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.

Join the discussion


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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