09.12.22 EU Review

"Ukraine Comes First": Berlin has recognized the exhaustion and fallacy of the course toward special relations with Russia, which it has adhered to for the last fifty years

For the past fifty years, German policy toward Russia has been dominated by the idea of a "special relationship," based on the "change through rapprochement" concept set forth by Willy Brandt's government and then consistently promoted by the German Social Democrats. Supported by Leonid Brezhnev, this concept became the foundation of a "détente" policy in the early 1970s and made gas cooperation between Russia and Germany possible. Today German Social Democrats recognize its fallacy: this concept worked well in the 20th century with the USSR but turned into a trap in relations with Putin's Russia in the 21st. Social Democrats and the German foreign policy establishment are radically reconsidering these approaches. They believe that the principle "Russia first" should be replaced by "Ukraine comes first" and that an idea of a "special relationship" between the two countries should be substituted by a strict commitment to a common pan-European policy towards Russia, which would take more account of the East European countries' opinions and interests.
Over the past decades, Germany has seen Russia as a strategic partner. In addition to large-scale economic projects like the "Nord Stream" pipeline, which continued an old tradition of cooperation in gas supply, this partnership also involved broad humanitarian collaboration (such as the annual "St. Petersburg Dialogue" Forum) and was based on the ideology of a "special relationship" between the two countries, which has been promoted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) since the early 1970s. The concept of a so-called New Eastern Policy based on the "change through rapprochement" idea was promoted by Willy Brandt's government and served as the rationale of the "gas for pipes" deal and became an important element of the détente policy later on. (In 2012, the German Ebert Foundation established the Russian-German education program named after Egon Bar, the author of the "change through rapprochement." concept.)

The ideology of a "special partnership" with Russia has been a part of the Social Democrats' foreign policy, and until very recently the party relied on normalizing relations with Russia. In its election program of 2009, the party advocated a common security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok. In 2013, the Social Democrats offered themselves as a moderator in the dialogue between Russia and the United States and tried to liberalize the visa regime for Russian citizens. The SPD's 2017 election program asserted that Europe, the United States, Russia, and China share a common responsibility for world peace, and was offering a new "détente" (Entspannungspolitik) policy in relations between the West and Russia. Even at the last election, in 2021, the current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz presented a thesis that peace in Europe can be ensured only in cooperation with Russia, not "against Russia".

Now the Social Democrats are forced to repent of their mistakes. Lars Klingbeil, co-chairman of the SPD, stated that the previous approach to Russia was a delusion and that security in Europe is now possible only "against Russia," not "together with Russia." The Social Democrats mistakenly believed that the tragic events of the two countries' common history imposed special obligations on them, while Putin had "instrumentalized" history to strengthen his authoritarian regime and justify his foreign policy expansion. The "rapprochement through change" concept has ceased to work: closer economic ties have not led to stability and security, but on the contrary, have provided Russia with resources for the war in Ukraine and leverage over Germany itself. Finally, according to Klingbeil, the Social Democrats did not take into account the interests of their partners in Eastern Europe and, as a result, lost their trust. When it comes to Russia, Berlin should no longer pursue a special political course, but a common pan-European policy.

The last thesis is developed in the article "Paradigm shift: EU-Russia relations after the war in Ukraine," by Stefan Meister, an expert of the German Foreign Policy Association (DGAP). In his opinion, a new European policy towards Russia should be based on seven principles.

The first one is "Ukraine in the first place". The EU should not pursue a "Russia First" policy, as it did before; it should concentrate resources on reform assistance to those Eastern Partnership states that aspire to democracy, the rule of law, and a market economy. Second, the EU should reconsider its goals and strengthen its role in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. Third, the EU should continue to support civil society in Russia, which advocates political regime change and democratization. Fourth, it is necessary to develop a common European visa policy towards Russia. Since February 24, some EU member states have stopped issuing new visas and banned entry with existing ones, while others have introduced a special category of visas for activists — these approaches need to be coordinated. Fifth, the EU should oppose the idea of total isolation of Moscow from Europe — if Russia becomes fully dependent on Chinese technology and disconnects from the global banking system, Europe's ability to influence the Kremlin will be reduced. Sixth, the EU needs to implement the integration of energy and electricity networks between member states and its eastern neighbors to reduce the overall dependence on Moscow in the energy sector. Seventh, the EU should develop a common foreign policy course, especially on military operations abroad and the creation of a joint army.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded in destroying not only the infrastructure of gas cooperation with Europe which had been built up over decades, but also one of the fundamental mechanisms of Russia's interaction with Europe, the pragmatic potential of which had been recognized by Leonid Brezhnev long time ago, and depriving Russia of one of the most influential and benevolent counterparts in the West — the German Social Democrats.