the pro-Europe protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan Square, and President Joachim Gauck decided to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics. That announcement prompted other global leaders to announce plans to skip the games in protest of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for treating dissenters with a heavy hand.
Steinmeier is known to think that peace and stability in Europe are impossible without active cooperation of Russia, and Russian newspapers have not been shy in saying that they are looking forward to Steinmeier’s return as German foreign minister. Yet the Russians should know that decision-making has shifted in Berlin: much of the visible foreign policymaking has moved towards Merkel’s chancellery in the last four years, and Merkel has a very prickly relationship with Putin.
Other European governments and the United States are looking to Germany to take the lead in dealing with Russia, especially now that the EU is in open conflict with the Kremlin over Ukraine. Reconciling all these interests could very well create a major headache for Steinmeier, who describes himself as a Russophile.
Today’s Russia is markedly different from the country Steinmeier dealt with during his previous tenure, which ran from 2005-2009. The Modernization Partnership, one of his signature projects back in 2008, failed primarily due to a lack of interest from the Kremlin. Steinmeier and his team now understand that Putin was never the “flawless democrat” that former chancellor Gerhard Schröder once proclaimed the Russian leader to be.
In addition, Russia doesn’t have the same kind of leverage with the West that it enjoyed during the first decade of this century: energy diversification and falling global natural gas prices mean Germany is growing less vulnerable to Russia’s energy blackmail. Bilateral economic ties remain strong, but German entrepreneurs are growing frustrated with the lack of genuine economic reforms in Russia under Putin. Conversely, despite frequent rants against the moral corruption and economic doom of the EU, the Kremlin knows that it will need EU investment, imports and technology, if the Russian economy is ever going to take a great leap forward.
The likely way forward is an approach favored by some of Germany’s leading Russia experts: Steinmeier should engage as little as possible with Putin and his cronies.Instead, the German foreign minister should ramp up his contacts with Russia’s diverse array of opposition figures, including human rights activists, dissidents, artists, and liberal-minded entrepreneurs.
At the same time, experts say, Germany should make a push to improve relations with Russia’s neighbors within the context of a democratization agenda. Many of these states are uncomfortable with the specter of a Russian hegemon haunting them. The primary tool available to Germany is an EU Association Agreement, but strengthening bilateral political, economic, and security ties with individual governments would be a smart way to proceed -- at least in Central Asia.
Simply engaging Russia’s neighbors, some of them already bona fide autocracies, is a problematic way to go forward. It is likewise debatable how much influence Germany and the EU actually have in Russia’s neighborhood. What is clear is that the last 10 years of engagement with countries like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan has not produced much progress toward better governance, or basic respect for human rights. Also, it's clear that the achievements of the EU-Central Asia Strategy – an important project of Steinmeier’s first term – are modest at best.
In some respects, Germany’s past toleration of dictators in the Caspian Basin played a role in creating the present dilemmas. To give one example, Kazakhstan’s leadership of the OSCE, heavily supported by Germany, turned out to be a debacle, in terms of promoting democratization in the formerly Soviet lands. Elsewhere, going easy on the autocratic regime in Uzbekistan, evidently in the hopes of building peace and rule of law in Afghanistan, has left Berlin vulnerable to accusations of diplomatic hypocrisy. On top of that, bilateral German-Uzbek relations today are in a shambles, and Germany’s relationship with Azerbaijan is similarly out of whack.
Rather than simple engagement, the countries in the region need constant attention and an approach that moves away from state-centric concepts of security and modernization. As much as Germany needs to lead on redefining EU-Russia relationships, it also needs to develop or update separate realistic strategies for Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
Cornelius Graubner is a Caucasus and Central Asia expert based in New York. He tweets at @cgraubner.