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Merkel’s Ambiva­lent Legacy in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe: German Ostpolitik in the Shadow of Russia’s Imperial Revenge

Merkel's Ambiva­lent Legacy in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe: German Ostpolitik in the Shadow of Russia's Imperial Revenge

One can imagine that the outgoing German chancellor is unhappy with her legacy in Eastern Europe. In Berlin as well as in Brussels, Angela Merkel leaves considerable headaches about the future of the post-Soviet space.[1] Above all, many East Europeans in Warsaw, Kyiv or Tallinn are likely to be more or less unsatisfied with Merkel’s heritage. In 2005, Germany’s first female chancellor took office at a time when the political situation in Eastern Europe was relatively relaxed and Moscow was still on good terms with the West. Russia was a G8 member, involved in a special council with NATO, and engaged in negotiations for an expanded cooperation treaty with the EU.

Since 2014, much German commentary has insinuated that nationalist Ukrainians, with American support, have destroyed this former harmony. Discussions of Eastern European geopolitics in recent years have been often debates about Ukrainian internal affairs as well as Western errors regarding the recalcitrant country. In fact, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donets Basin were merely continuations of older Moscow policy patterns in the post-Soviet space, however. The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions that have become manifestly evident in 2014 were earlier observable in its policies regarding, among other countries, Moldova and Georgia.


A paradoxical legacy

In late 2021, Europe’s most important and experienced politician by far will leave her government post at a time when not only most Russian partnerships with Western organizations and states have ended, been damaged, or frozen. Today, Moscow is – as it was before the February Revolution of 1917 or before the late Soviet democratization of 1987 – once again in a fundamental normative conflict with the West. The Kremlin’s new aggressiveness vis-a-vis liberal democratic states has been expressing itself by, among other things, Russian subversion of Western political processes, such as Moscow’s interventions in the presidential elections of the United States in 2016 and – less successfully – of France in 2017.

In particular, old and new confrontations between Russia and its post-Soviet neighbors – most notably territorial disputes with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – continue to simmer until today. Moscow is also highly present in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, while the EU, involved in the South Caucasus with a special Eastern Partnership program, has since the second Karabakh War of 2020 played only an observer role. The signs in Russian-Ukrainian relations are once again pointing to a storm. In the worst case, an open inter-state war could break out between Europe’s two largest territorial states. To what extent can Merkel be blamed for the manifest failure of Germany’s and the EU’s Russia and Eastern Europe policies over the past decade and a half?

The paradox of the outgoing chancellor’s apparent failure is that her biography before she took office and her commitment to Eastern policy since 2005 suggested rather good things to come. Merkel was more prepared than any other leading German politician for the challenges facing the Federal Republic and the EU after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Having grown up in the former GDR, the future chancellor had lived in the Soviet Union as a visiting student and learned Russian. In 1989-1990, she participated in the Velvet Revolution in East Germany. Merkel understood better than most other Western politicians the upheavals in the post-Soviet space of the last twenty years, such as the Georgian Rose Revolution of 2003 or the two Ukrainian uprisings of 2004 and 2013-2014.

As a convinced European and Atlanticist, as well as balancing force within the EU, Merkel has earned a high reputation among Germany’s Western partners. For these and other reasons, the chancellor was able to take an unchallenged leadership role in shaping Western relations with Russia after 2014. Since then, she has been particularly deeply involved in with the lowering of political tensions in Eastern Europe and, above all, with the Russian-Ukrainian war. Despite these and other favorable omens, the Federal Republic’s and EU’s policy toward Russia today stands before shattered remains.

To be sure, the Merkel period also saw a number of achievements in post-communist Southeastern Europe, such as the accession of some Balkan countries to the EU and NATO. The three particularly large EU association agreements concluded in 2014 with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine can also be considered successes. However, much of this progress can only be attributed to limited extent to the German government in general and Merkel’s activities in particular. At best, the chancellor can be credited with the fact that her high level of commitment to eastern policy and her enormous diplomatic engagement in trying to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict since 2014 have prevented worse.


The measure of German responsibility

Are the many good preconditions, intentions, and activities of the German chancellor from 2005 to 2021 sufficient to absolve Germany from all responsibility for the serious domestic and foreign policy aberrations in the post-Soviet space during the past decade and a half? Was the Federal Republic, in the face of major geopolitical shifts outside Berlin’s competence, condemned to a secondary and mediator role, form the outset, that Merkel then filled as best she could? Were the Germans willy-nilly doomed to be spectators of fateful international macro-trends in Eastern Europe that Berlin could have neither hoped to prevent nor been able to steer?

Such flight from liability contradicts the high political influence, international prestige, and economic weight of the Federal Republic in Europe. In addition, the EU – and within the Union, Germany – continues to play a key role in Russia’s foreign trade and thus in the composition of her state revenues, economic subsidies, political rents, and bribery circuits. These and other internal and transnational Russian cash flows are fed primarily by profits from huge exports of Siberian energy to Europe.

For these and other reasons, Germany is a rather large elephant in the East European china shop. It would be inappropriate for Berlin to merely point the finger at other actors in Washington, Kyiv or Brussels to explain why so much has gone wrong in the post-Soviet space over the past decade and a half. A German middle finger to the East is also inapt in view of the World War Two history of, for instance, Ukraine. So why did Merkel’s combination of large experience, considerable wisdom and notable efforts with Germany’s political, cultural and economic power not produce better results in post-Soviet Eastern Europe?

In Germany’s mishandling of Moscow, three Berlin policy decisions stand out that set German-Russian relations and Ostpolitik on a wrong path early before or early on in Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship. These are a German invitation to Putin to speak in the Bundestag in 2001, the start of the infamous Nord Stream projects in 2005, and the unfortunate treatment of Georgia in 2008. The strange tragedy of Merkel’s Ostpolitik was that the highly intelligent and committed chancellor showed herself incapable of departing from the wrong track in Germany’s Russia policy that Berlin had already taken before she took office. It is symptomatic that none of the early German mistakes vis-à-vis Moscow was directly related to Ukrainian affairs, yet that the conflict surrounding Ukraine since 2014 has been marking the fiasco of Germany’s Ostpolitik in the new century.


A fateful Bundestag appearance

Berlin made a momentous blunder long before Merkel came to power and early on in the succession of Putin’s reigns of, so far, two premierships and four presidencies. In September 2001, the Federal Republic’s government invited Russia’s newly minted second president, Vladimir Putin, to address the assembled Bundestag. No other Russian head of government or state has ever received such an honor. This was true for Mikhail Gorbachev as indirectly elected USSR President of 1990-1991 as well as for Boris Yeltsin as the first Russian head of state elected by the people ruling from 1991 to 1999 and for Dmitry Medvedev who was Putin’s liberal stooge in the presidential office in 2008-2012. In light of their world views, these three presidents would have all been more worthy speakers to the German parliament than Putin. At least Gorbachev spoke, as a private citizen, in the Bundestag in 1999 – long after his departure from politics. 

Taken on its own, Putin’s relatively pro-Western 2001 Bundestag speech, delivered in German language, was largely uncontroversial to be sure. But the circumstances surrounding his effective performance in Germany’s national parliament were dubious. The Bundestag reacted with ovations to the courtship of a Russian politician who, as a KGB officer in Dresden, had only a few years earlier been part of Moscow’s occupation machinery in Eastern Germany. Even more worrisome was that Putin had gotten an invitation to speak and was celebrated in Berlin at a time when Russian forces stood illegally in another country.

Unwanted Russian troops were stationed in the Transnistrian region of Moldova during Putin’s 2001 visit to Berlin.[2] They had been there ever since the disappearance of the USSR in 1991, and until today remain illegally in Moldova. In 1994, Moscow had agreed to withdraw its military from Transnistria in a bilateral treaty with Chişinău after it had, in 1992, unlawfully intervened in an internal Moldovan conflict. At a November 1999 OSCE summit, at a moment when Putin was as prime-minister already de facto ruling Russia, Moscow committed itself once more, in the multilateral so-called “Istanbul Document,” to withdraw its remaining troops from Transnistria.

This had not happened, however, by the time Putin gave his speech to the Bundestag in 2001. Nor was there any indication that Moscow would any time soon fulfill its bi- and multilateral obligations vis-à-vis the non-aligned Moldovan state. Merkel attempted to reach a solution to the Transnistrian problem with then-President Medvedev in 2010-2011 as part of the so-called Meseberg Process. However, Merkel’s considerable efforts were unsuccessful. That was because Putin – and not the relatively pro-Western Medvedev – continued to hold the reins of power in Moscow, as Russia’s prime-minister during 2008-2012.

Another questionable aspect of the invitation to the Bundestag was that it happened after Putin had, in September 1999, broken off the Second Chechen War with thousands of civilian casualties. Moscow started this war against the backdrop of some strange terrorist attacks in central Russia after Putin had taken over the chairmanship of the Russian government in August 1999. Apparently, these apartment bombings that were used to justify Putin’s escalation in the North Caucasus had been orchestrated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). As detailed in books by John B. Dunlop, Yuri Felshtinsky, Alexander Litvinenko, Vladimir Pribylovsky, and David Satter, the FSB as the KGB’s main successor organization, headed by Putin until then, had blown up several Russian residential houses.[3]

The cold-blooded mass murder of over three hundred Russian civilians was intended to provide Putin, who had just advanced from the position of FSB Director to that of Prime-Minister, with a pretext for a punitive action against separatist Chechens. Above all, the new head of government and future president was to be given a propaganda template for his incipient accumulation of power in Moscow. Notwithstanding such and other disturbing developments from 1999 onward, the Russian head of state was publicly celebrated two years later in the German parliament by most of the deputies present.

The considerable domestic and foreign policy regressions under Putin, already visible by September 2001, were not a topic of his visit to Germany, to be sure. This omission constituted exactly the problem of Putin’s appearance in the Bundestag and his talks in Berlin at the time. The invitation of the German parliament as well as the reaction of the MPs to Putin’s speech sent a fatal signal to Moscow: Ongoing violations of international and human rights are of secondary importance when it comes to the relationship between the two largest nations of Europe. The chemistry between Moscow and Berlin is more important than the principles laid down in such documents as the 1975 Helsinki Final Act or 1990 Charter of Paris. At least that is how many Russian politicians and diplomats have seemingly understood Berlin’s loud silence on Transnistria and Chechnya in 2001. East-West trade, good personal relations, and fair-weather rhetoric take precedence over Western values, the international order, and European security.

Against this backdrop, a bit of so-called Russland verstehen (Russia understanding) would be appropriate. In light of the applause for Putin in the Bundestag in 2001, one can understand that Moscow was surprised in 2014 when Berlin suddenly displayed a certain firmness regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Why could to Crimea and the Donbas not the same principles be applied as to Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia (on which more below)? The latter territories were, after all, of much lesser interest to Moscow than the former.

How exactly is the Kremlin supposed to understand the German political class when comparing its reaction to the relatively similar Moldovan and Ukrainian situations of 2001 and 2014, respectively? The Bundestag applauded a Russian president when Moscow troops stood illegally in Transnistria and after they had killed thousands of civilians in Chechnya. Yet, for more than seven years now, Berlin has been supporting EU sanctions in response to Moscow’s activities in Crimea and the Donets Basin. These regions are more obviously part of the “Russian World” than Transnistria which is far away from Russia. “Where is the much-vaunted German stringency and logic?” some in the Kremlin may have asked themselves.


Berlin’s destructive pipeline policy from 2005 onwards

A second fateful decision by Berlin that predetermined the eastern policy of Merkel’s chancellorship was made in 2005, around the time she took office. In the final weeks before the end of Gerhard Schröder’s term as Federal Chancellor as well as in the months that followed, the first Nord Stream project was initiated. Schröder’s subsequent employment by Gazprom (and later Rosneft) and the, since then, massive propaganda of Europe’s allegedly dire need for Russian undersea pipelines set the course for Merkel’s future Ostpolitik. These developments created legal, informal, and discursive frameworks at the beginning of Merkel’s reign that had a lasting impact on her approach to Russia. The serious repercussions of these early decisions continue to shape the German foreign economic and policy debate as well as Berlin’s relationship with Moscow as well as Warsaw, Kyiv or Vilnius until today.

The underwater projects initiated by the outgoing Chancellor Schröder in 2005 and subsequently promoted in his function as chairman of the supervisory boards of Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 were resolutely implemented despite their energy redundancy. In the apologetic narratives, the projects are presented partly as purely commercial, partly as clever geo-economic, and partly even as smart security policy initiatives. Such stories have broad appeal, even though the ridiculous overcapacity for transferring Siberian natural gas to Europe and serious geopolitical consequences of the new pipelines are now readily apparent.

Reducing Moscow’s crippling dependence on the Ukrainian gas pipeline system by commissioning the first two Nord Stream strings in 2011-2012 was from the outset more than a new Russian foreign trade strategy. As misleading as the thesis of an alleged need for the Nord Stream projects for European energy security was and is, as real was and is the need for the Kremlin to reduce Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Siberian and Central Asian gas flowing into the EU. Only the partial achievement of this goal with the full start of operation of the first Nord Stream pipeline in October 2012 made it possible to continue in Ukraine the Russian policy revanche for the collapse of the USSR, which had been previously implemented in Moldova and Georgia, now also in Ukraine.

Gazprom’s alternative, available from late 2012, of bypassing Ukraine for much of its export to the EU was not a sufficient condition, but a necessary one, for the subsequent increase in Russian aggressiveness toward Ukraine. The Kremlin’s new intransigence manifested itself even before the Euromaidan revolution began. Over the course of the last peace year of 2013, there were a number of belligerent signals and actions by Moscow vis-a-vis Kyiv.

For example, in August 2013, the Kremlin imposed a complete and mutually losing blockade of all trade between Ukraine and Russia that lasted several days. Moscow’s escalating rhetoric and sanctions policy led to rising tensions in Russian-Ukrainian relations before the Kyiv protests began in late 2013. This occurred even though Ukraine was still under an explicitly pro-Russian leadership with then-President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (an ethnic Russian), and their imminent loss of power was not yet in sight. The pro-Russian president was removed from office not by the Maidan revolutionaries, as is often collocated, but after the street fighting had ended, by the Ukrainian parliament on February 22, 2014, which until then had been loyal to Yanukovych, on February 22, 2014.

In response to Yanukovych’s ouster, Moscow shifted its Ukraine policy to the strategy it had pursued years earlier vis-à-vis Moldova and Georgia. Following years of rhetorical, political, and economic attacks on Kyiv, Moscow began a partly military, partly paramilitary intervention and occupation of Ukraine in February 2014 on Crimea and in March 2014 in the Donets Basin, as it had done earlier in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.

It is surprising that to this day many Western interpreters of Putin fail to recognize the regularity in the Kremlin’s behavior. Despite the older examples of Moldova and Georgia, some commentators known as experts on Eastern Europe, insist on an alleged exceptionality of the Ukraine case as well as key role of wrong EU policies for the escalation in Eastern Europe in 2014. Long before Russia’s attack on its Western-oriented brother state, the republics of Moldova and Georgia did not need to be parts of Eastern Slavic culture or involved in association negotiations with Brussels for a receipt of military punishment by the Kremlin. The two post-Soviet republics had lost control of larger portions of their state territories in the 1990s than Ukraine did in 2014. Chişinău and Tbilisi met their sad fate earlier than Ukraine in 2014, allegedly incited by radical nationalism and Western stupidity.

What is also perplexing about the Berlin debate on the dramatic deterioration in Russian-Western relations since 2014 is that the obvious historical parallels to the results of the New Ostpolitik of the 1970s remain in the background. In 1970, Bonn concluded the largest West German-Soviet financial deal to that date with the Kremlin in the form of the Röhrenkredit-1. Nine years after this agreement to build new gas pipelines, Moscow invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The Soviet intervention ended the relative détente of the 1970s and ushered in a period of tension in international relations 1980-1985.

The first Nord Stream agreement in 2005 launched Europe’s largest infrastructure project to date at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Nine years after the German-Russian agreement, Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014. To be sure, as in the 1970s, today also other developments around the world are disrupting the West’s relationship with the Kremlin. But Moscow’s military intervention in a neighboring country was a major factor in the rise of its tensions with the West in both 1979 and 2014.

One could spin this story into a forecast for the near future of Eastern Europe: In 2015, the Nord Stream 2 deal was concluded. If we add nine years – following the formula of 1970+9 and 2005+9 – to this figure, we arrive at 2024, a year in which not only the currently valid Russian-Ukrainian gas agreement will expire. The regular presidential elections of both Russia and Ukraine are scheduled for 2024. Notorious Russian TV propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov might comment such quirks with his famous conspiracy formula “Sovpadenie? Ne dumaiu!” (“A coincidence? I don’t think so!”).

There is more to such parallels than providing an opportunity for ironic oracles. Moscow’s interventions in Afghanistan in 1979 and in Ukraine in 2014 illustrate the limited effectiveness of Germany’s allegedly new Ostpolitik. The eventual repercussions of large-scale energy projects contradict the pacifist claims of the interdependence theory usually invoked to justify lucrative business ventures with authoritarian states. Not peace, but wars of expansion and escalation of tension followed the 1970 and 2005 starts of Berlin’s mammoth energy projects with Moscow in 1979 and 2014.

The well-known German formula of “Annäherung durch Verflechtung” (“rapprochement through entanglement”) has taken on a meaning that goes beyond a mere metaphor, in recent years. Germany and the Russian sphere of control have since moved closer together not only economically and politically, but also geographically. The almost fateful correctness of Berlin’s popular interdependence formula is confirmed by the fact that not only economically intertwined countries are moving closer together. As practice shows, the reverse conclusion of this law of international relations is also true. Those new gas volumes which since 2011 – via the Baltic Sea – have brought Germans and Russians ever closer together, are correspondingly lacking for the maintenance of Russian-Ukrainian proximity.

As both interdependence theory and the entanglement formula predict, not only does the development of economic ties lead to more peaceful relationships between the countries involved. A parallel reduction of economic ties with third countries may mean less peace for them. As a result of Germany’s increasingly deep energy interdependence with Russia since 2005, the transit states for Siberian gas flows that were simultaneously disentangled suffered a reciprocal alienation from Moscow. In particular, Ukraine’s economic untying from the Russian Federation after completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in late 2012 led to an increase of tensions between the two countries during 2013. Ultimately, this escalation led to Moscow’s occupation of first southern and then eastern Ukrainian state territory in 2014.

The relative gain in national security from the Nord Stream projects is small for Germany as a NATO state that is located far away from Russia. In contrast, the equivalent reduction of Russia’s dependence on its former colony and neighbor state Ukraine proved be fatal for the integrity of the latter. The all-European loss of stability as a result of Moscow’s Crimea annexation and Donbas intervention in spring 2014 far exceeds the marginal security gains for the EU from the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline.

While Merkel bears little responsibility for the ill-fated Bundestag invitation to Putin in 2001, she is partly to blame for the Nord Stream projects and their consequences. Merkel may have been no longer able to prevent the completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in 2012, if she ever to wanted to do that. But the start of construction of Nord Stream-2 in 2015 is a puzzle and creates an impression of cognitive dissonance in Berlin: Had the Kremlin not made its intentions sufficiently clear with regard to Ukraine in 2014?


The double error regarding Georgia in 2008

In 2008, Berlin made two further mistakes that – in contrast to the two Nord Stream projects – have been hardly discussed in Germany, with regard to Georgia. The German signals sent to Moscow at that time were to have far-reaching consequences for Russia’s Ukraine policy, as had been the case with the Bundestag’s invitation to Putin in 2001 and the signing of the Nord Stream contract in 2005. Germany’s double snub of Tbilisi within a year added to the impression already created in Moscow that Berlin tacitly respects Russian hegemony in most of the post-Soviet space.

When Georgia and Ukraine jointly applied for NATO membership in early 2008, they were in different starting positions. In Georgia, more than two-thirds of the population at the time supported the country’s entry into the North Atlantic alliance. At the same time, in Ukraine, nearly two-thirds still opposed NATO membership – a Ukrainian attitude that turned into its opposite only after the Russian attack in 2014.

Also, unlike Ukraine at the time, Georgia had not been a fully sovereign state for some time in 2008 and had sustained troubled relations with Russia. In the regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali – also known as “South Ossetia” – Moscow had already installed separatist satellite regimes in the 1990s that control approximately 20 percent of Georgian state territory. (The Ukrainian territories that came under official or de facto Russian control in 2014 are larger in area than the corresponding Georgian parts of the country; however, they account for only about 7 percent of Ukrainian state territory in total.)

Last but not least, preparations for NATO membership in Georgia were already advanced in early 2008. They had begun the usual process of reforming a country before joining the alliance. At that time, Kyiv had also already fixed the goal of NATO membership in law, to be sure. In 2003, Ukraine’s Law on the Fundamentals of National Security – adopted under pro-Russian President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych – stipulated not only accession to the EU but also to the Atlantic Alliance as a state goal. However, the corresponding transformation of the Ukrainian army and legislation by the time of the NATO Summit in April 2008 lagged even further behind the results of the impressive Georgian reform successes.

Against this background, the Bucharest NATO summit marked another unfortunate milestone in Western policies towards the post-Soviet area which was largely due to Berlin’s influence in the alliance and was, above all, Merkel’s doing. During the controversial internal Western deliberations on the alliance’s reaction to the two membership applications in the Romanian capital, Berlin could have proposed a differentiated treatment of Georgia’s membership application as well as that of Ukraine as a compromise. Instead, Germany insisted on a de facto rejection not only of Kyiv’s membership application but also of Tbilisi’s.

Georgia’s advanced preparation for NATO membership could have been rewarded in 2008 with the start of a so-called Membership Action Plan. This would have brought the country directly under the influence of the West and swiftly into the alliance. In the Georgian accession agreement, the non-government-controlled regions of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali could have been exempted from the Washington Treaty’s mutual assistance Article 5, as is the case for special territories of old NATO member states, such as the United States (Guam, Hawaii), the United Kingdom (Falklands) or France (Reunion). Also, a military reconquest by Tbilisi of the de facto Russian-controlled parts of Georgia could have been ruled out.

Instead, the NATO member states agreed on a contradictory compromise formula for the final declaration of the 2008 Bucharest summit. The alliance did explicitly state that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members.” However, there was no indication of when or how the officially announced entry of the two post-Soviet states into the alliance would actually occur. It remained unclear on what conditions the accession processes of Georgia as well as Ukraine would depend and whether they would proceed in a package or separately. The middle ground the alliance found in 2008 was ultimately worse than an outright and official rejection of Georgia’s and Ukraine’s applications would have been. The membership pledges distracted Kyiv and Tbilisi from pursuing other security-enhancing strategies and created a sense of urgency in Moscow.

The Kremlin intensified both its Georgia and Ukraine policies in response to the Bucharest NATO summit. While Moscow still had sufficient levers of domestic political influence in Ukraine at the time, Georgian domestic politics was already happening largely autonomous. Therefore, in early summer 2008, Putin thawed the frozen conflict in the Tskhinvali region thereby provoking a hasty response from then President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili and the Russian-Georgian Five-Day War. The Russian invasion of Georgia was ended by the so-called Sarkozy Plan. In the EU-brokered cease-fire agreement, Russia committed in mid-August 2008 to withdraw its regular troops that it had stationed in the Tskhinvali and Abkhaz regions during previous week.

However, in the following weeks, months and eventually years, the Kremlin repeated regarding Georgia its older, above-described pattern of behavior toward Moldova. As in the case of the bilateral and multilateral documents signed by Russia regarding Transnistria in the 1990s, Moscow did not implement the Sarkozy Plan of 2008. In violation of the treaty, Russia left its troops on Georgian territory.

Moreover, the Kremlin transformed the two Georgian separatist regions into the pseudo-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unlike the so-called “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic” (and later the “Lugansk” and “Donetsk People’s Republics”), Russia even recognized its two satellite regimes on Georgian territory as independent countries; the two quasi-states were also recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Syria and Vanuatu. With Moscow’s official confirmation of the statehood of the Russian artificial entities in northern Georgia, the Kremlin went beyond its previous neighborhood policy and entered new territory in its foreign policy and interpretation of international law.

Had a NATO Membership Action Plan begun with Georgia in April 2008 and the country been admitted to the alliance by August 2008, both Moscow and Tbilisi would have behaved differently in the summer of that year. The Kremlin’s risk calculation regarding a NATO accession candidate or member state would have been different. It is likely that the Kremlin’s approach to Georgia would have instead aligned with its patterns of behavior toward the Baltic republics. The Georgian leadership, in turn, would also have been in a different behavioral mode during an ongoing accession process with NATO or after obtaining membership in the alliance; such a context would have limited Tbilisi’s reaction radius regarding Russian provocations.

Instead, NATO – largely at the instigation of Berlin – sent a risky signal to the Kremlin in April 2008. According to the German implicit message, even elementary security interests of Russia’s neighbors who are pro-Western but not integrated with the West are secondary to the Kremlin’s preferences. With its Georgia policy in 2008, Merkel’s government reaffirmed an impression that Berlin had already left on Moscow in 2001 under Schröder with its neglect of Moldovan security interests. For Putin & Co., this – it can be assumed – established a pattern of reassuring continuity in Germany’s eastern policy behavior under different governments.

Worse, Moscow’s manifest violation of the Sarkozy plan and military dismemberment of Georgia into three states officially recognized by Russia remained inconsequential for the Kremlin. Brussels ended the already minimal European sanctions imposed to punish Russia for its war in the North Caucasus. The EU continued its negotiations of a new cooperation treaty with Russia, which had been interrupted in August 2008.

Germany went even further. At the 8th St. Petersburg Dialogue conference from September 30 to October 3, 2008 – i.e. only a few weeks after the Russian-Georgian war and shortly after Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a “Joint Declaration of the Petersburg Dialogue on Shaping the Partnership for Modernization” was signed by the Chairman of the German Steering Committee of this bilateral organization, Lothar de Maizière, and by the Deputy Chairwoman, Liudmila Verbitskaia, the Rector of St. Petersburg University, i.e. Putin’s alma mater. In 2010, the initially German project of a so-called Modernization Partnership with Russia was elevated to the European level and adopted by both the EU and subsequently many member states.

Curiously, after Russia’s invasion, bombing and dismemberment of Georgia, relations between Berlin and Brussels, on the one hand, and Moscow, on the other, did not cool down but warmed up. Of course, the German and other Western European advances toward the Kremlin did not contain any explicitly affirmative signals regarding Russia’s violations of international law and human rights in Moldova, Chechnya or Georgia. On the contrary, both Berlin’s and the EU’s so-called Strategic and Modernization Partnerships with Moscow officially aimed to bring Russia closer to Europe in normative terms by means of hoped-for positive political after-effects of an economic rapprochement.

However, Berlin’s noble intentions and strategic calculations were misguided, as we now know. From the outset, they could not compensate for the high costs of Germany’s rapprochement and interdependence strategy vis-à-vis Russia. The tacit neglect of elementary interests of small successor states of the USSR, such as the Republics of Moldova and Georgia, and implicit acquiescence to the Kremlin’s increasing undermining of principles of international law in the post-Soviet space could not have ended well. German and European forbearance toward Russia’s behavior on the Dniester and in the North as well as South Caucasus have borne no fruit in either domestic or foreign policy terms. While Berlin apparently thought to promote a pro-Western change of direction in Moscow with its undiminished willingness to cooperate, the opposite has been the result.


Ukraine as an aftermath

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014 appear to many observers as unprecedented aberrations in the course of East European geopolitics after the end of the Cold War. In fact, these developments were mere continuations of older trends. In some respects, they were logical outcomes of earlier domestic political dynamics within Russia, their repercussion for Moscow’s foreign affairs, and inappropriate Western responses to them. With Merkel’s assumption of the chancellorship in 2005, Germany had, what seemed at the time, an ideal occupant in its highest office of government to respond adequately to the new challenges in Eastern Europe after Putin had come to power in 1999.

As it gradually became clear, however, the new chancellor was unwilling or unable to abandon the wrong track Germany had taken in its Russia policy under Gerhard Schröder. Merkel’s diplomatic engagement in Eastern Europe did increase and was particularly notable in 2014-2015. It may be thanks to Merkel that Putin did not push deeper into Ukrainian territory at that time. However, the need for a paradigm shift in Germany’s Russia policy, which became obvious in 2014, failed to materialize – a sad fact that became manifest with the start of the Nord Stream 2 project in 2015.

That Merkel, despite her high level of competence and obvious disappointment with Putin, was unable or unwilling to make the long overdue shift in German Ostpolitik away from Schröder’s approach toward the Kremlin is depressing. Instead, Berlin’s mode of behavior toward Russia’s authoritarian regime remained and remains characterized by fateful decisions of a man who is a political friend of Putin and has been an official employee of the Russian state since 2005. Perhaps, the Eastern European and Caucasian blood toll will have to further rise in order for Berlin to turn away from this position.

[1] A variety of conflicting comments on Germany’s Ostpolitik during Merkel’s first three terms as Federal Chancellor, on which I focus here, have been published over the years. See, among many other contributions, the following statements: Rahr, Alexander: Germany and Russia. A Special Relationship, in: Washington Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, pp. 137-145; Chivvis, Christopher, Rid, Thomas: The Roots of Germany’s Russia Policy, in: Survival, vol. 51, no. 2, 2009, pp. 105-122; Szabo, Stephen: Can Berlin and Washington Agree on Russia? In: Washington Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 23-41; Stelzenmuller, Constanze: Germany’s Russia Question, in: Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 1, 2009, pp. 89-100; Timmins, Graham: German-Russian Bilateral Relations and EU Policy on Russia. Between Normalization and the “Multilateral Reflex,” in: Journal of Contemporary European Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 2011, pp. 189-199; Heinemann-Grüder, Andreas: Wandel statt Anbiederung. Deutsche Russlandpolitik auf dem Prüfstand, in: Osteuropa, vol. 63, no. 7, 2013, pp. 179-223; Mischke, Jakob, Umland, Andreas: Germany’s New Ostpolitik. An Old Foreign Policy Doctrine Gets a Makeover, in: Foreign Affairs, April 9, 2014,; Frosberg, Tuomas: From Ostpolitik to “Frostpolitik”? Merkel, Putin and German Foreign Policy toward Russia, in: International Affairs, vol. 92, no. 1, 2016, pp. 21-42.

[2] In fact, there was, in 2001, a second similar case on the territory of Georgia were the legality of a Russian military base in Abkhazia was also questionable. See Vladimir Socor, “Russia’s Retention of Gudauta Base – An Unfulfilled CFE Treaty Commitment,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 3 (99), 22 May 2006,

[3] Yuri Felshtinsky and Alexander Litvinenko, Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2007); Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky, The Corporation: Russia and the KGB in the Age of President Putin (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2007); John B. Dunlop, The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Examinations of Russian Terrorist Attacks at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014); David Satter, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).


An edited, somewhat different version was first published by the Center for Liberal Modernity in Berlin



Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has held fellow- & lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and Catholic University of Eichstaett. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (, Boris Nemtsov Academic Center for the Study of Russia ( as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (

Dissertations, articles & interviews: .
Open Researcher and Contributor ID: 0000-0001-7916-4646
Scopus Author ID: 6602605051
Web of Science Researcher ID: I-5395-2015
International Standard Name Identifier: 0000000116626604