by Katja Hoyer
Monday, 15
November 2021
Explainer
18:00

Angela Merkel is too soft on Russia

The Belarusian crisis shows that Putin's interests are not aligned with Germany’s
by Katja Hoyer
Credit: Getty

The crisis on Poland’s border is also being felt by its western neighbour. Many of the 20,000 migrants estimated to have crossed into the EU via Belarus since the middle of October are headed for Germany and reaching its borders in increasing numbers. Yet the response in Berlin has been muted.

Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel tried to intervene with a phone call to Moscow, from where Belarus might be reined in. She told Vladimir Putin that the situation was “completely unacceptable” as the “instrumentalisation of migrants against the European Union by the Belarusian regime is inhumane.” She ordered Putin to shorten Lukashenko’s leash.

Since then, hundreds of migrants have broken down sections of the border fence between Belarus and Poland. Polish border troops were blinded with strobes and lasers by Belarusian soldiers as the latter aided yet more migrants across. And the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has pleaded for ‘concrete steps’ from NATO. It seems Merkel’s words fell on deaf Russian ears.

Lukashenko remains unimpressed. While seemingly reprimanded by Putin on Saturday for threatening to cut off gas pipes to Europe, some of which run from Russia through Belarus, he has been as belligerent as ever. He called the EU leaders ‘bastards’ and even demanded to be given nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems by Russia.

So why does Merkel think a phone-call to Moscow will change anything? Why does her foreign minister Heiko Maas imagine that Minsk will be impressed by a vague threat that the EU will act “decisively against the perfidious and inhuman behaviour of Lukashenko and his allies”? 

The answer lies in the historically fraught Russo-German relationship. As the Russia expert John Lough has pointed out in his recent book, Germany’s Russia Problem, ‘any conflict with Russia is deeply discomforting, and arouses emotions that impede clear thinking and consistent action.’ 

Even Otto von Bismarck, who founded the German nation state in 1871, said that the secret to successful foreign policy was “a good treaty with Russia”. Since then, events in the 20th century have added darker layers to this complex relationship. The brutality of German crimes on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, in particular, has created a residual level of guilt in the German mind, while Russia’s role in aiding German reunification in 1989 has further complicated matters.

Raised in East Germany, Merkel herself spent the first three decades of her life being told about the debt Germans owe to Russia for their liberation from Nazism. She excelled in Russian at school and still speaks the language fluently. She famously has a portrait of Catherine the Great on her desk in the chancellery. Her admiration for Russia is deep and real.

This partially explains why the energy dependency on Russia is not met with alarm in Berlin. In the eyes of German business, economic ties bind Russia to Europe as much as the other way around. The German embassy in Moscow is the country’s biggest diplomatic outpost in the world and pays a huge body of staff to engage with every aspect of Russia.

But Berlin will have to wake up to the reality that Putin’s Russia has interests that are not aligned with Germany’s. A friendly phone-call to Moscow is not going to change that.

There is some hope that Merkel’s likely successor Olaf Scholz and his emerging centre-Left coalition might take a harder stance. Scholz has called for a new tougher ‘Ostpolitik’ towards Russia. Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens, already voiced support for arms sales to Ukraine, and his colleague Annalena Baerbock has indicated that she wants a more ‘principled’ foreign policy towards Russia and China due to their records of human rights issues. 

Can a new German government really drive a stake into the old heart of German Russophilia? Perhaps the way the country responds to the situation in Belarus will offer the first clues.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

I don’t find Germany and its politics particularly interesting but I always read Katja Hoyer’s articles. Unherd only commissions mini articles from her but she always manages to pack a lot of easily-digestible information into a small space.
I could never figure out why Merkel went through with Nordstream II, turned her back on coal and nuclear, and so pretty much put Germany’s energy needs in Russia’s hands. Seemed like a reckless move to me and this article at least partially explains why Merkel adopted this policy. Still, everyone knows Putin doesn’t play nice and I’m not sure if Germany now dares to lean too hard on him on the issue of refugees or anything else.

T Doyle
T Doyle
10 months ago

Merkel will go down as the woman who destroyed Europe. We are fed up with Germany. A country and people who have brought more destruction on Europe since the time of the Romans and they still can’t grow up.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
10 months ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Harsh but fair.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
10 months ago
Reply to  T Doyle

Since the Romans? Hmmmm, Germany wasn’t a Nation State till 1871. So are you talking about individual small German States, the Holy Roman Empire or the Habsburg Empire? Maybe also consider France’s belligerent history or British Empire’s ? History is complicated and to talk about “Germany can’t grow up” is pretty simplistic.

Last edited 10 months ago by Stephanie Surface
John Hicks
John Hicks
10 months ago

Thank you, Katja Hoyer, for gathering the common human threads of the actors together in your research. History we can relate to. Chancellor Merkel must be a bit of a challenge? Look forward to that Book.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
10 months ago

The relationship between Russia and Germany is a tough one to understand. It seems to be an odd combination of admiration, fascination, frustration and anxiety. Perhaps a little like France and England – also the archetypal “can’t live with you, can’t live without you” relationship.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

I have never understood why Germany has repeatedly elected Angela “Wir Schaffen das!” Merkel. Inexplicably, many seem to like her. I have been taken to task by UnHerd commentators on my extreme dislike for her–her weird background, which has led to these incredibly stupid policies, from abandoning nuclear to over-reliance on Russian gas, and of course, the welcoming of invading non-European hordes that will change Germany forever.
Perhaps I’ve been asleep, but I did not know that 20,000 of these invading hordes on the EU border have made it through and are headed for Germany. This shows that the invaders themselves, Russia and Belarus, have won. Sickening. While this obscenity continues, the EU decides to have another meeting, to go to the 5th level of sanctions. Blimey, mate, this hasn’t worked. Why would you expect it to work now?
Aren’t the invading hordes “seeking asylum” required (hah), to register in the first country in the EU, and stay there while being processed? The EU has supposedly thought through these rules, all have agreed, yet the invading hordes raise their middle finger to the EU, have absolutely no intention to cooperate, and will do whatever it takes to be on their merry way. Stay in Poland, or LT, or LV???? Are you daft, mate? I’m going to my brother in Malmo. Remain here–are you a nutter–I’m going to my cousin in Berlin, and you can’t (or won’t) stop me!!!
May I suggest that the invading hordes close to the border be sprayed with water cannons? That should keep them away from the wires.
Angela Merkel is an evil old woman who has done much to destroy Germany. Her new saying should be “Wir nicht Schaffen das!” She will go down in history as the second worst German chancellor ever.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I don’t think Merkel is evil, but she probably was the worst German Chancellor since WWII. History will judge her harshly for her “Energie Wende”, trying to out-green the Greens, trying to safe the badly conceived Euro and opening the doors ( abandoning the Dublin Agreement) to 2 million migrants. Germany will pay dearly for all these bad policies.
The question why she governed for over 16 years is incomprehensible, but maybe found in Germany’s political system, where you nearly always have coalition governments. Her big “achievement” was, that she nearly always destroyed her coalition partner. She also destroyed the more conservative part of her own party, the CSU, in Bavaria. In the last election CDU/CSU had around 24%, the lowest point in the party’s history. She basically eased in a future government of Social Democrats and Greens and nobody knows if the 3rd coalition party the FDP ( Liberal Democratic Party) can prevent the worst, deindustrialising Germany with the highest energy prices in Europe and being totally dependant on a near dictator in Russia.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

Excellent summary! My perhaps hyperbolic view that she is evil (I stand by it) is dwarfed by the case you make. Last time I rubbished her I was trashed by someone who took offense at comparing her to Hitler–in ranking, i.e. second worst Chancellor….. Well said, you!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
10 months ago

Her biggest mistake was losing the U.K. from the EU. If we were still in it then they’d maybe have a chance of making it work.
I am thankful to Merkel (and Gina Miller) for catalysing our departure from this economic monstrosity.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
10 months ago

Some interesting back-ground here. I was, of course, aware that Frau Merkel was born in the old DDR, but I gave little thought to the implications other than she must have been happy when the Wall came down. Her early educational experiences would have profoundly affected her outlook and perhaps part way explains her rather benign (at least to me) attitude towards Russia. However, she is an adult woman with responsibilty for the largest economy in Europe and its people, as well as the rest of the EU, so I’m not inclined to let her completely off the hook, I do, though, more appreciate that it must be difficult for her.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

I was going to upvote you except for that last bit. Adult activity is held to an adult standard.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

Also, Frau Merkel was not born in the DDR–she was born in Hamburg–West Germany. Her family took her to the DDR as an infant.