Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

Germany's love-hate relationship with Russia

Europe's future security map depends not on what happens in Ukraine but, rather, on how Germany reacts to such events


Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly not interested in cosying up to Western leaders; he believes that it's better for Russia to be feared rather than loved.

Still, Mr Putin is keen to remain on good terms with one European nation: Germany. In his recent speech to the Russian Parliament when he announced the annexation of Crimea, Mr Putin specifically cited the reunification of East and West Germany as his inspiration, adding pointedly: "I expect that the citizens of Germany will also support the aspirations of the Russians, or historic Russia, to restore unity."

The German government pretended not to notice this appeal, although everyone in Europe instantly grasped the true significance of Mr Putin's manoeuvre. For the future security map of the European continent does not actually depend on what happens in Ukraine but, rather, on how Germany reacts to such events.

It is up to Germany's leaders to decide whether the current crisis turns into a broader East-West confrontation which lasts years, or whether Ukraine is ultimately sacrificed on the altar of keeping good relations with Russia. That's not a decision any German leader ever wanted to make, but it's one which Chancellor Angela Merkel can no longer avoid.

Strong economic ties

THE strong economic links between Russia and Germany are often cited as the key reason why the two countries are on such friendly terms. Up to 40 per cent of Germany's oil and natural gas needs come from Russia, a dependency which will only increase as the Germans dismantle their nuclear power stations.

The Eastern Committee, the powerful umbrella organisation which represents companies trading with Moscow, estimates that up to 300,000 jobs in 6,200 German companies depend on business with the Russians.

And, by sheer fluke, the current leaders of the two countries share common languages. Because he served as a secret service agent in the former East Germany, the only foreign language President Putin speaks fluently is German. And because she lived in East Germany, the only foreign language Chancellor Merkel speaks well is Russian. There are not many other Western leaders able to claim such intimacy with Russia.

Yet to reduce Russian-German links to trade volumes and linguistic accidents is to trivialise a very complex relationship whose intricacies are seldom understood even in Europe.

All of Germany's leaders during the Cold War based their country's security policy on two pillars: total integration into the West, a process known by its German name of Westbindung, and a parallel Ostpolitik - or Eastern policy - designed to smooth over Cold War tensions.

Both policies proved to be a huge success. Germany became Europe's biggest economy with the support, rather than the opposition, of its Western neighbours. And Ostpolitik cleverly undermined the communist bloc from within: by the 1980s, not only East Germany, but the Soviet Union itself was utterly dependent on German cash and industrial machinery. When the Cold War ended, East Germany fell into West Germany's lap as a ripe - albeit largely rotten - fruit, with Russia's blessing.

Gratitude towards Russia

THIS success ensured that Ostpolitik survives to this day, more than two decades after the Cold War melted away.

Most ordinary Germans share a sense of gratitude towards Russia for allowing German unification to take place peacefully. And large numbers of German voters instinctively oppose any hint of a confrontation with Russia, for they dread the return of the Cold War, that dark period when German families were torn apart and playing fields of German school children often doubled-up as military firing ranges.

Predictably, therefore, ordinary Germans refuse to get excited by the Ukraine crisis.

In the latest opinion poll conducted by ARD, the country's national broadcaster, 49 per cent of Germans responded that, as the prospect of an East-West confrontation looms again, Germany should keep its distance from both the West and Russia. Only 45 per cent believed that Germany should be firmly embedded in the West.

The result was a shock for seasoned German political observers: "Germany, Europe's largest, strongest and most centrally located nation, is not instinctively Western in its political traditions and leanings," concluded Mr Jan Techau, who runs the Carnegie Europe think-tank and is considered one of his country's shrewdest commentators.

Presumably, Mr Putin must have come to a similar conclusion; he continues to beam from ear to ear while receiving in his Kremlin office delegations of leading German industrialists, all reassuring Moscow that Germany will veto any further Western economic sanctions against Russia.

But Mr Putin may be rejoicing too soon, and may be assuming too much cooperation from today's Germany.

For, at least at the moment, Chancellor Merkel is actually leading the diplomatic charge against Russia. Shortly after Russia's invasion of Crimea, she famously described the Russian leader as "living in another world".

Dr Merkel pointedly warned Europe not "to be filled with fear" about the prospect of economic sanctions against Russia. And she bluntly warned German lawmakers that Russia is "returning to the law of the jungle".

Even Foreign Minister Frank- Walter Steinmeier, who leads the Social Democrats which rejoined Dr Merkel's Conservative bloc in a grand German coalition government three months ago - and used to be famous for his Russia-friendly policies - is now chiding German businessmen for putting profits before principles by seeking to protect their trade with Russia.

One reason for this unexpectedly strong German stance is the brazen nature of Russia's military action, which has shocked German politicians in its similarities to the way Nazi leader Adolf Hitler advanced the cause of ethnic Germans in other European countries with the help of commando forces and fake referendums during the late 1930s.

Little love for Russia

THERE is a taboo in Germany about comparing anyone to Hitler, but none other than Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who is Dr Merkel's most trusted confidant, has now broken this taboo by making precisely such a connection between the Nazi leader and President Putin.

Furthermore, the same opinion poll which shocked politicians by indicating a strong German isolationist sentiment also shows that Germans have little love for Russia: 81 per cent of the respondents do not consider Moscow a "reliable partner".

Nor are the trade links as significant as they are made out to be. Overall, trade with Russia accounts for only 4 per cent of Germany's total exports, less than Germany's trade with Poland. And nobody believes Mr Putin can cut off Russian energy supplies, largely because the pipelines which carry oil and gas to Germany cannot be easily diverted elsewhere.

Indeed, it's Russia which depends on Germany, rather than the other way around.

But the most important reason why Germany has proven to be tougher than expected on Russia is because its leaders understand that the current showdown forces Germany to choose between East and West. If the Germans decide to block any sanctions against Russia, Germany will lose the trust of Poland and other East European countries which perceive the threat emanating from Russia as an existential one, threatening their very survival as independent countries.

The East Europeans, who control about 40 per cent of the decision-making votes in both the European Union and in the Nato military alliance, can ultimately paralyse both institutions if they don't get their way on Russia.

And Germany, which has spent the last few years trying to avert an economic meltdown by saving the euro currency from collapse, is unlikely to risk instead a European political meltdown over Russia. So, Dr Merkel has to lead on anti-Russian moves just in order to prevent a deeper political split in Europe.

In doing so, Dr Merkel is careful not to burn her bridges to Russia. So, while Berlin supports the imposition of further economic sanctions on Moscow, the Germans are privately opposing any military moves against Russia, such as the creation of new Nato bases in eastern Europe, close to the Russian borders.

President Putin is therefore right to keep up his hopes that, ultimately, it would be Germany which will veto any threat of Russia's total isolation.

And many European countries are right in continuing to worry about what Mr Techau of Carnegie Europe calls "the danger of German strategic haplessness" in stumbling into an irrelevant policy which neither keeps Europe united nor answers the challenge from Russia.

Everyone agrees, however, that the future of Europe's security now rests squarely on the shoulders of one woman in Berlin.

Luckily for all concerned - apart, perhaps, for the Russians - she also happens to be Europe's most intelligent and thoughtful leader.