A three-page letter that was sent to German parliamentarians on August 18 makes sober reading.
Ostensibly, the letter is about how Europe’s sanctions against Russia and vice versa might affect the German economy. But the real message that Sigmar Gabriel, Social Democrat leader and minister for economic affairs and energy, Wolfgang Schäuble, federal minister of finance, and Christian Schmidt, food and agriculture minister, want to get across is that Germany’s special relationship with Russia is all but over.
It’s not as if Chancellor Angela Merkel—who will travel to Kiev on August 23—and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier haven’t worked endlessly with Russia to seek some diplomatic solution over ending the Ukraine crisis.
But time and again, President Vladimir Putin has spurned their efforts. In doing so, Putin is turning his back on Germany’s decades-old Ostpolitik in which successive German governments tried to integrate Russia into the West’s system of political, economic, and social values. He has also effectively turned his back on his greatest supporter in Europe. Ostpolitik has run its course.
The ministers’ letter conveys a real sense of the changes taking place in Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats vis-à-vis Russia.
“From the very beginning, we pursued a common European position in order to meet this challenge,” the letter states. “It is also thanks to our efforts that Europe has found a clear, common position. We want a political solution to the conflict in Ukraine. Yet this also means that we are ready to take all necessary steps, together and in solidarity—including all sectors and members states—to lend weight to our position.”
Then comes the part about Russia.
Now it is up to Russia to make its contribution to the resolution of the crisis. Unfortunately, there is little to be seen of that so far. On the contrary, the Russian president does not use his clearly existent influence on the separatists to convince them of moderation and to secure the borders in Europe that are accepted through international law.
With military exercises, a massive presence of troops in the immediate vicinity of the conflict area, and at the least the toleration of the transit of weapons and fighters, Russia is not making an effort for a sustainable de-escalation of the situation. This, the West could not leave unanswered. With the sanctions, we want to lend weight to the demands of the EU and the U.S. that Russia should end destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and play a constructive role in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict there.
Of course, the ministers know full well the effects of the counter-sanctions that Russia imposed on German and other European food producers. They write :
The sanctions imposed by the European Union vis-à-vis Russia, but even more the “counter measures” that Russia took in a demonstrative and arbitrary way, worry German business. We take these worries very seriously.
Beyond that, it has also been the case in the past (for instance, with sanctions against Iran or Syria) that the state does not take responsibility for external risks. These are solely the responsibility of entrepreneurial decisions. Yet we must be aware of the fact that, if the crisis continues to escalate, the number of German companies concerned can increase.
Despite this, the ministers believe that the effect on the German producers “will in all probability be noticeable but manageable.”
That’s not the view of the Ost-Auschuss, the influential Eastern Committee that lobbies for German companies doing business in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia. On August 19, the Ost-Auschuss argued how Russia’s sanctions would affect German companies and what losses to expect.
Interestingly, the ministers took an indirect swipe at the Ost-Auschuss and those parliamentarians that have been reluctant to take a firm stance against Putin’s policies. “It is understandable that in the constituencies there will be some uncertainty emerging… we must preempt exaggerated worries through objective information,” they note.
Even more revealing is how the ministers weigh up the short-term costs of the sanctions with the long-term policy of standing up to Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his military interference in eastern Ukraine. “We must explain why in the long term it would be much more costly for us to tolerate the illegal and destabilizing approach of the Russian side,” the ministers write.
In other words, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government are in for the long haul when it comes to dealing with Russia and resolving the Ukraine crisis.
Now that Germany has abandoned Ostpolitik, Merkel’s government has a chance to put in place a new policy towards Eastern Europe. That will require not only a huge economic and political input from Berlin and its European counterparts. It will also require Eastern Europe’s leaders to reciprocate by introducing reforms and tackling endemic corruption. In short, it will require a new Ostpolitik by both sides.