Before the general elections in Germany, representatives of all the major political parties declared that improving relationships with Russia was important for them. The majority supported at least a partial lifting of sanctions against Russia.
Although in March 2015 European Union leaders decided that the lifting of sanctions against Russia would take place only after full implementation of the Minsk peace agreement, an increasing number of voices calling for a loosening of the policy against Russia has emerged in the European capitals over recent months. They were particularly loud during the election campaign in Germany. As compared to 2013, i.e. a period before the annexation of Crimea, German exports to Russia decreased by EUR14bn, i.e. by 40 per cent. Thus, it is not surprising that all German parties that have representatives in the new Bundestag announced their intention to improve economic relations with Russia, terminate sanctions against Russia and increase the economic cooperation with Russia.
Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party that has its deputies in Bundestag for the first time, intends to pursue foreign policy in the same spirit. The right-wing and populist AfD wants to maintain NATO, but changing it significantly and depriving Turkey of its membership in the Treaty.
The post-communist Left-wing party (DIE LINKE) intends to pursue foreign policy in a similar spirit. “Instead of the policy of armament, confrontation and sanctions against Russia which is pursued by the federal government, we will introduce a policy for peace and disarmament,” the party announced in its election program.
This party is the successor of the communist party which ruled in Eastern Germany after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. Therefore, it is not surprising that it seeks a “new orientation” towards Russia and criticizes measures strengthening the NATO eastern flank, requires the termination of the Alliance and objects to increasing German defense spending.
Neither parties associate, in any way, the potential lifting of sanctions with the fulfilment of the Minsk peace commitments by Moscow.
Neither the Left-wing party nor the AfD have any chance of participating in the government. Altogether, they are supported by approximately 20 per cent of German voters and their proposals related to Russia express the sentiment of the major part of Germans concerning this issue. Thus, it is not surprising that politicians who form part of the current German government, also support a relaxation of the policy.
The German Social Democrats (SPD) take an explicitly pro-Russian position concerning this issue. They justify it by the heritage of the policy of détente initiated towards the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Bloc by Chancellor Willy Brandt at the beginning of the 1970s. However, their critics indicate that their attitude is closer to the political influences of Gerhard Schröder, once the mentor of many present SPD leaders and currently a Gazprom lobbyist.
In its program, the SPD described Russia as a key country for security and peace in Europe and those goals may be achieved “exclusively jointly with Russia, rather than beside or against it”. Consequently, German Social Democrats propose a “de-escalation and return to dialogue, as well as diversified use of sanction mechanisms”. In slightly simpler language, it means a “gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia accompanied by considerable progress in implementing the Minsk agreement”.
The statements by Sigmar Gabriel, the head of German diplomacy and influential SPD politician, imply that according to his view even a minor gesture of Moscow could be recognized as a reason to change the European policy towards Russia. In his opinion, the expectation of a full implementation of the Minsk arrangements is “illusionary” and sanctions should already be lifted in the situation in which the truce in Eastern Ukraine is maintained.
In June, in St. Petersburg, Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accompanied by Gerhard Schröder, met President Vladimir Putin for a dinner. Despite questions asked by journalists and Members of Parliament representing the Greens, details of the subject of talks between those politicians has not been revealed so far. Gabriel’s recent statements concerning the policy towards Russia are treated as in contradiction to the line of the government in Berlin until now.
Officially, the German authorities do not change their position concerning this issue, although Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) also signals the intention to cooperate with Russia. She has recently stated that the European sanctions against Russia will be lifted as soon as “peaceful conditions occur in the east of Ukraine”. Such announcements were not included in the joint election program of the CDU/CSU Christian democratic parties. On the other hand, quite far-reaching declarations can be found in the documents of the Bavarian CSU. According to this party, “sanctions against Russia must not continue permanently” and Germans must “build bridges to Russia”. Accordingly, the CSU wants to develop a schedule for lifting the sanctions, which would be “waived alongside the gradual entry into force of the Minsk provisions”.
It seems that the Greens and liberals from the FDP will be coalition partners of the CDU/CSU. In the political tradition of Germany, it is the smaller parties that take over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the time being, both those parties are in favor of maintaining sanctions against Russia.
“We consider targeted EU sanctions against persons responsible [for Russian actions in Ukraine – author’s note], as well as public and private institutions as an effective foreign policy measure,” the Greens declare, consequently speaking in favor of maintaining sanctions against Russia. Such an explicit declaration distinguishes them not only from other left-wing groups, but also from the remaining German political parties.
The FDP’s program declaration is in the same spirit. According to this party, it is even possible to “tighten sanctions in the case of repeated military escalation”. On the other hand, liberals are ready to ease or lift them completely if “substantial concessions are made by the Russian government”. However, Christian Lindner, the FDP chairman, has made statements that undermine those announcements. In his opinion, the current status of Crimea should be recognized as a “permanent provisional solution”, owing to which cooperation with Russia could be resumed. As this idea was opposed by other influential liberals, it is not fully clear what will be the final direction that FDP may take in this area.
Business opposes sanctions
Some representatives of German business regularly argue against sanctions imposed on Russia. This is obvious particularly in the case of energy concerns cooperating with Gazprom and Rosneft and German enterprises exporting industrial machines and equipment to Russia. The Eastern Commission of the German Economy (Ost-Ausschuss der Deutschen Wirtschaft), which represents the interests of German concerns and companies operating in 21 countries of Central and Southeast Europe and in Central Asia, is the most active in this area.
According to the report of this institution presented in June, the burden on Europe and Russia associated with the sanctions amounted to “at least several USD billion. According to the opinion of the head of the Eastern Commission, Wolfgang Büchele, this is augmented by “psychological losses on the part of enterprises and consumers which are difficult to calculate”. “Economic relations should not be politically instrumentalized. When sanctions become a political panacea, Germany, as a country dependent on exports, is a particular loser,” said Wolfgang Büchele.
However, according to Professor Hannes Adomeit, a political scientist and expert for Russian affairs, this lobbying of economic organizations for the lifting of sanctions does not fully reflect the opinions among German entrepreneurs. “The majority of them accept the sanctions and in relations with Russia legal security is essential for them. Its absence leads to such situations as in the case of Siemens, whose gas turbines went to Crimea against the contract,” Adomeit said at a conference in Warsaw.
In his opinion, German political elites are under the illusion that, like in the 1970s and 1980s, they will manage to reach agreement with the entourage of the Kremlin leaders. “In the times of Mikhail Gorbachev, these were people coming from scientific institutions interested in cooperation with the West. Meanwhile, the people closest to Vladimir Putin come from ministries related to state power and have goals which are totally different than the development of economic cooperation,” analyses Professor Adomeit.
In August, President Donald Trump signed an act pursuant to which he may also introduce sanctions against European companies cooperating with Russia in the field of energy. Restrictions may affect, among others, German companies cooperating with Gazprom in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. These declarations triggered harsh criticism of German business representatives and their opinions were supported not only by Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) but also by Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU).
EU leaders will certainly decide on the future of the European sanctions against Russia at the beginning of next year. In order to maintain them, unanimity of all 28 member states is required.
The European Union introduced sanctions against Russia in March 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea and the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions affected, among others, natural and legal persons engaged in those actions as well as the arms industry, and the energy and the financial sector. Since then, the European sanctions have been successively extended. In June, EU leaders decided that the economic sanctions would be effective until January 31st, 2018, whereas recently the EU governments have decided to extend individual sanctions against 149 natural persons and 38 legal persons, mainly from Russia, until March 15th, 2018. On the other hand, in August 2014 Russia imposed an embargo on food from the EU. It has been extended several times and for the time being, it will be effective until the end of 2017.