Why Germany's giving Russia a bearhug

While much of Europe is wary of the bear to the east, Germany continues to pull Russia into European culture and business, although some recent bilateral deals have faltered.

By , Staff writer

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    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was greeted last year in Munich by a girl in traditional Bavarian dress.
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As Europe debates how to handle a restless Russia on its eastern flank, one country continues to strengthen its ties to the east: Germany. Not all of Germany's neighbors are thrilled about Germany's partnership with the large bear that has more than once threatened gas supplies to the chilly continent. But for Germany, which sees itself as an agent to draw Russia westward and extend commerce, it is a natural move.

"Our policy is to one day bring Russia into Europe, where it belongs in its heart and its culture," says Gert Weisskirchen, a senior foreign-affairs voice for the Social Democratic Party. "Russia wants and needs partnerships. What kind of state is it? A resource-oriented petrostate. It needs to change. If you are in the political elite in Moscow, who is your partner? India? China? Forget it."

Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has seen a rush of commercial and energy deals and visits. The Nord Stream pipeline project linking Germany and Russia, for example, raised eyebrows in Europe and Washington as a bilateral deal that left the European Union out.

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Yet elections last fall brought a pause in the partnership. The bust-up of an Opel deal that would see a billion dollars help modernize Russia's auto industry, the delay of a shipyard deal in the north that Mrs. Merkel and Russian leader Vladimir Putin pushed, and renewed German attention to the EU Lisbon Treaty and transatlantic relations – all have slowed robust diplomacy with Moscow.

Berlin is also reviewing elements of its Ostpolitik, or policy toward the East.

"No one in Berlin has been talking about Russia since Nov. 9 [the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall]," says Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Some big deals have not gone through. Frankly, I'm amazed."

Still, the underlying elements of Germany's Russia project remain in place, analysts say. In the past decade, Germany – becoming a "normal" nation and looking to its own interests – has cultivated a mutual trust with Moscow that other EU nations don't share. That trust is based not only on German energy dependence and Russian purchases of German exports but also a deep understanding that seems to transcend history and conflict – growing stronger even during the so-called "mini cold war" at the end of the Bush administration.

To many in Berlin's elite, Germany is destined to reform a lagging Russian "petrostate," modernize its industry, and be the broker of a revitalized Russia's entry into Europe. A key tenet of Germany's policy is that Russia has a "Weimar complex," proud but weak, and needs an ally that won't jump out the window when Russia flexes its bearlike muscles – in Georgia or elsewhere.

Hubert Védrine, foreign minister of France from 1997 to 2002, says Berlin's strategic goals with Moscow are "not worrying, and are compatible with a common EU policy," provided that disagreements can be overcome between older states such as France and Italy, and newer states such as Poland and the Baltics.

He questions, however, Russia's desire to conform itself to European norms. "I don't think that Russia wants to enter Europe at all," Mr. Védrine says. "Russia wants its power to be recognized anew, and to use what is left of its nuisance power.... They don't want to enter a complex system in which decisions are voted by a majority. They want to reconstitute power."

Other analysts say Ger­many, whose eastward ties are quite old – and whose Ostpolitik supporters represent a generation that spent a lifetime seeking reconciliation after World War II – must reexamine its partner.

Germany, in this view, has steadily repented for the Nazi period. Russia, by contrast, has insisted it was victimized, and is championing Stalin and disparaging human rights.

"Are the Germans looking clearly at Russian policy? We aren't sure," said a senior Scandinavian diplomat in Berlin last fall. "Does German encouragement of petrostate reform, at the heart of German policy, objectively help, or prolong, that reform? We aren't sure yet."

Through it all, the two sides retain a strong shared view of the world and each other.

When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle went to Moscow in December, he called for relations "without any 'ifs' or 'buts.' "

Moscow commentator Viktor Krestyaninov used the occasion to play up what he calls "GeRussia" – "Germany plus Russia." In a posting by Russian specialist Paul Goble, Mr. Krestyaninov argued that Moscow wants the tie to counter "three serious challenges" – American interest in "the economic weakening of Moscow," the growing power of China, and expanding Islamist activism in the south.

A significant new variable is President Obama's "reset" on Russia, taking the steam out of a confrontation that many Russian hard-liners could play on, and changing some of the dynamics in Berlin, where diplomats chafed at the former US approach.

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