The Russian Challenge

Posted in Europe | 17-May-08 | Author: Jackson Janes| Source: AICGS Advisor

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands as they meet in Moscow's Kremlin, May 14, 2008.

Strong Signals From Berlin to Moscow
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's visit to Russia this week signals a strong message from Berlin about the election of President Dmitry Medvedev. Without knowing what the new president's relationship will be with the old president, Vladimir Putin, Steinmeier is sending a signal that there is much common ground for an EU-Russia relationship to be strengthened. And it is clear that Germany will take the lead role in managing that. Medvedev will visit Berlin in early June to complement Steinmeier's trip; that will be his first European destination since assuming office.

Steinmeier came to Moscow without an EU consensus on getting talks underway between Brussels and Moscow over a renewal of a trade and cooperation agreement which expired in November 2007. Efforts to reach that consensus have been held up by problems having to do with energy, pipelines, and Russian engagement in the conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, and Kosovo. The fact is that the EU-27 are having a tough time agreeing on how to deal with a resurgent petro-powered Russia, regardless of who is in the driver seat in Moscow.

A Potential Source of Friction?
While the direction Russia will take under new management is unclear, there is a good deal of potential that it may become a serious source of friction between Washington and Berlin. Without knowing who will be in the White House in January, the issues driving U.S. relations with Russia are already visible, be they dealing with Iran, Ukraine, NATO expansion, missile defense, and nuclear disarmament. As far as Russian public opinion is concerned, U.S. policy toward Russia over the most of the period following 1991 has been both threatening and condescending; Putin's public tantrums during the past couple of years have exploited that significantly. Responses to Moscow in the U.S. range from John McCain's aggressive threats to toss Russia out of the G8 to less aggressive but also rather unspecific strategies from the Democratic candidates to date.

With a consensus on a Russia strategy missing in both Europe and the U.S., there will be many traps along the road in the coming years which could evolve into more tensions within that strategic triangle.

German-Russian relations are being proclaimed as never better from both Moscow and Berlin. Steinmeier's Russia visit has only underlined the good relations, with Steinmeier calling for a "German-Russian modernization partnership." President Medvedev and Foreign Minister Steinmeier know each other well from previous jobs. They had a good deal of contact when Medvedev was running Gazprom and Steinmeier was Chief of Staff under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Chancellor Merkel also met with Medvedev in March right after his election and was the first head of state to congratulate him. She also took along some high level business leaders on the trip, as did Steinmeier.

Important Factors: Trade, Energy Supply, Global Politics
There are many factors that define relations between Germany and Russia differently than that between Russia and the U.S. One of them is trade. Russian-German trade hit a record $52.8 billion in 2007, with German investment in Russia increasing 70 percent, year on year, to $3.4 billion. Germany is also Russia's number one importer in Europe and the EU is the overwhelming trade partner for Russia, dwarfing trade between Russia and the U.S. While the EU is Russia's top most important trade partner with 52 percent of all trade in Russia happening with EU countries, the U.S. only holds sixth place with a marginal 4 percent.

Another is energy. Germany imports roughly 35 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and that is expected to increase in the coming years. In Europe, non-Russian Soviet successor states are particularly dependent upon Russian gas. Russian gas represented 98 percent to 100 percent of the total natural gas consumed by Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Slovakia. That is an equation that complicates the process of generating a coherent policy toward Russia, with different degrees and levels of dependence on Russian energy supplies.

Trade between Russia and the U.S. as well as American energy imports from Russia are a relatively small percentage, even if they are expected to gradually increase in the gas sector. Washington does not receive a significant share of its oil or gas supplies from Moscow. This sharp difference clearly distinguishes U.S. policy towards Russia from the Europeans'. While the EU is primarily concerned with Russian gas supplies, the U.S. wishes to undermine Russia's quasi-monopoly on gas exports in the region. Washington would like to see Moscow opening up its natural resources sectors, enabling investment by U.S. and other international corporations.

While the Europeans and Americans seem to share the mutual concern that Russia will continue and expand to use its energy resources as a political tool, the answers that both sides come up with will be significantly different. Like it or not, energy dependence will be a factor determining European policies towards Russia for the decades to come. But more cooperative energy policies are only part of the solution.

A third issue involves democratization efforts and geo-strategic considerations on both sides. Many in Washington have accused Germany of granting Russia veto power over NATO enlargement during the Bucharest summit. While one of the U.S. policy priorities in the region is the Western integration of Ukraine and Georgia, Germany and other European NATO members successfully vetoed their MAP status during the Bucharest summit. While valid concerns were raised about both Ukraine's lack of public support and unstable political situation and Georgia's open territorial conflicts with Russia, it is hard to deny that relations with Russia also played an important role in this decision.

Working With and Not Against
Germans argue that no matter how difficult of a partner, it is vital to create policy with the Russians rather than against them. Or as Steinmeier put it in Yekaterinburg this week, "I am convinced that there can be no security in Europe, in the entire Eurasian area, without - much less against - Russia." This is understandable considering the geographical proximity and historical experience of the Europeans. Many in Berlin and in other European capitals - including Brussels - argue that Russia's own economic dependency on its gas exports, as well as its severe demographic problems and military weakness, make Moscow conducive to cooperation with the West rather than serious confrontation. Putin's new nationalism, many claim, is rather a reaction to Western triumphalism than a new Russian movement. That contrasts with American views which are expressed in a statement by Angela Stent of Georgetown University: "Russia today is neither a partner nor a friend: it is a challenge."

The fact is that Americans and Europeans will continue to have different approaches to dealing with Russia. In many ways, where we sit is where we stand. We need an open discussion about our interests and perspectives and also the courage to acknowledge differences. No matter who takes over in Washington next year, there will be a need to evaluate the critical role German-Russian relations will play in the future, especially in relations with the EU. This will involve a noisy battle of views and policies driven by domestic and foreign policy concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. As Steinmeier said, citing Dostoyevsky, in the closing remarks of his speech this week in Yekaterinburg, "Good times do not fall from heaven. We make them ourselves."

This essay appeared in the May 16, 2008, AICGS Advisor.

The author is grateful to Ann-Kristin Otto for her help in composing this essay.