Germany sours on Russia
Fool me once
Germany’s establishment once believed in conciliation with Russia. No longer
IN HER colourless suit, Angela Merkel looked like a grey mouse, too ashamed to face the German public after her cowardly decision to permit investigation into a comedian who had insulted the Turkish president. She is the epitome of hypocrisy and double standards. Her migration policy is an act of political suicide which has empowered Germany’s fascist right...and so on, and so forth. This was the sneering tone with which Russia’s state television channels portrayed Germany’s chancellor last week. No other post-communist German leader has come under such fire from the Russian propaganda machine.
Only a few years ago Russians saw Germany as one of their closest allies. Opinion polls show they increasingly see it as an enemy. In contrast to Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor who now lobbies for Mr Putin, Mrs Merkel has become a steadfast ideological opponent. She has taken a firm stand against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the campaign of lies deployed to legitimise it.
According to one of Mrs Merkel’s aides, Mr Putin’s mendacious denials that the “green men” who seized Crimea were Russian soldiers were a turning point for her. In turn, it is Mrs Merkel’s adherence to principle that makes her so alien to the Kremlin, which operates in a postmodernist world where truth and facts do not apply.
Mr Putin excels at exploiting other countries’ weaknesses. The Kremlin is now working hard to exacerbate the political damage done to Mrs Merkel by her policy of openness towards refugees. “Putin tries his best to topple Merkel, and he has a lot of instruments at his disposal,” says Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at DGAP, a think-tank in Berlin.
One of these instruments is television, aimed at both the domestic audience and native Russian speakers elsewhere, including 3m in Germany. In January Russia’s Channel One aired a story about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl allegedly gang-raped by a group of immigrants in Berlin. The report sparked large protests in Germany by ethnic Russian-Germans and anti-Muslim activists.
German police soon learned that the story was false, but Russian television continued to report it.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, even accused Germany of a cover-up.
The flagrant deceit of the so-called “Lisa affair” shocked the German public. Russia had employed similar disinformation tactics in the war against Ukraine, but never in Germany.
“The Russians went too far,” says Mr Meister. “They have largely lost the German establishment.”
“I used to see Russia as a strategic partner and competitor,” says Roderich Kiesewetter, an MP from Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic party (CDU). “Now it has become a potential enemy.” Even proponents of Ostpolitik, Germany’s traditionalpolicy of accommodation with Russia—mainly members of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partners in government—felt let down. Remaining Russia sympathisers such as Alexander Rahr, director of the German-Russian Forum in Berlin, are left appealing to his country’s deep-rooted fear of war. “The most important issue at the moment is not Ukraine, but preventing a third world war,” says Mr Rahr.
Russia once counted on business ties with Germany to secure the relationship. It miscalculated.
Among Germany’s trade partners, Russia ranks below the Czech Republic. Before the EU’s Ukraine-related sanctions, Russia accounted for 4% of German trade; that has fallen to 2.4%.
“Our overriding goal is to show that we will not accept violations of the post-war order,” says Markus Kerber, director of BDI, a business association.
The Kremlin has also tried courting the SPD to split Germany’s governing coalition. Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD leader, was received in Moscow by Mr Putin last autumn to agree on the construction of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that would circumvent Ukraine and the Baltic states. The EU may block the deal; privately, Mrs Merkel “would be happy to see the project fold”, says one of her advisers.
More important is the roll-over of sanctions in July. Getting them removed would be a victory for Mr Putin and a defeat for Mrs Merkel. But Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister and member of the SPD, has advocated more diplomatic co-operation with the Russians, arguing that without them “none of the major international conflicts can be solved” (eliding the point that Russia causes many of those conflicts in the first place).
Mr Putin cultivates links with parties on both the extreme right and the extreme left. One ally is the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party. Another is the ex-communist party, Die Linke.
Many supporters of the xenophobic Pegida movement are also pro-Putin. At anti-immigrant rallies last year in Dresden, where Mr Putin was stationed as a KGB officer in the 1980s, demonstrators waved Russian flags and chanted “Help us, Putin.” Russian propaganda activities in Germany have prompted the BND, Germany’s intelligence service, to launch an investigation.
Yet Mrs Merkel has come to see that Mr Putin’s antipathy to her stems from weakness rather than strength. In a storied encounter with the chancellor a decade ago, Mr Putin, aware of Mrs Merkel’s fear of dogs, brought his black Labrador into the room. Mrs Merkel froze; Mr Putin smirked. A fluent Russian-speaker brought up in East Germany, the chancellor understood Mr Putin’s language. “I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,” she told a group of reporters afterwards.
“Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”