Anne Nietschmann: The Political Response of Germany to the Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation

The following article deals with the reaction of the German government to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. To get a more profound understanding about the motivations for Germany’s response, the political and economic relations between the two countries will be analyzed. Furthermore, the opinion among the German population towards the topic will be examined.

In her government’s statement of March 13 the German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany highly disapproves of the Russian annexation of Crimea, as it violates the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Furthermore, Germany reproaches Russia for acting against international law and making use of its military superiority aiming to push forward its own geopolitical interests. At the same time Merkel said, that the German government does not consider using military force in order to solve the conflict. Instead it will support all efforts for a diplomatic resolution. First of all a contact group should be formed, which is supposed to provide objective information about the events in the Ukraine and to create a communication channel between Kiev and Moscow. The German strategy of conflict resolution is based on dialogue: In the triad of measures that the government agreed on, sanctions are only in third place after talks and support. (1)

The foreign minister and vice-chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stated on March 17, after a meeting of European foreign ministers, that the Crimean referendum is politically and legally unacceptable. It requires a clear but at the same time proportionate answer from the European Union towards the Russian Federation. A too harsh reaction should be avoided, as it might make a return to normal diplomatic relations with Russia in the future impossible. According to Steinmeier, Germany and the EU should keep this future perspective in mind while searching for means for the de-escalation of the conflict. (2)

This course of trying to avoid confrontation with Russia and also avoid further escalation of the conflict contrasts with the strong measures taken by the USA, which aim to isolate Russia politically and economically. Due to the leading principle of integration instead of isolation Germany refrained from canceling the G8-summit in Sochi. It gave in only after the USA, Great Britain, Canada and France declared it to be canceled. Only after a long struggle Germany agreed to the permanent exclusion of Russia from the G8. Germany has been criticized by NATO for its cautious behavior, in particular for its disapproval towards increased NATO troop strength in the Eastern Baltic Sea.

To understand the reasons for this restrained reaction to the Russian annexation of Crimea, it is necessary to see Germany as an EU-member country on the one hand, and to consider the German-Russian relationship on the other hand.

Within the EU, Germany is holding a position in between those countries, which favor a more resolute reaction towards Russia and those, who restrain from taking too severe measures. The first ones are Sweden and the East European countries fearing Russian hegemony. The others are France, Great Britain and the South European countries. All of the EU countries having their own interests towards Russia, they must still come to a compromise in giving an consistent response to the events in Ukraine.

The German-Russian relationship is traditionally relatively close. Even during the Cold War Western Germany had quite tight ties with Russia, as both had to agree with each other on Visa regulations and trade benefits between the two German countries. This lead also to economic interaction between Western Germany and Russia, especially in the energy market.

Germany has taken over the role of Russia´s advocate and mediator among the Western countries since 1990 as a result of its gratitude. Russia had made the process of Germany´s reunification as smooth as possible and afterwards quickly withdrew its troops from Eastern Germany and other East European countries. The German chancellor Helmut Kohl actively supported Russia in joining international clubs and institutions like the London Club, the Paris Club and the G7. Also, Germany played a significant role during the establishment of the EU-Russia partnership and cooperation agreement, and the NATO-Russia council. During the war in Iraq, the then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder contributed to the integration of Russia into the international security structure. In return Germany is the only NATO member that is allowed to use Russian territory to supply its troops in Afghanistan. The fact that Germany was first to have talks with Russia about financial and humanitarian support in Chechnya after the war in the North Caucasus also attests to the close relationship between the two countries.

Today there are several platforms of encounter between Russia and Germany: In the annual German-Russian governmental consultations bilateral issues are discussed. The Strategic Work Group for Economy and Finance deals with economic and legal topics. The institution of the Petersburg Dialogue is supposed to bring representatives of German and Russian civil society together.

After the German-Russian relationship had cooled off due to harsh criticism of human rights violations in Russia from the German side, to which Russia reacted by searching the offices of German NGO´s and foundations based in Russia, the German government elected in October 2013 decided to improve the situation. In the coalition agreement that was agreed on in November 2013 Russia holds a prominent position. A whole chapter, titled “Open Dialogue and Broader Cooperation”, is dedicated to the bilateral relationship with the big neighbor. The coalition of the Christian democratic and the Social-democratic parties aims to “make diverse efforts in order to broaden and deepen relationships on the state and civil society levels” (3). Among other initiatives it is planned to found an Institute for Russian Science in order to improve expertise on Russia among German scientists. The coalition agreement is strongly influenced by the social-democratic party (SPD), which generally has a positive attitude towards Russia. Peer Steinbrück, who was the presidential candidate of that party in 2013, has the opinion that “criticism towards Russia should be voiced in bilateral talks, not in the marketplace” (4). The SPD generally is of the opinion that securing peace in Europe is possible only in cooperation with Russia. The Christian Democratic Party (CDU), constituting the stronger part of the coalition, has a more demanding position towards Russia. Andreas Schockenhoff, Member of the German Parliament for the CDU and coordinator for the Petersburg Dialogue until 2013, expressed this position: “We offer our hand, but also voice criticism, when we consider that politically necessary.” This attitude is mirrored in the following statement in the coalition agreement: “Russia is asked to obey the rule of law and democratic standards that it has itself obliged to respect.” (5)

In the topical Crimea Crisis many prominent former politicians and influential concerned institutions have criticized the government for reacting even too harshly. Thus, Günther Verheugen, being EU commissioner for Industry and Trade until 2010, warns about a possible negative spiral. He points out that one step towards confrontation will lead to another. This could finally end in a new Cold War in Europe. He also mentions that more intense communication with Russia was necessary during the preparation of the EU association agreement with Ukraine. (7) Helmut Schmidt, the German chancellor from 1974 to 1984 and still highly respected political commentator expressed his understanding for the Russian course of action on Crimea. In his opinion the West’s hysteric reaction provokes Russia to behave like it does. He considers sanctions against Russia to be nonsense. Also the influential institutions of the Petersburg Dialogue, the East Committee of the German Economy, the German-Russian Forum and the German-Ukrainian Forum voiced their opposition towards sanctions. In a mutual declaration they demanded that the government take conflict reducing measures instead of conflict escalating ones. A contact group should be formed. Instead of imposing military or economic sanctions, they propose dialogue on the levels of politics, economy and civil society. (8)

In the previous paragraph the interconnection between politics and economy already became discernable. As the focus has so far been rather on the attitude of the political sphere towards Russia and the Crisis on Crimea, there will now be a shift to the economic motives in the German reaction to the annexation of Crimea. These are especially strong in the energy sector. Germany receives 35 per cent of its gas and 30 per cent of its need for oil from the Russian Federation, mainly from state-owned companies like Gazprom or Rosneft. Taking a look at the entire volume of trade, it should be mentioned that in 2013 the total value of trade between the two countries was 76,5 billion Euros (which means a decrease of more than 5 per cent compared to 2012). 6200 companies owned by Germans or with German participation are based in Russia. They have directly invested 20 billion Euros in the country. Around 300 000 jobs in Germany are dependent on trade with Russia. This data shows the high degree of representation of German industry in Russia.

Accordingly the institutions representing German businessmen in Russia have a high interest in smooth and prosperous relations between the two countries. The above mentioned East Committee of the German Economy warns about sustained harm, which the German economy might suffer in case of economic sanctions. The increasing exchange rate of the rouble would lead to an increase in the price of German export products. It claims that the breaking off of the negotiations about more relaxed Visa regulations as well as the suspension of the negotiations about a new partnership agreement do not contribute to the solution of the conflict. On the contrary, there have previously been too few platforms of dialogue between Russia and Germany. The Committee also indicates in its statement that especially exchanges via travel and trade contribute to mutual understanding. (9) Also the German Chamber of Foreign Trade in Russia warns that harm of the economic relations between the two countries would lead to negative consequences for all concerned. On the one hand, the Russian people would suffer from the increasing price level. On the other hand, the course of slow recovery of the European economy might be seriously threatened. The Chamber calls upon German businessmen to continue ongoing projects and the government to follow a course of integration instead of isolation. Isolation would only strengthen Russian nationalism. The aim should rather be to establish a free trade area from Lisbon to Vladivostok. (10)

It is obvious that the pressure from the economic lobby on politics is quite high. On the other hand it should be mentioned that Russia takes only 11th position after Poland among Germany’s most important trade partners. Concerning the issue of Germany’s energy dependence on Russia, the German EU commissioner for Energy explained that in the long perspective Germany has enough alternatives to Russian gas and oil. He pointed out that the European energy stores are well filled after a mild winter. Thus, Europe doesn’t face a breakdown if Russia were to stop energy supplies in answer to European sanctions. In the last years Europe has diversified its sources of energy supply and can in case of a Russian embargo draw on oil and gas from Norway or Algeria. Other alternatives to Russian energy include the options of using coal, the extended use of alternative energy sources and shale gas from the USA. (11) Taking these arguments into account, it can be said that the moderate answer of the German government to the annexation of Crimea indeed has quite strong economic motivations. But still it is not economic reasons alone that keep Germany from a more resolute reaction, as the German economy does not depend on Russia to the extent that strong sanctions would lead to unbearable consequences. The prior described traditionally strong political connections arising from Russia´s role in the German reunion and the following support in Russia´s West integration by Germany should definitely be taken into consideration as well during the analysis of the German position in the Crimea crisis.

The last part of this article deals with the opinion among the German population concerning the topic, as data about this is often used by business representatives to strengthen their position. Opinion polls conducted by the German Association for Social Research and Statistical Analysis have shown that less than a quarter of the German population (24 %) consider sanctions against Russia a useful means to solve the conflict. 69 % consider them to not be useful. Only 7 % think that sanctions will harm only the Russian federation, whereas 44 % think that Germany will be negatively affected as well. Three quarters of the respondents claimed to be interested or very interested in the ongoing events in Ukraine. An overwhelming majority (76 %) thinks that the involved parties (Russia, the EU and the USA) do not act in the interests of the Ukrainian people, but rather pursue their own goals. The Germans mostly blame the Ukrainian government (57 %) and Russia (56 %) for the escalation of the conflict. 20 % think that the EU or the USA bear the main fault in this. When asked, if the crisis in Ukraine might lead to an energy shortage in Germany, 49 % of respondents answered negatively, 44 % answered positively. (12)

These results may lead to the conclusion that Germans disapprove of sanctions because of their fear that the German economy and energy supply might be negatively affected. But it has to be taken into account that the survey was ordered by the German Chamber of Foreign Trade, which then published the results on their homepage claiming them a confirmation to its own position. Personal economic interests are probably only one of the reasons for the disapproval of sanctions. Another one might be the growing anti-Americanism, which arose after the war in Iraq and to which has recently increased due to the scandal around the NSA’s activities. In the end, a growing disapproval towards the EU should be considered a reason for 20 per cent of people giving the main part of the fault in the conflict to either EU or the USA.

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(1) Regierungserklärung der Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel vom 13. März 2014: http://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Regierungserklaerung/2014/2014-03-13-bt-merkel.html, accessed 2014/04/23.
(2) Steinmeier, Frank Walter: Krim-Referendum rechtlich und politisch inakzeptabel, 2014/03/17, http://www.germania.diplo.de/Vertretung/russland/de/__pr/mosk/ukraine-steinmeier-1703-2.html, accessed 2014/04/23.
(3) Deutschlands Zukunft gestalten – Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU , CSU und SPD, 2014/11/29, http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/koalitionsvertrag136.pdf, p.169, accessed 2014/04/23.
(4) Bilger, Oliver: Große Koalition setzt auf Annäherung an Moskau, 2012/12/04, http://www.ostpol.de/beitrag/3826-grosse_koalition_setzt_auf_annaeherung_an_moskau, accessed 2014/04/26.
(5) ibidem.
(6) Interview with Verheugen, Günter: Gefahr einer Spirale nach unten, 2014/03/18, http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/verhaeltnis-eu-russland-gefahr-einer-spirale-nach-unten.694.de.html?dram%3Aarticle_id=280378, accessed 2014/04/26.
(7) Mühlbauer, Peter: Helmut Schmidt hält Sanktionen gegen Russland für „dummes Zeug“, 2014/03/26, http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/41/41340/1.html, accessed 2014/04/26.
(8) Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft: Gemeinsame Erklärung, 2014/03/07, http://www.ost-ausschuss.de/gemeinsame-erkl-rung, accessed 2014/04/26.
(9) Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft: Ost-Ausschuss warnt vor Wirtschaftskonflikt, 2014/03/05, http://www.ag-friedensforschung.de/regionen/Ukraine1/deutsche-wirt.html#1, accessed 2014/04/26.
(10) Deutsch-Russische Außenhandelskammer: Memorandum zur Situation Ukraine-Russland-Europa aus Sicht der deutschen Wirtschaft, 2014/03/11, http://russland.ahk.de/fileadmin/ahk_russland/2014/News/03/2014_03-10_Memorandum_deutsche_Wirtschaft_final_de.pdf, accessed 2014/04/26.
(11) Interview with Oettinger, Günther: Nur kurzfristige Probleme durch Russland, 2014/03/16, http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/energielieferungen-oettinger-nur-kurzfristige-probleme.868.de.html?dram:article_id=280200, accessed 2014/04/26.
(12) Deutsch-Russische Außenhandelskammer: Mehrheit der Deutschen lehnt Wirtschaftssanktionen gegen Russland ab, 2014/03/13, http://russland.ahk.de/news/single-view/artikel/mehrheit-der-deutschen-lehnt-wirtschaftssanktionen-gegen-russland-ab, accessed 2014/04/26.

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