October 13, 2008

St. Petersburg Dialogue: German Policy and European Fears

In the aftermath of Angela Merkel’s annual meeting with her Russian counterpart many a gloomy prophecy as to the far reaching implications of this meeting has been given voice. Whether it be speculation about the return of Germany to pre World-War realpolitik and power aspirations, or the pending end of NATO and European integration due to Germany’s positioning in between the US and Russia, fear and apprehension has found many expressions. In the following I will first establish what was really spoken of and agreed upon during the summit. Secondly, I will briefly analyze the German position in light of the current European security structure.

In the aftermath of Angela Merkel’s annual meeting with her Russian counterpart many a gloomy prophecy as to the far reaching implications of this meeting has been given voice. Whether it be speculation about the return of Germany to pre World-War realpolitik and power aspirations, or the pending end of NATO and European integration due to Germany’s positioning in between the US and Russia, fear and apprehension has found many expressions. In the following I will first establish what was really spoken of and agreed upon during the summit. Secondly, I will briefly analyze the German position in light of the current European security structure.

The spin that has been put on the talks between Medvedjev and Merkel is little short of dumbfounding. Russian sources are proclaiming a momentous deal struck between Germany and Russia. Germany’s energy giant E-On gains permission to purchase one quarter of the Russian Yuzhno Russkoye gas field in exchange for a German guarantee that Georgia and the Ukraine would not be permitted to join NATO. US sources claim to have detected a dramatic turn in German foreign policy. It is needless to say that it is a turn for the worse. Germany is moving away from the transatlantic alliance and European integration, towards central European power-politics balancing Russia to the east against France in the west. It is suggested that Germany is quietly drawing lines, dividing Europe between itself and Russia, much like it has done before World-War II.
The reality, as so often, is much more dull and unexciting. In spirit as well as in letter the summit followed in the tracks of the nine previous ones. That means that both leaders acknowledged the respective importance of the other state, the quality, depth and necessity of co-operation, as well as the existence of some disagreements. Concerning the disagreements Chancellor Merkel was actually quite outspoken in her critique of the Russian conduct during the Georgian crisis. In that she continuous to be the most outspoken critic of Russia among post-Cold-War German political leaders.
So, what was the deal struck between Russia and Germany; and what did Chancellor Merkel say concerning her position on Georgia and Ukraine? E-On did gain rights to the Yuzhno Russkoye gas field, but that wasn’t the result of Germany agreeing to forsake Georgia and the Ukraine. Rather, it was the result of years of torturous negotiations. In the end, the nature of the deal was business. E-On and BASF, which already had bought another quarter of the Siberian gas field, will each hold 25% minus one share. The remaining majority will be held by the Russian Severneftegazprom. In addition to the purchase prize, Gazprom gained the right to buy back some of its own shares held by E-On. This deal allows German companies secure access to the gas field that will eventually feed the North-Stream pipeline. In return German technical know-how and money will go into the development on the field.
Concerning Georgia and the Ukraine, Chancellor Merkel has repeated her position that she has maintained and voiced ever since the Bucharest summit. At the press conference following the meeting with Russian president Medvedjev Chancellor Merkel said: “The countries [Georgia and the Ukraine] can and will, if they so wish, become NATO members. Concerning the concrete step of MAP accession Germany holds the position that the time is not right.”
This is not a sign of a shift in German foreign policy, but rather proof that Germany is maintaining its policy stance. This very foreign policy has however been the target of strong criticism from some NATO allies, mainly the US and the new Eastern European members. Germany has however very little room to maneuver. For one, it is very dependent on Russian energy. Certainly the deal struck between E-On, BASF and Gazprom will only increase this dependence. There is however a clear lack of alternatives for Germany in the medium term. Neither Middle-Eastern, nor North-African, nor Central European countries can sate Germany’s energy needs for the next five to ten years at least. Other sources of energy are either insufficient, such as coal, or politically and economically not feasible, like nuclear power.
Further it is important to keep in mind not only that part of Germany was also occupied by the Soviet Union, but that Germany itself was at the very front-line of the Cold-War. While some may harbor fond feelings of the security the western nations enjoyed during the Cold-War, Germany faced certain annihilation should this stand-off turn even lukewarm. Its Geographic position requires of Germany to prevent another situation where Russia and NATO spiral towards conflict, for it will be a conflict that Germany is unlikely to survive.
Lastly, Germany is aware that neither the EU nor NATO is in any position to challenge Moscow militarily in the Caucasus. Therefore, granting Georgia and the Ukraine NATO membership would be an empty, very dangerous gesture that would not increase Europe’s security one hair, quite the contrary! The US sits an ocean away from Russia and is in a comfortable position to pursue aggressive foreign policy goals verbally, but who believes that the US will risk nuclear, or even large scale conventional war with Russia to protect Georgia or the Ukraine should think again.
In conclusion I want to temporarily redefine the term realpolitik. It has come to be synonymous with realist balance-of-power politics, but in its literal meaning it describes policy based on reality and that is exactly what Germany is doing. The eastern European states, which are fervent supporters of NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine, are even more dependent on Russian energy than Germany and even share borders with Russia; so why are they so much more aggressive and outspoken? To put it quite bluntly: they think they can afford to due to NATO protection; and are, for now, above serious recrimination from Russia precisely because Russia sees the largest gain from co-operation with states like Germany. Germany is dealing with the reality of the situation, which is a resurging major power at Europe’s doorstep and little to no hard policy capabilities at Europe’s disposal in the near future. Germany is unwilling to risk its own physical and economic well-being by antagonizing Russia over a security guarantee for Georgia and the Ukraine; especially since everybody knows it is a militarily empty promise. Therefore Germany utilizes soft policy instruments and, in truth, the harshest critics in Europe are much safer because of it! Germany’s policy will change when the structural reality on the continent changes.

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