The election of a new German Chancellor to replace Angela Merkel after more than 15 years in office is eagerly anticipated both at home and abroad. However, anyone expecting a drastic change in German foreign policy towards Russia will be most likely disappointed. At present, most signs indicate that the relations between both countries will remain frosty or even deteriorate post-election, regardless of who ultimately prevails in the voters’ preference. However, one uncertain variable in this otherwise predictable equation is the possible role played by the Green Party in shifting the country’s international course, as it most likely will become a part of a new German government after the election.
In Germany and abroad the question of who might succeed Merkel is being actively discussed. The group of candidates has meanwhile shrunk to two: Armin Laschet and Markus Söder. The former is the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and newly chosen leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while the latter is the prime minister of Bavaria and the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU). The parties traditionally decide together which candidate will represent them both as front runner in a federal election. In the history of the Federal Republic, a CDU candidate has been chosen seventeen times; only twice have candidates of the CSU been chosen, and both would go on to lose the election. While history appears to be on Laschet’s side, Söder’s strongest asset is his current approval ratings, which exceed those of his CDU counterpart.
Both Merkel’s possible successors have taken similar positions on contentious issues toward Russia in the past, such as condemning Moscow’s recent foreign and domestic policies and supporting the imposition and maintenance of economic sanctions. They also both support the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project and resist the introduction of further economic sanctions. Based on statements made in the past, Laschet is considered by German media and foreign policy journals to be more pro-Russian than his counterpart from the CSU. Critics accuse the new CDU leader of being too lenient with Moscow and fault his foreign policy remarks, such as at the 2019 Petersburger Dialogue, where he stressed the need to discuss contentious issues in Russian-German relations but also advocated strengthening and intensifying cooperation. However, Laschet clearly rejected criticism of his stance on Russia in an interview on foreign policy issues, in which he described his foreign policy imprint as deeply rooted in the West, with the United States as Germany’s closest non-European partner.
Another interesting aspect of the parliamentary elections in Germany is the fact that the Greens will most likely strengthen their position in Bundestag and form a new coaltion government. The Green party is one of the most outspoken critics of Russia’s current foreign and domestic policies in the German political spectrum. Moscow is well aware of the Greens’ foreign policy orientation (starting with the bombings of Belgrade under Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 1999), which does not give us much hope that the Green “foreign policy” could usher in new friendly era in relations with Russia. In early 2015, the Greens were the only party to hold a lively internal debate on whether NATO member states should support the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons at the height of the military conflict in Donbass.
With regard to current political issues, the party leadership has called for a definitive halt to construction on Nord Stream 2. More than in any other party, there is a consensus on this issue among the Greens, and the two leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock have repeatedly expressed in public their strong opposition to the project. In this context, Baerbock attacked Laschet directly and accused him of being too close to Russia, which she described as an expression of his lack of orientation in foreign policy. Above all, the Greens are a comparatively new and less familiar foreign policy interlocutor for the Russian side, as their authorities have far more experience in dealing with politicians from the other established German parties, especially the Social Democrats (SPD), which have appointed four of the last five foreign ministers.
It seems reasonable to assume that a new German government with the participation of the Greens would further complicate Russian-German relations. In their new manifesto, adopted in late 2020, the Greens bluntly accuse Russia of pursuing “nationalist and backward-looking” policies that undermine the security and self-determination of eastern European states. Furthermore, the goal of including Russia in the creation of a system of collective security in Europe is formulated, but it is linked to the fact that such an order should be based on common European values. A future Green foreign minister, however, would most likely urge Russia more explicitly than his predecessor to adhere to European values, which in turn would be perceived by the Kremlin as hostile interference in its internal affairs and further strain relations. At the very least, this seems more likely than a Green foreign minister simply ignoring his party’s clear stance and expressed criticism of Russian policy, which in the worst case could cost him or her the office.
Deteriorating Situation in Russia
The deteriorating domestic situation in Russia is also opening up new points of contention in Russian-German relations. At least since 2014, the relationship has been in a systematic crisis and was further exacerbated in recent months by the poisoning and arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. The recent expulsion of EU diplomats who allegedly took part in “illegal demonstrations” connceted with sentencing Navalny is a case in point. Furthermore, it can be assumed that the run-up to the Russian parliamentary elections in fall 2021 will increase domestic political pressure on incumbent President Vladimir Putin, who might resort to diversionary tactics as he has on numerous occasions in the past.
The election is anticipated with great interest and could turn into a personal referendum on Putin, whose handling of the events around Navalny has provoked public protests, especially among young Russians. Although Putin’s overall approval ratings have remained stable at around 65% in the past few months, he has recently lost a significant amount of popularity with younger generations. While nearly 80% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 supported the president’s work in 2018, only 51% did so in early 2021, according to a poll by the Levada-Center. Against this backdrop, it seems uncertain whether the Kremlin will be able to achieve its stated goal in the election of at least 45% of the vote for the Putin-affiliated United Russia party with a simultaneous voter turnout of at least 45% (current projections are that United Russia would get 27%).
The effect of State Duma election in September on Russia’s foreign policy should not be overestimeated though. Despite the fact that some international events might be instrumentalized to score political points by various nationalist groups within Russia, the overall effect of this will remain marginal. In a super-presidential system such as Russia’s, the head of state is the ultimate decision-maker in foreign policy, while the State Duma carries out largely representative functions. Even though the parliamentarian elections might usher in some domestic changes, they are most likely to have only indirect influence on the international behavior of the country.
In sum, regardless of the eventual elections results in Russia, the circumstances under which it takes place seem to severely limit the political room in which Russian decision makers can maneuver. If there are further protests in Russia before and after the election, Russian authorities are likely to crack down on them with an iron fist, which in turn would put domestic pressure on the government in Germany to condemn the events in Russia.
Given the arguments presented, it seems therefore very unlikely, for both domestic and foreign policy reasons in Russia and Germany that relations will improve under a new Federal Chancellor or a new State Duma. The Greens are likely to bring the worsening domestic situation in Russia even more into the agenda of Russian-German relations, while Russian decision makers will have another reason to push back under the pretext of countering ‘foreign interference’ to divert the attention from mounting socio-economic problems.
Since EU-Russia relations are also reaching new lows (as demonstrated by Foreign Minister Lavrov’s recent announcement that the Kremlin would even consider breaking off relations), the new German government will be additionally pressured to finally give up its “special role” (Ostpolitik) in relations with Russia, and adopt a less pragmatic stance towards the Kremlin. If the discussions about a new strategic approach of the EU towards Russia continue into the coming autumn, this could have a decisive influence on the formation of the German foreign policy course after the elections.