Russia looks to German election for sway in Europe

Russia looks to German election for sway in Europe
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Germany’s election on September 24 is critically important for all of Europe, not just German domestic politics. This is because Germany is not only the richest and economically strongest player in Europe but also because Chancellor Angela Merkel dominates the European scene and is often called the leader of Europe.

The impact of the election’s outcome in relation to Russia should be top of mind. For the last 250 years, Russia’s primary European interlocutor has been first Prussia and then Germany and their strategic interaction has been decisive in shaping European political outcomes until now. 

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Neither is there any doubt that Putin, who speaks fluent German, sees things in this way given the efforts he has made to cultivate German political and business elites. Therefore we may assume that Russia is not merely a passive onlooker but is actually trying to shape the elections’ outcome and aftermath.

 

Analysts believe that Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party will win the election but not by enough to dispense with the need to form a ruling coalition afterward. This is where things get interesting. Russia has, until quite recently, invested substantial resources to move German opinion in its direction and waged an unrelenting information war inside Germany to shape German voters’ perceptions until that activity recently and visibly diminished.

This does not mean that Russian capabilities have disappeared. Rather Moscow has moderated or muted its campaign, possibly because it saw that it was not working. Indeed, it had become such a sore point in the German government that Moscow may have felt it was counterproductive to keep it running at the previously high level.

Nevertheless, it appears that Moscow is not renouncing the task of trying to shape German outcomes but merely shifting gears. Its diplomatic efforts now seem to be aimed at getting support from key German sectors that could be Merkel’s prospective coalition partners in the new government.

Putin’s sham proposal for peacekeepers along the border with Ukraine won assent for Socialist Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Foreign Minister. The Socialist Party led by Gabriel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeyer has chosen to emulate former leader Gerhard Schroeder’s policy of accommodation to Russia. Schroeder now serves on the board of Gazprom and is apparently being considered for a similar position at Rosneft and is thus under contract to the Russian government — although that seems not to have dissuaded the party.

Gabriel formerly told Putin that the Nordstream-2 gas line, which bypassed every country in Eastern Europe and whose economic desirability is moot to say the least, was desirable because Germany and Russia could implement it alone and thus exclude the European Commission and the EU from any role in the pipeline. These remarks naturally triggered a firestorm in Eastern Europe and the EU that continues to this day.

Now Gabriel and Steinmeyer are advocating resumption of discussions through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to revive conventional arms control negotiations with Russia despite Moscow’s unilateral violation of the CFE treaty and all the other arms control treaties except the New START Treaty and the invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is currently strong sentiment in the Socialist Party that to save the party from a declining spiral it must stay out of a coalition after the elections.

But Merkel’s other potential partners are, for the most part, not much better, the right-wing populist Alternative Fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) is expected to get 20 percent of the vote and, given German history, this is a disturbing prospect. But it, like other, similar parties across Europe, wants to make a deal with Russia at the expense of Ukraine and implicitly the rest of Eastern Europe by lifting or reducing sanctions and recognizing Crimea as part of Russia. Here the AFD expresses a view that enjoys considerable popularity not only in that party but also in the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), another right of center party that nonetheless apparently favors ”provisionally” recognizing Crimea as Russia despite Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine.

Recent research by Andreas Umland shows that there are many in Germany, despite the anti-Russian turn in public opinion, who support deals with Russia to reduce sanctions and/or recognize Crimea. Energy firms and banks clearly have chased after Russian business believing in a supposedly huge Russian market for the banks and exporters, while Germany supposedly must rely on Russian gas despite the well-known economic and political risks of doing so.

Their strong and unceasing influence even after the many revelations of Russian aggression show just how much Russian influence can corrupt otherwise Democratic polities. It is by no means clear that Germany benefits from selling out its Eastern European allies to get gas and the evanescent promise of market access.

Other motives may also apply here. Socialist Party members claim they do not want to spend money on defense and that accommodating Russia not only reduces threats and increases security, it also reduces the necessity for defense spending. But as German politicians should well know, appeasement of aggression rarely brings peace and security, quite the contrary. 

Therefore the magnitude of Merkel’s expected victory and the nature of a future coalition are questions of the utmost importance for Europe’s security.

Russo-German relations continue to exercise a decisive influence upon European security. Too often in the past those relations have flourished at the expense of the lands between Russia and Germany (and not only Poland), thereby bringing war and devastation to the continent. Although those relations are still decisive, Merkel and hopefully sound U.S. policy can ensure that they will now be a force for security, democracy and peace in Europe rather than war. 

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.