Merkel’s Ambiva­lent Legacy in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe

Foto: Imago /​ ZUMA Wire


When Angela Merkel took office as German Chan­cellor in 2005, she was better prepared for the chal­lenges on the EU’s eastern border than any other West European head of govern­ment. However, before Merkel’s takeover of the chan­cel­lor­ship, Berlin had already sent wrong signals to the new neo-imperial lead­er­ship in Moscow by inviting Putin to address the German federal parlia­ment in 2001 and starting the Nord Stream projects in 2005. Conse­quen­tial missteps before and after Merkel came to power put German Eastern Europe policies on the wrong path in the new century. In 2014, there was only a partial correc­tion of the Russia course set by Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chan­cellor 1998–2005. Today, politi­cians, diplomats and experts in Moscow likely wonder what has got into the Germans since the annex­a­tion of Crimea. Hadn’t Berlin accepted Russian special rights in the post-Soviet space as an unwritten law of post-Cold War Eastern European geopolitics? 

One can imagine that the outgoing German chan­cellor is unhappy about 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 dissat­is­fied 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, various German commen­ta­tors have 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. However, 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. The Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions that were mani­fested in 2014 had already been observ­able in its policies regarding other countries, for example Moldova and Georgia.

A para­dox­ical legacy

In late 2021, Europe’s most important and expe­ri­enced politi­cian will step down at a time when not only most Russian part­ner­ships with Western orga­ni­za­tions and states have been termi­nated, damaged, or frozen. Today, Moscow is — as it was before the late Soviet democ­ra­ti­za­tion of 1987 — once again in a funda­mental normative conflict with the West. The Kremlin’s new aggres­sive­ness towards liberal demo­c­ratic states has been expressing itself by subver­sion of Western political processes, such as Moscow’s inter­ven­tions in the pres­i­den­tial elections of the United States in 2016 and – less success­fully – the elections in 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 smoulder. Moscow is also highly present in the Armenian-Azer­bai­jani conflict, while the EU, involved in the South Caucasus with a special Eastern Part­ner­ship programme, has played only an observer role since the second Karabakh War of 2020. The signs in Russian-Ukrainian relations are once again pointing to a storm. In the worst case, an open war could break out between Europe’s two largest terri­to­rial states. To what extent can Merkel be blamed for the manifest failure of the Russia and Eastern Europe policies of Germany and the EU over the past decade and a half?

The paradox of the outgoing chancellor’s apparent failure is that her biography and her commit­ment to Eastern policy since 2005 promised rather good things to come. Merkel was more prepared than any other leading German politi­cian for the chal­lenges facing Germany and the EU in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War. Having grown up in the GDR, the future chan­cellor had lived in the Soviet Union as a visiting student and spoke Russian. In 1989–1990, she partic­i­pated in the peaceful revo­lu­tion in East Germany. Merkel under­stood better than most other Western politi­cians the upheavals in the post-Soviet space of the past 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 a balancing force within the EU, Merkel has earned a high repu­ta­tion among Germany’s Western partners. She was able to take an unchal­lenged lead­er­ship role in shaping Western relations with Russia after 2014. Since then, Merkel has been deeply involved in lowering political tensions in Eastern Europe in general and, in partic­ular those arising from the Russian-Ukrainian war. Despite these and other favorable omens, the German and EU policies toward Russia today are in tatters.

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 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 in part to the German govern­ment in general and Merkel’s activ­i­ties in partic­ular. At best, the chan­cellor can be credited with the fact that her commit­ment to eastern policies and her enormous diplo­matic engage­ment in trying to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian conflict since 2014 have prevented a worse outcome.

The measure of German responsibility

Are the many good 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 from the outset, that Merkel then acted out as best she could? Were the Germans doomed to be onlookers as fateful inter­na­tional macro-trends unfolded in Eastern Europe that Berlin could neither have hoped to prevent nor been able to steer?

Shirking respon­si­bility in this way would not sit well with the political influence, inter­na­tional prestige, and economic weight of Germany in Europe. In addition, the EU continues to play a key role in Russia’s foreign trade and thus its state revenues, economic subsidies, political largesse, and bribery and corrup­tion. 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 major player in East European affairs. 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. Nor could Germany ignore the East in view of the World War Two history of, for instance, Ukraine. So why did Merkel’s combi­na­tion of expe­ri­ence, wisdom and notable efforts with Germany’s political, cultural and economic power not lead to better results in post-Soviet Eastern Europe?

Three Berlin policy decisions stand out that set German-Russian relations and Ostpolitik on a wrong path right from the start of Merkel’s 16-year chan­cel­lor­ship. These are a German invi­ta­tion to Putin to address the German parlia­ment 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 unable to depart 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 were directly related to Ukrainian affairs, yet that the conflict surrounding Ukraine since 2014 has marked the fiasco of Germany’s Ostpolitik in the new century.

A fateful Bundestag appearance

Berlin took a momentous decision long before Merkel came to power and early on in Vladimir Putin’s first full pres­i­dency. In September 2001, the German federal govern­ment invited the new president 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 all have been more appro­priate speakers to the German parlia­ment than Putin. At least Gorbachev did speak in the Bundestag as a private citizen in 1999 – long after his departure from politics.

Taken on its own, Putin’s rela­tively pro-Western 2001 Bundestag speech, delivered in German, seemed largely uncon­tro­ver­sial. 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 East Germany. Even more worrying was that Putin had been invited 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 disso­lu­tion of the USSR in 1991, and until today remain illegally in Moldova. In 1994, Moscow had agreed to withdraw its military forces from Transnis­tria in a bilateral treaty with Chişinău after having unlaw­fully inter­vened in an internal Moldovan conflict in 1992. At a November 1999 OSCE summit, when Putin was prime-minister but soon to become acting president of Russia, Moscow committed itself once more, in the multi­lat­eral “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 soon fulfil its bilateral and multi­lat­eral oblig­a­tions vis-à-vis the non-aligned Moldovan state. Merkel attempted to reach a solution for the Transnis­trian problem with Russian President Medvedev in 2010–2011 as part of the so-called Meseberg Process. However, Merkel’s strenuous efforts were unsuc­cessful. That was because Putin – and not the rela­tively pro-Western Medvedev – continued to hold the reins of power as Russia’s prime-minister from 2008 to 2012.

Another ques­tion­able aspect of the invi­ta­tion to the Bundestag was that it was extended after Putin had launched the Second Chechen War in September 1999, with thousands of civilian casu­al­ties. Moscow started this war against the backdrop of some curious terrorist attacks in central Russia after Putin had taken over the chair­man­ship of the Russian govern­ment in August 1999. Appar­ently, the 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 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 apartment buildings.[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 the disturbing devel­op­ments from 1999 onward, the Russian head of state was publicly feted 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. This omission consti­tuted the problem of Putin’s appear­ance in the Bundestag and his talks in Berlin. 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 bilateral rela­tion­ship. The chemistry between Moscow and Berlin is more important than the prin­ci­ples laid down in such documents as the 1975 Helsinki Final Act or the 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, some 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 was suddenly more resolute regarding Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Why couldn’t the same prin­ci­ples be applied to Crimea and the Donbas as had been applied to Transnis­tria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia (on which more below)?

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? 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

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 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 policy debate as well as Berlin’s rela­tion­ships with Moscow, Warsaw, Kyiv and Vilnius.

The under­water projects initiated by the outgoing Chan­cellor Schröder in 2005, which he subse­quently promoted in his function as chair of the super­vi­sory boards of Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2, were resolutely imple­mented despite being ener­get­i­cally super­fluous. In the apolo­getic narra­tives, the projects are presented partly as purely commer­cial, partly as clever geo-economics, and partly even as smart security policy initia­tives. Such stories have broad appeal, even though the absurd excess capacity for trans­fer­ring Siberian natural gas to Europe and the serious geopo­lit­ical conse­quences of the new pipelines are now readily apparent.

Reducing Moscow’s 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. While the claim of a need for the Nord Stream projects for European energy security was and is misleading, the Kremlin does see a real need to reduce Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Siberian and Central Asian gas flows into the EU. The partial achieve­ment of this goal with the commis­sioning of the first Nord Stream pipeline in October 2012 made it possible to continue the Russian policy of revenge for the collapse of the USSR, which had previ­ously been imple­mented in Moldova and Georgia, now also in Ukraine.

Gazprom’s option, from late 2012, of bypassing Ukraine for much of its exports to the EU was necessary for the subse­quent increase in Russian aggres­sion towards 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 mutually harmful blockade of all trade between Ukraine and Russia that lasted several days. Moscow’s esca­lating rhetoric and sanctions 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 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 on February 22, 2014 by the Ukrainian parlia­ment, which until then had been loyal to Yanukovych, and not by the Maidan revo­lu­tion­aries, as is often claimed.

In response to Yanukovych’s ousting, Moscow shifted its Ukraine policy to the strategy it had pursued some 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 late 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 regarded as experts on Eastern Europe insist that the Ukraine is a special case and emphasise the key role of misguided EU policies in the esca­la­tion in Eastern Europe in 2014. But long before Russia’s attack on its Western-oriented brother state, the republics of Moldova and Georgia found them­selves on the receiving end of military punish­ment from the Kremlin without being part of Eastern Slavic culture or involved in asso­ci­a­tion nego­ti­a­tions with Brussels. The two post-Soviet republics had lost control of larger propor­tions 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 glaring histor­ical parallels to the results of the Ostpolitik of the 1970s are over­looked. 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 for a pipeline under the Baltic Sea. Nine years after the German-Russian agreement, Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014. To be sure, as in the 1970s, other devel­op­ments around the world were also 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 extend this 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 , we arrive at 2024, the year in which the current Russian-Ukrainian gas agreement will expire. And the regular pres­i­den­tial elections of both Russia and Ukraine are also 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 in 1979 and 2014 followed the launch of the mammoth energy projects with Moscow in 1970 and 2005.

The well-known German formula of “Annäherung durch Verflech­tung” (“rapproche­ment through closer ties”) has taken on a meaning in recent years that goes beyond the merely metaphor­ical. Germany and the Russian sphere of control have meanwhile moved closer together not only econom­i­cally and polit­i­cally, but also geograph­i­cally. The almost fateful accuracy of Berlin’s 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 — via the Baltic Sea ‑which since 2011 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, the devel­op­ment of economic ties leads not only to more peaceful rela­tion­ships between the countries involved. An asso­ci­ated weakening of economic ties with third countries can mean less peace for them. As a result of Germany’s increasing 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 in 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 very damaging 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 no longer have been able to prevent the comple­tion of the first Nord Stream pipeline in 2012, if she ever to wanted to. 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 with regard to Georgia that — in contrast to the two Nord Stream projects – have been hardly discussed in Germany. 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 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 appli­ca­tion. At the same time, in Ukraine, nearly two-thirds still opposed NATO member­ship – a Ukrainian attitude that turned around only after the Russian attack in 2014.

Also, unlike Ukraine at the time, Georgia had not been a fully sovereign state for long in 2008 and had 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 control­ling approx­i­mately 20 percent of Georgian state territory. (The Ukrainian terri­to­ries that came under official or de facto Russian control in 2014 are larger than the corre­sponding Georgian areas; but 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 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 the member­ship appli­ca­tions of Georgia and 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 state explic­itly 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 largely autonomous. Therefore, in early summer 2008, Putin thawed the frozen conflict in the Tskhin­vali region, 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 the regular troops 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 the pattern of behavior described earlier towards 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 implicit German 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 without conse­quences for the Kremlin. Brussels lifted the slight 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 Chair of the German Steering Committee of this bilateral orga­ni­za­tion, Lothar de Maizière, and the Deputy Chair, Liudmila Verbit­skaia, the Rector of St. Peters­burg Univer­sity, (Putin’s alma mater). In 2010, the initially German project of a so-called Modern­iza­tion Part­ner­ship with Russia was adopted by 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 positive political after-effects of an economic rapprochement.

However, as we now know Berlin’s noble inten­tions and strategic calcu­la­tions were misguided. From the outset, they could not make good 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 both the North and 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 through its continued 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 existing 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. 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 track Germany had taken in its Russia policy under Gerhard Schröder. Merkel’s diplo­matic engage­ment in Eastern Europe 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 was 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 remains char­ac­ter­ized by the 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 rise further 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,–04-09/germanys-new-Ostpolitik; 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 case on the territory of Georgia where the legality of a Russian military base in Abkhazia was similarly 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).

Andreas Umland, Dr. phil., Ph. D., is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of Inter­na­tional Affairs, a Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and the General Editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart.




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