Navalny arrest deepens chill on Germany-Russia 'special relationship'

Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow

Protesters clash with riot police during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Berlin has been long been seen as the European capital most understanding - and indulgent - of Russia. But that's  changing, says CATHRIN SCHAER.

For several years now, German newspapers have been proclaiming the next new low in the German-Russian relationship. There was 2015's Russian hacker attack on the German parliament that started the decline. Then the assassination of a Chechen dissident in a central Berlin park in the summer of 2019.

And of course, most recently, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been causing problems between the two countries. German chancellor Angela Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker, went to visit Navalny in his Berlin hospital after he was airlifted from Russia to Germany for emergency care following his poisoning last August.

TOPSHOT - Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks to take his seat in a Pobeda airlines plane

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny walks to take his seat on the aircraft taking him from Berlin to Moscow - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Navalny's arrest in Moscow last week, after he made the return journey to his homeland, and then the detention of thousands of his supporters after weekend protests, is the next, deep pothole on the increasingly rocky road that Germany and Russia are travelling together.

"I wouldn't even say that this is the watershed moment," Kadri Liik, a senior fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations and an expert on Russian foreign and domestic policy, argued. "The watershed may well have been the annexation of Crimea [in 2014] or Putin's appointment as president in 2011. All of that shattered the hope that Russia was becoming a western-style democracy."


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There is no doubt that, up until relatively recently, Germany has had a special relationship with Russia, more so than almost any other European nation.

As Vladimir Putin himself put during a visit to Berlin in 2011: “Between Russia and America lie oceans...Between Russia and Germany lies a great history."

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Over centuries, the relationship between the two nations has swung from détente to enmity. From 1969 onwards, West Germany – under a Social Democratic government – pursued what was called Ostpolitik, or 'eastern policy'. The main tenet of this was bringing about change in the Soviet Union through trade and understanding. Many Germans believe that their Ostpolitik was, in fact, what brought about the end of the Cold War.

More recently, the Moscow-Berlin connection has been based on Russia's support for German integration after 1989, and mutual investment in the energy business. In general, Germany's approach was that the more engaged Russia was in global trade and politics, the more democratic the country would become.

There was support for this domestically. Even today, many older Germans living in what was formerly East Germany still tend to have a more sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union. Around 72% of them believe Germany should have closer relations with Russia, compared to only around half of their counterparts in former West Germany.

"In the east, the Russians were not always the most beloved - but we knew them," Matthias Platzeck, the former leader of Brandenburg, an ex-East German state, put it. "And when you know something, you don't need to be afraid of it."

There's a special word in German for those locals who sympathize with Russia: Russlandversteher, which translates roughly to “those who understand Russia”. These Germans can still be found everywhere, from community halls to corporate boardrooms.

All of the above is why Germany has often been seen as interpreting Russia's often-incomprehensible and frightening (to former eastern bloc countries) ways at the European level.

But that is changing. It's not just the lengthening list of Russian transgressions that's causing the change. Surveys show that younger Germans in eastern Germany don't have the same fond memories as their elders. The Russian economy is not as important to Germany as it was once expected to be; in fact, the volume of trade with other former eastern bloc nations, like Czechia, is more significant.

"The collapse of the special relationship between Russia and Germany is the latest and most serious in a series of blows to Russia’s position in Europe," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow centre of the Carnegie Endowment foreign policy think tank, commented in an op-ed last September. "As a result, there are hardly any states left in Europe whose authorities have a neutral or positive stance on Russia."

For Germany, Europe has become more important than Russia, experts interviewed for a January story by weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, concluded. The editor of bi-lingual publication, Russia in Global Affairs, Fyodor Lukyanov, told Der Spiegel that Brexit plays a significant part in that, because Russia no longer has much to do with Germany's new responsibility, which must be "building or perfecting a new EU".

Part of this involves Germany's evolving acquiescence to the EU on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. The 9.5-billion euro gas pipeline, which is almost finished and will bring natural gas from Russia to Germany, is possibly the single most important product of the German-Russian special relationship

Sanctions imposed by the US on Russia last year temporarily stopped work on it and other European countries - Poland, in particular - have made their opposition to it clear for years. But the Germans have continued to insist on it.

However the attitude also appears to be changing. After Navalny's arrest, the overwhelming majority of European members of parliament voted for more sanctions against Russia last week, including EU representatives of Merkel's own political party who also expressed their dissatisfaction about Nord Stream 2 in a poll taken before the official vote. The sanctions may well impact the Nord Stream 2 project.

On Monday this week, the 27 EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss, among other things, recent events in Russia. "We consider it completely unacceptable and we condemn the mass arrests and the police brutality," Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat said at a press conference after the meeting. "Some countries raised the question [of further sanctions], others didn't," Borrell explained. "But today there was not any kind of proposal or decision."

Later on, Germany's own foreign minister Heiko Maas said that the EU would wait for a Russian court decision, expected early next month, on Navalny's fate. Borrell added that he was going to Moscow in February for further talks and that European heads of state would make a final decision on this topic when they came together in March.

Turning to the EU to make these decisions is the right thing to do, Roderich Kiesewetter, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee and a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic party, wrote in a recent editorial. "As recent events show, Moscow does not take Berlin seriously when it acts alone. We must, therefore, coordinate our actions at the European level and find common responses to Russia’s behaviour," he argued.

Kiesewetter believes there are further options for German cooperation with Russia in areas like Covid-19 vaccines, environmental protection and trade. But, he cautioned, "we must develop a balance of incentives and pressure, while making it clear that we cannot allow Russia to cross our red lines."

Meanwhile the European Council of Foreign Relations' expert, Liik, says she doesn't hold out much hope that sanctions will work. "To be honest, I think it will be hard to do anything impactful. Especially if the Russian regime believes it [the Navalny situation] to be existential for them."

However she does think that Germany still has a special role to play, even if the special relationship is looking a little corroded. "There's a very clear understanding of Russian principles in Germany," she explained. "That's not to say Germany automatically sides with them. But Germany comes across as being the one country that really cares about Russia. They want Russia to do well, for Russia's sake. That really sticks out for me," Liik told me. "Germany is in the perfect position to coordinate a European response."

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