Posted: Feb 15, 2017
Author: Natalia Klimenko
After decades, the transatlantic partnership between the U.S. and Germany finally shows signs of weakening. That could open the door for Russia to become an important German partner.
A decade ago, Russia-Germany relations were characterized by such profound mutual understanding that a Moscow-Berlin axis did not seem improbable. However, since the start of the civil war in Ukraine in 2014, there has been growing alienation between Russia and Germany, with Berlin showing a clear preference for a partnership with the U.S.
However, all relationships are inevitably cyclical. With Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S., Germany might turn back to Russia to improve relations, provided Moscow makes certain concessions.
On Feb. 12, Germany elected a new president and former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier won the election. Steinmeier is well-known in Russia for his attempts to find common ground with the Kremlin over Ukraine. However, he prefers to stand with NATO and the U.S., even though he understands that improving relations with Russia is essential.
Yet no matter what stance toward Russia he will choose, his victory in the presidential race is hardly likely to have an impact on Germany’s foreign policy, because his figure is rather symbolic and doesn’t determine the state’s political agenda. Ironically, Steinmeier now has less power and heft than he had when he was Germany’s Foreign Minister.
In fact, his role is mostly restricted to keeping the country united in case of the government’s instability, which might occur after the 2017 parliamentary elections in September. This scenario is possible if the political parties fail to create a governing coalition — a scenario that is hardly likely to happen.
That’s why there is no reason to believe that Steinmeier will represent a fundamental change for Russian-German relations. All this means that the differences between Moscow and Berlin will persist and their different approaches toward Trump will only increase this gap.
In fact, Russia and Germany see Trump’s ascent to power differently. While Germans would prefer Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, Russians are among the few people who seem to be happier with the Republican Trump. While Germany raises eyebrows at Trump and all his moves and expects the worsening of relations with the U.S., many Russians hail the new U.S. president and expect to improve relations under Trump. At the same time, the Kremlin might be interested in worsening relations between Germany and the U.S. In this scenario, disappointed with Trump, Berlin could turn back to Moscow.
However, no matter what the Kremlin expects, U.S.-German relations might indeed deteriorate in 2017, especially if German Chancellor Angela Merkel is re-elected during the national election this year. There are several reasons for this.
First, Trump’s negligent attitude toward Western institutions and specifically NATO (he has described the Alliance as “obsolete” and unnecessary for the U.S.) is not music to the ears of the German political elites. Germany, after all, doesn’t have a very strong army.
Second, Trump is not a big fan of free trade agreements (FTAs). His decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) sends a warning signal to Europe and Germany, which planned to sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Moreover, Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, has accused Germany of “exploiting other countries” through gaining an unfair trade advantage from what he calls the “grossly undervalued” euro.
Third, Trump has sharply criticized the immigration policy of Germany, which has been sheltering refuges from the Middle East. According to his logic, such a policy creates the risk for terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals who might come to Europe disguised as refugees. Finally, the 2017 German parliamentary elections should play a certain role given the fact that many German parliamentarians are not happy about Trump’s presidency.
Amidst such an environment, Russia could benefit. It is expected to fill America’s shoes in terms of projecting influence in Europe. No wonder the Kremlin pins hopes on Germany, taking into account Russia’s firm belief that Berlin has been dependent on the U.S. for too long and can no longer conduct an independent foreign policy without looking at the U.S. for instruction. However, given Merkel’s tough stance toward the Kremlin and her reluctance to lift Western sanctions on Russia, Moscow’s hopes might be premature.
Despite numerous challenges, Germany and the U.S. still might find common ground even under Trump and there are some reasons to believe in this scenario.
Yes, Trump called NATO “obsolete,” yet it doesn’t mean that he will maintain the U.S. leadership with NATO countries and relegate this organization to the secondary agenda.
Yes, Trump promised to lift the sanctions on Russia, yet now he has changed his rhetoric and he is not ready even to alleviate the sanctions.
Yes, he talked about the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, yet recently he made it clear that the U.S. may ask Russia to return the peninsula to Ukraine.
Yet Russian pundits still believe that Trump’s backing away from TTIP could definitely benefit the Kremlin, which found itself in a state of confrontation with Europe. However, Trump’s hypothetical withdrawal from TTIP is a matter of concern for Merkel, who expressed her misgivings about the possibility of trade wars launched by Trump.
But if Trump weakens America’s ties with Germany, Russia could only benefit if it had a clear view of what it could offer Germany other than oil and gas. The Nord Stream-2 gas project, the pipeline that is laid under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, seems to be another proof of the absence of alternative strategies. But as Germany is reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas, its interest toward the pipeline might soon decrease.
Summing up, if Russia seeks to improve its relations with Germany, it should not rely on the scenario under which U.S.-Germany ties will worsen, at least because, despite ups and downs throughout the last 70 years, the long-established German-American alliance is powerful enough and may survive even under Trump. After all, he seems to be pragmatic and won’t destroy the achievements of his predecessors. In this regard, good relations with Germany are an important achievement to preserve.
Second, Russia’s foreign policy seems to be based on a zero-sum strategy: where the U.S. loses, Russia wins. However, the reality is more complicated: the deterioration in U.S.-Germany relations will not necessarily push Berlin closer to Moscow, unless Russia finds new ways to attract Germany.