After 16 years at the helm of the German government, Angela Merkel is stepping down on the 26th of September 2021. After visiting Washington and London, one of her last stops as the Chancellor will be Moscow, where she is arriving on the 20th of August. The visit will provide an opportunity to take the stock of the Russo-German relations during the Merkel era and allow President Putin to display his traditionally impressive hosting qualities.
The relationship with Russia has always been of special significance to Merkel, who is the first-ever Chancellor brought up and spend much of her adulthood in former East Germany, a part of the Soviet bloc. Unlike her West German peers, Merkel is personally familiar with Russian power and culture. With Merkel being a fluent Russian speaker and Putin being fluent in German, the connection and understanding between these two leaders have always been more direct and less formal.
However, this relatively informal connection and greater cultural understanding between Merkel and Putin have had an ambivalent impact on their relationship, which became particularly apparent during the Ukrainian crisis. Unlike many of her West European peers, Merkel took from the outset a principled stance towards Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its actions in the East of Ukraine. Germany’s clear and principled position has been fundamental to the imposition and maintenance of the EU sanctions on Russia, which remain in place even 7 years after the annexation. There is no secret that Putin has personally blamed Merkel for the EU actions, displaying his displeasure by keeping her in the waiting room and turning up 2 hours late for the scheduled meeting. Indeed, Merkel’s better grasp of Russian foreign policy has probably played a major role in Berlin adopting a firmer position on this issue as well as deciding in favour of acting as the framework nation in NATO’s battle group stationed in Lithuania.
Yet, although Merkel did not share the typical west European naivety about Kremlin, she never departed from the principle of prioritising Russia in Berlin’s Ostpolitik, occasionally, to the point of harm to Germany’s EU neighbours. It was under her supervisory that Russia and Germany have been completing the NordStream2 pipeline that connects Russian gas with German ports, whilst bypassing Poland and the Baltic States and depriving Ukraine of transfer revenues and leverage in relations with Russia. No other sanction against Russia would have been as effective as the cancellation of the NordStream2 project, which Merkel has never decided to do. Moreover, in recent months Merkel and French President Emmanuelle Macron have been trying to revitalise the format of the EU-Russia Council, which has been suspended following the Russian annexation of Crimea.
The legacy of Merkel’s Russian policy is therefore very inconsistent. The German Chancellor has clearly believed it is possible to scold Russia when it harms the European order but at the same time do business together when it serves Germany’s domestic interests. Putin has on many occasions demonstrated that he is not moved by European criticism, especially when a business continues as usual – as indeed has been the case with the NordStream2 pipeline. It is therefore to be expected that despite her occasionally colder relations with the Russian President, Merkel will be granted a warm farewell in Moscow.