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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