Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attend a news conference in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attend a news conference in Moscow, February 14, 2014.
Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters

When Frank-Walter Steinmeier was appointed Germany’s foreign minister in December 2013, Europeans wary of Russia took it as an ominous sign. A bookish Social Democrat, Steinmeier was known as one of Germany’s most forceful advocates for close relations between Berlin and Moscow and for a style of realpolitik toward Russian President Vladimir Putin that bracketed human rights concerns in favor of deepening economic ties. Steinmeier’s enthusiasm contrasted with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s skepticism about Putin, but most expected that the chancellery would cede the Russia portfolio to the new foreign minister.

The German government’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis has calmed most of the initial fears. Merkel has offered a tougher than expected response, threatening broad-based sanctions that would do “massive” damage to the Russian economy. But it’s Steinmeier’s response, which has largely matched Merkel’s in forcefulness, that gives an indication that Germany’s strategy toward Russia may be undergoing more than just a temporary shift. It increasingly seems that Steinmeier and his fellow Social Democrats are intent on rethinking their traditionally conciliatory posture toward Russia, as well as the underlying foreign policy doctrine that informs it. If so, German foreign policy will be entering a new era.

Steinmeier was born in 1956 in Detmold, a provincial city in West Germany. In 1975, he became a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) at the height of Neue Ostpolitik, a foreign policy introduced, a few years earlier, by Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first SPD chancellor. Neue Ostpolitik, literally “new eastern policy,” aimed to improve Bonn’s relations with the Soviet Union and its communist allies in central and eastern Europe under the banner of “change via rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung). Brandt’s policy led to a number of groundbreaking treaties between West Germany and the Soviet Union as well as its satellites, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. As a result, tensions between Germany and the communist bloc diminished, and economic ties grew. In the long run, the theory went, friendlier ties would lead to more stability and security in Europe, and perhaps even a gradual subversion of Soviet authoritarianism.  

Among the greatest diplomatic achievements of Ostpolitik was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in Helsinki, in 1975. This groundbreaking meeting, which included representatives from both the Western and the communist blocs in Europe, concluded with an agreement that recognized the legitimacy of Soviet demands for noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries (Principle VI) in exchange for Moscow’s official recognition of the legitimacy of universal human rights and basic freedoms (Principle VII). The Helsinki Act was later credited with playing an important, if indirect role in the dissolution of communism in Europe as dissenters within the communist bloc began demanding that their governments live up to their own promises.

Since the passage of the Helsinki Act, however, the Ostpolitik of Germany’s Social Democrats has undergone a subtle but important shift. Whereas human rights provisions had once played an important role in the SPD’s outreach to Moscow, the party increasingly began emphasizing the Helsinki Act’s principle of noninterference. It was Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, who signed the Helsinki Act on behalf of West Germany, emphasizing (as he still does today) that Germany’s paramount strategic goal must always be to maintain peace -- a goal that he argues is best maintained through uninterrupted negotiations and good relations with all governments, including those that commit human rights violations and those that aren’t democratically legitimate. More recently, Schmidt has even declared human rights to be a relatively young concept that should apply only to the West, and not to countries like China and Russia.

Schmidt’s revised doctrine became even more salient under another Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who governed from 1998 until 2005. Schröder added an element of his own to the Ostpolitik tradition -- an emphasis on personal diplomacy. The Federal Republic’s third SPD chancellor developed a close political friendship with Putin during his time in office, which served as a signal to German industries that they shouldn’t hesitate to pursue investments in Russia. Making Western allies somewhat nervous, Schröder also famously initiated an ambitious new underwater gas pipeline called Nord Stream. The pipeline was built by the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom and connects Russia and Germany directly via the Baltic Sea, circumventing east-central Europe entirely. Human rights clearly played only a secondary role in Schröder’s foreign policy toward Russia. The Kremlin’s rising authoritarianism did not prevent Schröder from infamously confirming, in a 2004 talk-show interview, that Putin was a “spotless democrat.” (Putin found a way to thank him: after leaving office, Schröder was appointed by Gazprom as chairman of the board of Nord Stream.)

Steinmeier, a close ally of Schröder’s since the early 1990s, served as his chief of staff throughout his chancellorship. In 2005, after elections forced an unusual partnership between the SPD and the Christian Democrats (a so-called “grand coalition”), Schröder left politics and Steinmeier became foreign minister in Merkel’s cabinet. For the next four years, he placed a special emphasis on continuing the previous government’s conciliatory policies toward Russia. Appointing Gernot Erler, the SPD’s leading Russia expert, as his deputy, Steinmeier initiated the Partnership for Modernization with Russia in 2008. This program was based on a hope that Russia, under its newly installed president, Dmitry Medvedev, was interested in developing a modern economy as a means of gradually strengthening Russia’s civil society and making Russian politics more pluralistic. During his first meeting with Medvedev in Yekaterinburg in 2008, Steinmeier praised Medvedev’s stated commitment to the rule of law.

Merkel gave general support to Steinmeier’s Russia policy, yet seemed more skeptical about relying on Medvedev as long as Putin lurked in the background as Russia’s prime minister. Merkel’s position was vindicated during the short Russian-Georgian war in 2008, in which Putin seemed to be in command. But in a newspaper interview shortly after the war, Steinmeier still called his approach “without an alternative.” After the German parliamentary elections of 2009, the SPD was relegated to the opposition, and Steinmeier was replaced by Guido Westerwelle, a member of the liberal Free Democrat party. The new foreign minister focused more closely on the concerns of central and eastern European states and sought to address human rights issues in Russia and elsewhere more openly.

When Steinmeier returned to the Foreign Ministry last December, a number of prominent critics, including Jörg Lau, the foreign affairs editor of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, warned that the Schröderian approach to Russian policy could re-emerge. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when Steinmeier appointed his earlier collaborator Erler as the German government’s new coordinator for policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe.

Yet the Ukraine crisis revealed a new Steinmeier, one who seems to recognize that some of the efforts in his previous term were misguided. In his inauguration speech on December 17, Steinmeier condemned “the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian security forces against peaceful demonstrators on Maidan Square.” He did not hesitate to criticize Moscow’s role in the crisis, calling it “outrageous how Russia has taken advantage of Ukraine’s desperate economic situation to block the EU association agreement.” In early February, Steinmeier was the first member of the German government to indicate Berlin’s support for sanctions against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, a close Putin ally. And on a visit to Moscow on February 14, Steinmeier implicitly acknowledged that the Partnership for Modernization was a failure and openly declared that the German and Russian governments have different ideas when it comes to the importance of the rule of law.

On the other hand, Erler and Steinmeier have not abandoned their earlier approach entirely. It’s clear they still believe in the importance of cooperating with Russia and trying to mitigate its anxieties. As late as June 2013, Erler argued that the Russian government would be more likely to accept Western human rights standards were it not for NATO’s enlargement to the east, Washington’s plans for basing anti-missile rockets in Poland, and the West’s immediate dismissal of Medvedev's proposal for a new security alliance ranging “from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” For his part, Steinmeier still argues that Russian cooperation is imperative in solving any international conflict of significance. “It Won’t Work Without Russia” (Ohne Russland geht es nicht) was the title of an article written by Steinmeier for the German weekly Focus in late January 2014.

This has led to some renewed tensions within the German government. Recently, Merkel’s Christian Democrat party has again started to criticize the foreign minister. In early April 2014, Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy head of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary group, called Steinmeier's interpretation of the Ukraine crisis “highly problematic.” He pointedly disputed Steinmeier’s claim that the European Union, rather than Russia, had forced Ukraine to choose between the EU or Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union. Schockenhoff also explicitly criticized Steinmeier's categorical ruling-out of a possible future accession of Ukraine to NATO (although he did agree with the foreign minister that this is not currently a pressing issue).

Still, it’s clear that Steinmeier is trying to combine the Social Democrats’ traditional use of carrots in dealing with Moscow with the occasional use of a stick. That may signal a return to embracing the entirety of the landmark compromise made in Helsinki in 1975: noninterference can be guaranteed only if basic human rights are enforced. Steinmeier would still prefer to keep lines open to Moscow, but he no longer seems prepared to do so at any price. As Erler explained in a radio interview in early February, so long as Moscow refused to back a democratic process in Ukraine, the EU would support the opposition against Yanukovych. And in a February 19 interview, Erler said that the foreign ministry did not think it was a contradiction to pursue targeted sanctions and negotiations at the same time.

But the sustainability of Steinmeier’s new position is yet to be determined. In February 2014, Ulrich Speck, a leading German foreign policy expert at Carnegie Europe, told us that the tensions in Steinmeier’s new approach will be difficult to manage: “Steinmeier now has two separate Eastern policies at the same time, one toward Russia, one toward Ukraine … But while he will be keen to keep channels with the Kremlin open, Steinmeier is going to naturally look at Ukraine from the position of the Maidan and the opposition parties, rather than from the perspective of Moscow.” If the West’s confrontation with Russia deepens, Germany’s traditional understanding of Ostpolitik, with its emphasis on conflict avoidance through constant communication, may have to be abandoned for good.

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