Germany and Russia Since Reunification

Continuity, Change, and the Role of Leaders

in German Politics and Society


How can we understand German-Russian relations since German reunification? Both the geopolitical positions of the two states and the political and economic ties between them have been transformed over the past twenty-five years. This paper will argue, however, that the role of the two countries’ leaders in shaping these relations has been surprisingly important. Building on the tradition of “first image” analysis in international relations, this paper shows that, along with larger political and economic trends, personal relations between these leaders have helped to set the tenor of bilateral ties. When the leaders were able to build trust and personal friendships, relations improved. Yet more recently, since 2012, relations have soured sharply. While there are obviously larger reasons for this, more negative personal ties between leaders have also played an important role. In short, just as issues of trust and friendship matter in personal ties, they also matter in International Relations.

Continuity and Change in German-Russian Relations

A time traveler from 1989 would hardly recognize today’s Russia—or today’s Germany. Thus, it should surprise no one that German-Russian relations have also been transformed in this period. This is not to say that everything has changed: the countries’ rich history—of both conflict and cooperation—still plays an important role in shaping the present. As we shall see, that is true in many areas, from politics and economics to the personal ties between the countries’ leaders.

Some countries have very negative historical ties. German-Polish relations, for example, have rarely been positive in the past; as a popular Polish phrase puts it “as long as the world is the world, Poles and Germans will never be brothers.”1 Germany and Russia, though, have a much more complex history. In many periods, they were quite close, even allies, while in others they reached a level of hatred seldom seen between two peoples. As Celeste Wallander put it in her 1999 book, the two states have long been “mortal friends and best enemies.”2 This description could fit relations between the two states’ leaders as well.

In particular, the legacy of World War II still scars bilateral ties. As the recent trial of a ninety-four year-old Auschwitz guard shows, even after so many decades the war still is not “over.”3 Russia clings to the war years as a marker of national greatness, as seen in the bombastic celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the “Great Patriotic War” in May 2015. And Germany continues to wrestle with its guilt from the Nazi period, which still shapes its foreign policy in many ways. For example, efforts to solve Greece’s debt crisis have been complicated by the image of Germany as a trampling Teutonic beast which some in Greece have gleefully invoked, as when they try to use the debt talks to extract more reparations for the German occupation in World War II. In German-Russian ties, too, this legacy complicates current diplomacy. The rebels in eastern Ukraine, for example, are portrayed by Moscow as brave Partisans fighting against a neofascist dictatorship in Kiev, whose soldiers use ss-like runes in their insignia.4 Germany’s great reluctance to consider any level of military entanglement in Ukraine—even sending defensive weapons—surely has something to do with memories of the horror that resulted the last time Germany put “boots on the ground” in that country.

Nevertheless, the historical legacy of German-Russian relations is, as noted, far more complex than one war. For example, in economic terms the legacy is much more positive. Even in times of great tension, such as the Cold War, the two sides seemed to be a natural economic fit, with Germany needing Russia’s resources and Russia needing German technology and capital.5 A prime example of this has been Germany’s increasing reliance on Russian oil and natural gas. Already in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, West Germany was selling pipes to the ussr for oil and gas pipelines.6 An extreme example of the impact of these close energy ties was seen when ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder became chairman of Nordstream, which controls the Russian gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea to Germany, soon after leaving office in 2005. While this action was seen by many as a clear conflict of interest, it is symptomatic of close German-Russian economic ties. Many German firms have been linked to Russia since the 1920s or even since the Tsarist era. Siemens, for example, took part in building the first telegraph lines in Russia starting 165 years ago in 1852, and helped to install electricity in the Czar’s Winter Palace in 1886.7

Finally, the legacy of the Russian presence in Eastern Germany from 1945 until the Red Army’s withdrawal in 1994 is also still very much alive— as seen in the life stories of the current leaders of the two countries. It is striking that Chancellor Angela Merkel can speak Russian and Vladimir Putin German, as a result of their common pasts in the German Democratic Republic (gdr), where Merkel grew up and where Putin was stationed by the kgb. More broadly, the history of close gdr-Russian ties has resulted in a profoundly ambiguous legacy for the people of the former East. Many opinion polls have shown that they have quite different foreign policy attitudes, even twenty-five years after unification, than the former West Germans. For example, a 2015 Pew Research Center poll on public opinion in nato countries showed that Germans in the former East were more reluctant to use force to defend nato allies than those from the West.8 Many have noted that former gdr citizens are also more suspicious of the United States and nato and have a more positive attitude toward Russia.9 Forty years of Cold War propaganda on opposite sides must have had some effect. As the example of Chancellor Merkel shows, however, those from the former gdr should not all be painted as naively pro-Russian. Those who lived in East Germany may feel that they know both the good and bad sides of the Russian character better than West Germans. Thus, Merkel’s past helps establish her as something of an expert on Russia among Western leaders, which surely is one reason that u.s. President Barack Obama trusted her to take the lead on negotiations with Putin over the Ukraine crisis.10

Despite these important elements of continuity, it is clear that German-Russian relations today are profoundly different from those of 1990. Two huge changes which took place in quick succession—German reunification and the collapse of the ussr—have altered the very basis of bilateral ties. When this is added to the more gradual progress of the European Union toward unification, the map of Europe has changed fundamentally. I remember an editorial cartoon from 1991 that expressed the shock which was felt at the time over this seemingly sudden, seismic shift. On the left was a map of Europe labelled “before,” with many small states in the West and a monolithic “Soviet Union” looming in the East; on the right, a map labelled “after,” with a single European Union and a welter of small states in the East. Below, two tiny figures spoke: “Before and after what?” “You blinked.”

A few statistics help to illustrate this stark change. In 1990, West Germany had only 62 million people; the unified Germany now has 81 million.11 Russia, in contrast, has shrunk dramatically. While the old Soviet Union had 291 million citizens in 1990, Russia today has less than half that many, about 142 million. In economic terms, too, the balance has shifted in Germany’s favor. The estimated West German gdp before unification was $945 billion—a substantial sum, which ranked the country fourth in the world. The ussr, though, was estimated (perhaps too optimistically) to have an economy worth $2.66 trillion. Today, even after a huge revival under President Putin, Russia’s gdp stands at about $2 trillion, while Germany’s is nearly twice as large, $3.82 trillion. Making matters worse for Russia, the consolidation of the eu since 1990—with the creation of the Euro and a much more unified internal market—means that in many ways contemporary Germany does not face Russia alone. A fairer comparison might be between Russia and the entire Euroepan Union. Here, both population and economic clout would clearly favor the eu, which now has 508.3 million citizens and a collective gdp of about $18.46 trillion.12 Certainly, there are still areas where Russia dominates, most notably in the military sphere. Yet, the overall picture is clear: Germany and Russia now regard each other on relatively equal terms—auf Augenhöhe—a vastly different situation from that seen in 1990.

Another huge transformation, often downplayed by International Relations scholars focusing on power and security, has been Russia’s change to a market economy. While Putin’s Russia is now often derided as a “kleptocracy,” where political interference and institutionalized corruption have distorted the market in many ways, it remains much more open economically than a Soviet-style planned economy.13 This has affected German-Russian relations in a myriad of ways, helping to build many connections between the countries, as liberal theorists would predict. German companies have been able to invest in Russia for twenty-five years, putting down roots in the country. In 2014 Germany had about euro 22 billion invested there.14

Moreover, this flow of capital is not one-way: Russian oligarchs have bought German companies as well.15 6,300 German firms now are involved in trade with Russia, including a large chunk of the nation’s famous Mittelstand. In 2013, the last year before the Ukraine crisis began to seriously impact relations, German exports to Russia stood at euro 36 billion.16 This is a much higher level than trade with the (much larger) Soviet Union ever reached. German sales to the ussr peaked at dm 28 billion in 1990 (i.e., roughly euro 14 billion).17 As anyone who has travelled to Russia can attest, German brand names have become common there.18

It is clear, then, that German-Russian relations have changed in fundamental ways since reunification, despite some important continuities. Yet, the changes have not proceeded smoothly; distinct periods can be observed. These have sometimes been driven by external events—for example, the u.s. invasion of Iraq or the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan in Ukraine—but also by the policies of the German and Russian leaders since 1990. Classic International Relations theorists such as Kalevi J. Holsti noted the role of “intangibles” such as personal relations between leaders—he considered it a factor in the overall power of a state.19 More recent authors have generally neglected such “first image” insights, preferring to concentrate on causal factors at the state or international levels. Yet, there is a case to be made for “bringing the statesman back in.”20 As those writing in the field of conflict resolution have long known, interpersonal trust is a vital component in efforts at mediation or peacemaking.21 Indeed, friendship between leaders remains an important—if often unspoken—part of friendship between states.22

This article now turns to a brief review of the major developments in bilateral ties over the past twenty-five years, divided into three roughly equal periods corresponding to the chancellorships of Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, and Angela Merkel. As we shall see, while larger political and economic events of course played a huge role, personal relations were important as well—from the “sauna friendship” of Kohl and Boris Yeltsin to the “Frostpolitik” now seen between Merkel and Putin.23

1990–1998: Ending the Cold War

The last eight years of Kohl’s lengthy period as chancellor were marked by both the immediate impact of reunification and the precipitous decline in Soviet/Russian power under Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin. By the end of this period, Russia was defaulting on its debt as the ruble collapsed in summer 1998 after years of inflation and economic chaos. The once-powerful Red Army seemed to be a shell of its former self, a rusted relic like the abandoned tanks that littered old Soviet army bases. The major topics of German-Russian discussions seemed to be food aid, bailouts, and debt restructuring. Despite these difficulties, though, bilateral ties improved, in part because Kohl seemed to manage to build a relationship of trust with both Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

It is often forgotten that at the start of this period the still-existing ussr seemed vastly more powerful than Germany. For several years after formal German reunification was achieved, on 3 October 1990, the Soviet Union (and after 1991 Russia) still maintained a real ability to disrupt the process. Most notably, the Red Army was not fully withdrawn from the former gdr until 31 August 1994—a date that might be considered to mark real sovereign control of that territory by the unified Germany.24 In 1990–1991, especially, the threat seemed even more acute. Although the ussr had agreed to reunification by signing the “2 + 4” Treaty in September 1990, Germany faced a difficult year, as it struggled to be sure that the signed treaty would actually be ratified and that several other bilateral accords vital to the unification process would also be signed and carried out. As discussed in my 2002 book, many delicate negotiations were needed behind the scenes.25 In return for allowing unification to proceed, the Soviets expected Germany to sign accords regulating the presence and the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the ex-gdr, as well as a treaty on economic and political cooperation. As part of these negotiations, Kohl felt obliged to give the Gorbachev regime generous economic aid, continuing a process which had been vital in persuading the Soviet Union to allow unification to take place. In all, the German government estimated that between 1989 and 1993 it provided Moscow with almost dm 90 billion in aid.26 Finally, on 2 April 1991, the Supreme Soviet formally ratified the last of the German-Soviet treaties, causing one Communist hardliner to ruefully remark that it was “a day of mourning … the day the ussr lost the Second World War.”27

Even after the formal legal business related to reunification was finally completed Germany faced another moment of near-disaster: the August 1991 coup by Soviet hardliners. Momentarily, it seemed as if the country could revert to Stalinism, as the State Committee for the State of Emergency assumed control over the country’s armed forces, including the nearly 400,000 men in the former gdr. Was it possible that these troops could be ordered into action? Would they comply? Would the hardliners even resort to the use of nuclear weapons? It must be remembered that anger over “losing the gdr” was one of the coup plotters’ key criticisms of Gorbachev, as German leaders were well aware.28 After three anxious days, the coup collapsed and the world—and Germany especially—breathed a sigh of relief.

Throughout the tumultuous final years of the Gorbachev period, though, the Soviet leader and Chancellor Kohl seemed to build a real friendship, as noted by authors such as Yuri von Hoef.29 Analysts of the crucial period just before and after reunification have pointed to several key moments when the two leaders seemed to bond.30 For example, in June 1989 at a summit in Bonn, Kohl took Gorbachev on the now-famous “walk along the Rhine,” where he discussed possible reunification with the Soviet leader. A year later, with reunification rushing near, the two leaders met again at Archyz in the Caucasus mountains. This meeting was crucial in clearing the way for German unity, as Gorbachev now trusted Kohl and Germany enough to permit the unified country to remain in nato—something that had long been anathema to Moscow. Similarly, Kohl’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher also seemed to form a close bond with his opposite number, Eduard Shevardnadze. This could be seen when the pair met in June 1990 at the site where Shevardnadze’s brother was killed in the first days of Germany’s World War II attack on the ussr. The message to Russia was clear: Germany’s leaders would personally ensure that those dark days would never return again.

After the August 1991 coup attempt, the threat of any military action seemed to subside, although the Kohl government still could not rest easy until all of the Russian troops were pulled out three years later. Kohl demonstrated his concern by offering one more large package of economic aid to the new Yeltsin government in late 1992, in return for Yeltsin’s pledge to withdraw the troops four months ahead of the initially planned date in December 1994.31 Not coincidentally, this change—completing the pullout at the end of August—would ensure that it was finished before Kohl had to stand for reelection. Given the continuing instability in Russia—as seen in the attempted coup against Yeltsin in fall 1993—the German government was very relieved when the Red Army finally departed.

With the end of the Russian military presence in Germany, the two states’ relationship became less tense. The steady decline in Russia’s power seemed to reduce its overall importance. And the Kohl government, preoccupied with the difficult process of trying to produce “blooming landscapes” in the former gdr, was happy to be able to lessen its focus on Russia.

Nonetheless, Germany continued to act aggressively as an advocate for Russia with other Western countries. Kohl noted that most nations had given far less to help Moscow than the Germans. Accordingly, he pressed the u.s., Japan, and other Western nations to increase grants, loans, and other programs supporting Moscow. For example, Kohl lobbied actively for Gorbachev to be included in the G-7 meeting in 1991, the first time a Soviet leader had ever been invited. He then pressed for Yeltsin’s inclusion, first as an invited guest, and starting in 1998 as a full member, when the organization became the G-8. Germany also actively supported efforts to bridge the gap between nato and Russia, for example with the nato-Russia Founding Act of 1997.

Economic ties with Russia began to rise in the later Kohl years, although the chaotic situation of the country did cause problems. Russia was a “wild west” environment for investors, as the Yeltsin government struggled to devise a workable method to privatize companies and regulate the new business class, soon known as the “oligarchs.”32 Thus, it is not surprising that German direct investment was initially low, given the extremely high risks involved. The oecd estimates that in 1991 German investment in the ussr was equivalent to what would today be only euro 99 million. In 1998, it had reached euro 540 million for Russia alone.33 This was a respectable increase, but an amount dwarfed by German ties to other countries. For example, the same year German investment in the u.s. was estimated at euro 78 billion, and the country’s worldwide investment stood at just over euro 300 billion.34

Trade, also, did not at first rise dramatically. After decades of being cut off from much of the world market, Russians were eager to buy virtually anything with a Western label. Yet, the economic free-fall in Russia made it hard for them to afford most products. Germany did become Russia’s largest trading partner: in 1992 it provided 17 percent of Russia’s imports.35

But, the amounts involved were not large: in 1993 German exports to Russia were only euro 5.83 billion and they stagnated at that level for the next several years.36 In 1997–1998, German exports to Russia did rise somewhat, reaching euro 8.4 billion for 1997. They fell back after that, however, as the country lurched toward default in the summer of 1998.

Chancellor Kohl seemed to be able to build a close relationship with Yeltsin, as he had with Gorbachev. It was called a “sauna friendship,” after the two men enjoyed a sauna together at a 1993 summit meeting.37 They met frequently, exemplified in the 1996–1997 period. Kohl travelled to Moscow in September 1996 and January 1997, in both cases being the first world leader to meet with Yeltsin after a period of seclusion caused by the Russian leader’s serious health problems.38 Then, in April 1997, Yeltsin visited Germany. Such a pace of meetings—one every few months—was dramatically different from the Cold War years. The leaders also presided over the creation of mechanisms to better institutionalize Russo-German ties. For example, in 1997 the two nations and France agreed to begin a series of regular trilateral summits, setting up a European “Troika.” In 1998, Moscow and Berlin committed themselves to annual governmental consultations, modelled on those Germany had held since 1963 with France. It was hoped that these meetings, involving many ministers and other officials, would broaden and deepen ties between the countries, ensuring that they were not just “summits” between leaders.

Despite the personal ties between Kohl and Yeltsin, however, seeds of later tensions were growing as well. Many Russians, especially those outside Yeltsin’s inner circle, increasingly resented the West.39 Often they felt that the West’s economic advice—that market reforms would quickly lead to a better life—was not working. Indeed, suspicious voices claimed that the economic reforms were designed to fail, thus weakening Russia. This refrain would return, greatly amplified, in the Putin years. Russians were also angered by criticism of such domestic missteps as the first war in Chechnya (1994–1996). Internationally, many resented the West for imposing a peace settlement in Bosnia and blaming Serbia—Russia’s regional ally—for the conflict. Yeltsin protested the Western decision to enlarge nato, which began on Kohl’s watch at the 1997 Madrid summit, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to join the alliance.40 When Yevgeny Primakov was appointed premier in 1998, the anti-Western tone became more pronounced. After years of leading the country’s foreign intelligence service, Primakov was known to see the West more as a security threat than a potential partner. By the end of Kohl’s time in office, a new conflict was brewing in Kosovo, where Russia and the West were again at odds.

1998–2005: Gerhard Schröder

Schröder, who came to power in late 1998 at the head of an unprecedented Red-Green coalition, could have been expected to have a rather different attitude about Russia than his predecessor. One reason was generational. The much older Kohl represented the so-called “Flakhelfer” generation, those who still had vivid memories of World War II. He was fifteen at the end of that conflict. Kohl also had experienced the founding of West Germany, the Berlin Airlift, and the whole panorama of the Cold War. Schröder, in contrast, like his Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party, was considered a “68er,” a baby boomer in American terms. Not surprisingly, like most of his generation, he lacked both the visceral anticommunism of the older Kohl and his instinctive Atlanticism. Of course, Schröder’s more leftist political views, as well as his partnership with the traditionally pacifist Greens, only deepened the impression that he might be even more willing to trust Russia than Kohl had been. Taking power almost ten years after reunification surely also affected the attitudes of Schröder and Fischer—much more than Kohl, they were able to see that Germany was now in a new world, with new strategic possibilities.

Schröder had little time to build ties with President Yeltsin. The Russian leader left office barely a year after Schröder became chancellor. During the last years of his presidency, Yeltsin suffered repeated health crises, which limited his ability to focus on foreign affairs—sometimes even preventing him from meeting foreign leaders. Eleven months after Schröder was elected, in September 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly appointed the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin as his premier. Putin immediately seemed to distinguish himself, taking decisive action against rebels in Chechnya and leading pro-government forces to victory in the December 1999 elections to the Russian Duma. Within weeks, Yeltsin suddenly resigned, allowing Putin to become acting President. Germany had a new partner in the Kremlin.

Soon after Putin took office, it was clear that he and Schröder would forge an even closer relationship than had Kohl and Yeltsin. When Putin visited Berlin in June 2000, he proclaimed that Germany was not only Russia’s most important partner in Europe, but in the entire world. Schröder reciprocated by describing ties with Russia as a “strategic partnership,” words which suggested an outright alliance—and must have been disturbing to some of Germany’s strategic partners in the West.41 Many observers noted that Putin’s time in Germany as a kgb agent and his fluent German played a role in helping him build better ties both to Schröder and to the German public as a whole. Indeed, when he arrived in Berlin in 2000 some newspapers proclaimed him “Putin the German.”42

The militant actions of the Bush administration after 9/11 drove the two leaders even closer together. This culminated in 2003, when Germany, France, and Russia worked together to try to prevent the Americans from invading Iraq.43 This represented a deeper split in the unity of the West than the ussr had ever been able to achieve. Some in Schröder’s government now seemed to advocate a policy of equidistance between Moscow and Washington. As his Defense Minister Peter Struck put it: “Germany should have the same proximity to America on the one hand and Russia on the other hand.”44 This view was of course supported even more strongly by the former Communist pds, and later the Left Party.45

The new closeness in German-Russian political ties was boosted by rapid growth in the two countries’ economic relations. Just as Putin took office, world oil prices rose dramatically. This greatly increased the value of Russia’s exports to Germany, since natural gas was the largest component in these exports. Between 1998 and 2005 at the end of Schröder’s time as chancellor, annual Russian exports almost tripled, surging from euro 7.70 to 22.28 billion.46 At the same time, since the oil boom helped buoy the overall Russian economy, the country was able to greatly increase its imports from Germany. These rose even faster than exports, by over 340 percent in only six years, from a low of euro 5.06 billion in 1999 to euro 17.28 billion by 2005. The stabilization in the Russian economy also made the country a much more hospitable destination for German investment, which exploded during Schröder’s time in office, rising from only euro 540 million to euro 6.96 billion, almost thirteen times greater.47 Thousands of German firms now operated in Russia.

Finally, the chancellor took a leading role in forging a new economic link between the countries—the Nordstream gas pipeline. This project was quite controversial. Because the pipeline was designed to run along the bottom of the Baltic to bring gas directly to Germany, the Poles and Ukrainians were particularly upset. Previously, all gas shipments had traversed their countries, which not only ensured them transit fees, but also made it impossible for the Kremlin to cut off their gas supplies without also cutting off Germany, its most valuable customer. Now the Putin government would be able to turn off the gas lines to either Poland or Ukraine—perhaps for political reasons—while still supplying the Germans. Additionally, the new pipeline further increased Germany’s energy dependence on Russia. The country now bought almost 40 percent of its gas from Russia, a level that—for political reasons—many thought should be the upper bound of German imports.48

As Chancellor Kohl had begun bilateral governmental consultations, Schröder too wanted to institutionalize closer German-Russian relations. He added a nongovernmental component, with the founding of the Petersburg Dialog in 2001. This group was made up of representatives from ngos and business, as well as government officials, and was held annually in conjunction with the governmental consultations. The hope was that friendships between leaders—as seen in the Kohl-Yeltsin and Schröder-Putin cases—would now be supplemented by friendship between governments and even between both societies. Unfortunately, this hope would prove to be overly optimistic.

Indeed, even during the Schröder years many believed that the chancellor was somewhat blind to the faults of Putin and his regime. Was Schröder too close to the Russians? He adopted two Russian children, one while he was serving as chancellor. He referred to Putin as a “lupenreiner Demokrat” (flawless democrat) in late 2004, at a time when most observers already regarded him as nothing of the sort.49 Moreover, his eagerness to push ahead with the Nordstream pipeline deal, in the face of criticism from Germany’s eastern neighbors, came to seem excessive even to many Germans. In the end, Schröder approved governmental credit guarantees for the project as a “lame duck” after being voted out of office, and, even more controversially, took on the role as chairman of Nordstream soon after leaving office.50

Since his time in office Schröder has continued to be a vocal advocate for German friendship with the Putin government. This position has angered many during the current Ukraine crisis. The former chancellor has vocally criticized Merkel’s actions toward Russia on many occasions, condemning Western sanctions against Russia, blaming the u.s. for the crisis, and saying that the Crimea will remain part of Russia in the future, regardless of Western objections.51 He has continued to be friendly with Putin, even celebrating his seventieth birthday in Russia with him in April 2014. In all, the case of Schröder may show that friendship can have a darker side, if it causes a leader to overlook a “friend’s” bad behavior. Building trust is good; trusting blindly is not.

2005-present: Merkel and Putin

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s upbringing in the former East Germany may well have helped her to better understand Putin and the Russian mentality. She is fluent in Russian, thanks to her gdr schooling. Perhaps more importantly, she is “fluent” in understanding the Cold War era from an eastern perspective. Surely a Chancellor raised on “solyanka,” the Ukrainian-Russian vinegar-tinged stew popular in the ex-gdr, must have some insight into Russia.52 At least this appears to be the thinking in many Western capitals, as seen in the fact that u.s. President Obama seemed to encourage her to be the leading negotiator in talks with Putin over the Ukraine crisis. Yet, despite—or perhaps because of—her familiarity with the Russian language and Russian mentality, Merkel has been much more suspicious of the country and its leader than was Schröder. This suspicion seems to have been reciprocated by Putin, even before the “new Cold War” with the West began in recent years.

One incident is often mentioned to illustrate the lack of personal chemistry between the two. At a 2007 summit meeting in Sochi, Putin unexpectedly invited his large black Labrador into the room as they started their talks, allowing the dog to circle the chancellor as she looked on, visibly uncomfortable. Many analysts considered the move a deliberate provocation, playing on Merkel’s well-known fear of dogs. It seemed that Putin was sending a message: in contrast to the trust between leaders in the Kohl and Schröder years, he now wanted Merkel to feel personally threatened.53

Interestingly, after years of refusing to mention the incident—which, he recently noted, “has become infamous in Germany”—Putin has now denied that he had ever intended to frighten the chancellor, claiming that bringing in the dog was genuinely intended to be a friendly gesture, and that when he saw it had misfired he quickly apologized to Merkel.54

Despite some personal coolness between the two leaders, in structural terms German-Russian ties appeared to deepen under Merkel, at least until the emergence of the Ukraine crisis. Economic ties played a major role. The Russian economy was expanding rapidly, largely thanks to the very strong oil and gas prices that persisted through his first two terms in office. In 2006, Russia was able to pay off the last of its Soviet-era debt, many years ahead of schedule. What had been $60 billion owed to the Paris Club of creditor states—half of it to Germany—was suddenly gone. While Germany had to forego years of future interest income, it did receive a substantial short-term boost to its government budget.55 The flood of petro-rubles also enabled average Russians to afford many foreign goods. Thus, imports from Germany surged from 2005 to 2012, with the two nations’ trade turnover topping euro 80 billion in the latter year, more than doubling in seven years.56

Even more striking is the fact that in the twenty years since the breakup of the ussr bilateral trade had risen by almost 800 percent. Volkswagen was selling 200,000 cars a year in Russia, and it was estimated that 300,000 German jobs were linked to bilateral trade.57 Investment ties also deepened, as German companies began to produce cars and other important products in Russia. By 2013, German investments in Russia stood at just over euro 20 billion and some 6,200 German firms were involved in the country.58 This still represented a small fraction of German overseas investment, but was almost three times greater than when Merkel took office.

Nevertheless, deepening concern throughout the West about the direction in which Putin was leading Russia slowly undermined bilateral ties. The Kremlin was steadily tightening the reins on its domestic opponents. It also was steadily increasing efforts to reassert control in the so-called “near abroad,” the former Soviet territories. The 2008 Russian-Georgian war was an ominous new development, showing that Moscow would not shrink from the use of military force when it felt its interests were being challenged. Here the peaceful transformation of Europe which was sparked by German reunification seemed to have reached its limits. The West had expanded the eu and nato to Russia’s doorstep in the previous twenty-five years—and Russia was now showing that it would not tolerate this any longer.

These rising tensions between Russia and the West burst into full view in late 2013, as the Ukrainian crisis began. Germany and the European Union played a leading role in the run-up to this crisis. It was precipitated by the eu’s efforts to build closer ties with Ukraine, which Moscow perceived as pushing that country to align with the West—against Moscow. To the surprise of some, Germany abandoned “equidistance” and the “strategic partnership” and became sharply critical of Russia. The Kremlin’s boldness in annexing Crimea in early 2014 and supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine shocked many Germans, even sparking comparisons between Russia’s actions and World War II-era Nazi aggression—a comparison which had long been seen as totally taboo.59 In response, Germany stood firm, working to impose and maintain eu sanctions against Russia. Many had predicted that Germany’s close economic ties to Russia would either prevent sanctions or at least render them weak and short-lived. Putin himself, however, seemed to squander these ties by threatening Germany’s economy, not just its security. In retaliation for eu sanctions Putin imposed harsh countermeasures, which caused German-Russian trade to fall sharply in both 2014 and 2015.60 Additionally, by using Russian natural gas as a cudgel against Ukraine—cutting off supplies entirely for five months in 2014—he seemed to confirm that Russia could be a major threat to German energy security as well.

The chill in German-Russian relations is not just a matter of governmental ties. Both societies have quickly become more skeptical about the other, as a quasi-Cold War mentality has descended across Europe. This is clearly shown in public opinion polls in the two countries. When Russians were asked if they had a ‘positive view’ of Germany, answers hovered around 75 to 78 percent in 2007 to 2011 surveys; yet in the past two years they have fallen sharply, to 53 percent in 2014 and only 35 percent in 2015.61 The German public was always more cautious in its view of Russia, yet positive views had been rising—reaching 50 percent in 2010. The recent crisis drove that down to only 19 percent in 2014, before a slight rise to 27 percent in the 2015 poll. Admittedly, Germans are certainly not eager to return to outright hostility with Russia—as seen in the recent poll cited in the introduction showing German skepticism about using military force to defend a threatened ally. Yet, most Germans seem to have decided that the “strategic partnership” between Germany and Russia trumpeted by Schröder during his time in office is a thing of the past, if it can ever be said to have truly existed.

Yet here again, the personal ties between German and Russian leaders seem to have played an important role. As noted above, Merkel and Putin have never enjoyed the sort of close relationship seen between Russian leaders and the previous two German chancellors. Their already cool personal ties turned sharply negative after 2012. As Tuomas Forsberg ably documents, it can be argued that these personal ties actually helped cause the new chill in bilateral ties, rather than merely reflecting it.62 He argues that other factors, such as public opinion in the two states and the attitude of key interest groups, took longer to change. Yet personal ties—not just between Merkel and Putin but between their Foreign Ministers Frank Walter Steinmeier and Sergei Lavrov—soured very rapidly. Why? Because the German leaders decided they simply could not trust their Russian counterparts.

In March, 2014, Merkel famously told her Western partners that Putin had “lost touch with reality” and was living “in his own world.”63 As the Western leader with the most contact with Putin, as shown by her frequent telephone calls with the Russian leader, she was quick to see that he was no longer a reliable partner. A key turning point seems to have been in February 2014, when Putin and Lavrov assured the Germans that they would respect Ukraine’s borders—and did not. Soon after they told the Germans that there were no Russian troops in Crimea—yet there were. A few months later the Russia leaders loudly denied any guilt for the downing of a Malaysian airliner over rebel territory in eastern Ukraine—again seeming to deny clear facts. Merkel reportedly began to tell her Western partners bluntly that Putin was lying.64 Steinmeier, leader of the spd in the coalition with Merkel’s cdu, also dramatically shifted his views at this time. Previously, he had been seen as a leading “Putin Versteher” in Merkel’s cabinet, given his former role as chief of staff to the very pro-Russian Chancellor Schröder. Yet, he has now moved much closer to Merkel’s skeptical line—reportedly, in large part, because he too felt he had been personally deceived by Lavrov and Putin.


German-Russian relations have long been a fascinating puzzle for International Relations specialists. These bilateral ties have always been of great significance to the world, involving as they do two of the leading powers in Europe. Furthermore, these ties have been so richly varied over time—veering from periods of friendship and outright alliance to times of harsh confrontation and brutal war—that any analyst would struggle to explain them simply.

Yet, for all this rich history, the past twenty-five years has brought Russia and Germany into a dramatically new period. German reunification has shaped bilateral ties decisively, in many ways. At the same time, the equally important historical break undergone by Russia—with the end of the ussr—means that both countries are now very different than they were in 1990. This article has shown several ways in which these sudden historical changes have impacted recent relations.

First, the direct effects of reunification and the breakup of the Soviet Union have transformed the power and role of the two countries internationally. As we have seen, reunified Germany became larger, not just geographically but in population and economic clout. Russia, in contrast, lost size and power by many measures. Indirectly, too, great shifts in power flowed from reunification. German unity helped to propel the eu towards greater unity, for example in the creation of the euro currency, which was widely seen as a way of preventing a unified Germany—with its powerful deutsche mark—from gaining unilateral control of the European economy. Ironically, it can be argued that this greater eu unity has left Germany as the leading state in a much larger and stronger grouping, further enhancing German influence. At the same time, German reunification played an important role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s East European empire, and eventually in the fall of the ussr itself. Not only did unification instantly rob the ussr of its most important Warsaw Pact ally, the gdr—it also helped to show others in the region that Moscow would allow the bloc to dissolve.

Second, though, as this paper has shown, another important effect of reunification has been its dramatic effect on people—as seen in its effects on leaders. This has become clear in the case of Merkel and Putin. Their shared—yet very different—personal experiences when East Germany collapsed may have not only shaped German-Russian relations, but also their domestic and foreign policies as a whole. Merkel saw the end of the gdr as a profound liberation, showing that freedom would always triumph in the end and that walls dividing people would ultimately fall. Many observers have seen a striking echo of Merkel’s own East German past in her surprisingly firm insistence that Europe remain open to migrants fleeing from the Middle East. As she reportedly told the leaders of Hungary after they tried to stop migrants by sealing off the Hungarian border:

The refugees won’t be stopped if we just build fences. That I’m deeply convinced of. And I’ve lived behind fences for long enough. Maybe you can delay it for a couple of years. But even the gdr wall fell—it just couldn’t be maintained. And so Europe won’t be able to transform into a fortress—it won’t work.65

Putin, in contrast, seems to have drawn exactly the opposite lesson from the end of the gdr.66 As a kgb agent in that country, he watched helplessly as his East German colleagues failed to maintain order. Mobs of demonstrators sacked the offices of the hated Stasi—and Putin likely feared they could turn on Russian officers as well. He saw not freedom in the fall of the Wall but anarchy, likely created by the West. This has colored his view of popular movements ever since. Whether they occur in Georgia, Ukraine, or the streets of Moscow, they represent a threat that must be stopped.

In turn, the interactions of national leaders such as Merkel and Putin have helped to determine German-Russian relations. Larger political and economic factors have of course shaped the nature of bilateral ties under each of the three German chancellors since 1990. Yet, their personal ties with Russia’s leaders have also played a large role. Chancellor Kohl was able to build surprisingly friendly relations with the last Soviet leader, Gorbachev, and this personal trust helped to pave the way for reunification. He followed this with the “sauna friendship” with Yeltsin. Schröder, as we have seen, was even more friendly with Putin—perhaps too friendly, many now believe. Finally, Merkel and Putin, who never seemed close, have seen their personal ties cool even more in the past several years, a development which has helped to send national relations into a period of “Frost-politik.” This analysis also applies to other top leaders such as the countries’ foreign ministers.

In all, German-Russian relations clearly show that since the fall of the Wall, Germany has become a different state, with a different position in the world, and that both the German people and their leaders have also changed in many ways. The same can be said of Russia, in all these dimensions, after the end of Communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are very few cases in the world where two major countries have both changed so rapidly in such a short time. Much of this change—on both sides, at international, national and personal levels—was sparked in crucial ways by the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification.


In Polish, “Póki świat światem nie bȩdzie Polak Niemcowi bratem.”


Celeste Wallander, Mortal Friends, Best Enemies: German Russian Cooperation After the Cold War (Ithaca, 1999).


Alison Smale, “Oskar Gröning, Ex-ss Soldier at Auschwitz, Gets Four-Year Sentence,” The New York Times, 15 July 2015.


Pro-Russian media has made much of the symbols used by groups such as the Azov Battalion, which Kiev’s supporters argue are small and not authorized by the government.


See, for example, the review of historical economic ties in Randall Newnham, Deutsche Mark Diplomacy: Positive Economic Sanctions in German-Russian Relations (University Park, 2002).


See, for example, Bruce Jentleson, Pipeline Politics: The Complex Political Economy of East-West Energy Trade (Ithaca, 1986).


Timeline of the company’s business in Russia available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


Only 28 percent of those in the East favored using force to defend a nato ally from Russia, as opposed to 40 percent from the West. Katie Simons, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter, “nato Public Opinion: Wary of Russia, Leery of Action on Ukraine,” Pew Research Center, 10 June 2015; available at, accessed 4 January 2017.


For example, the same Pew poll noted that a full 40 percent of former Easterners expressed “confidence in Putin,” as compared to only 19 percent in the West, and that while 57 percent in the West had a “favorable view of nato” only 46 percent did in the East. Ibid. See also Jochen Bittner, “Eastern Germans’ Soft Spot for Russia,” The New York Times, 30 December 2014.


Merkel has sometimes even been referred to as “the Putin Whisperer”—although, as will be outlined below, her personal ties with Putin have recently declined sharply. See “Meet the Putin Whisperer: Germany’s Angela Merkel,” Wall Street Journal Video, 25 March 2014; available at–78CF-4210-B1C5–73595BC3316A.html, accessed 4 January 2017.


Figures in this paragraph from cia World Factbook; available at, 1990 and 2015, and from


Obviously, if the United Kingdom follows through on its plan to exit the European Union, this will somewhat diminish the eu’s economic edge over Russia. Nonetheless, it will remain substantial.


Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York, 2014).


Paul Lamacraft, “Why Germany Can’t Ignore Russia,” 5 November 2014; available at, accessed 4 January 2017.


oecd figures show Russian investment in Germany at euro 3.2 billion in 2012; available at, accessed 4 January 2017.


Figures for 2013 company involvement and trade in Erik Kirschbaum, “Russian Sanctions Will Hurt German Economy But Needed: Vice Chancellor,” 3 August 2014; available at USL6N0Q90LE20140803, accessed 27 January 2017.


Statistisches Jahrbuch der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, cited in Newnham (see note 5), 318.


The brands are so popular that some Russian companies use fake German names to sell their products. Pavel Lokshin, “Deutsche Pseudomarken in Russland: Liebesgrüße aus Düsseldorf,” Der Spiegel, 24 December 2014; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


Kalevi J. Holsti, “The Concept of Power in the Study of International Relations,” Background, 7, no. 4 (1964): 179–194.


Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security, 25, no. 4 (2001): 107–146.


See, for example, Herbert Kelman, “Building Trust Among Enemies: The Central Challenge for International Conflict Resolution,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 29, no. 6 (2005): 639–650; and Jacob Bercovitch, J. Theodore Anagnoson, and Donnette Wille, “Some Conceptual Issues and Empirical Trends in the Study of Successful Mediation in International Relations,” Journal of Peace Research, 28, no. 1 (1991): 7–17.


P.E. Digeser, “Friendship Between States,” British Journal of Political Science, 39, no. 2 (2009): 323–344.


Tuomas Forsberg, “From Ostpolitik to ‘frostpolitik’? Merkel, Putin and German foreign policy towards Russia,” International Affairs, 92, no. 1 (2016): 21–42.


See Randall Newnham, “’Army for Sale?’ The End of the Western Group of Forces” in Russia and Eurasia Military Review Annual, vol. 16, ed. Theodore Karasik (Gulf Breeze, 2004), 229–246.


Newnham (see note 5), Chapter 5.


Specifically, dm 87.55 billion, including grants, loans, and direct aid such as food donations. “Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Große Anfrage der Fraktionen der cdu/csu und fdp (Drucksache 12/5046): Unterstützung der Reformprozesse in den Staaten Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropas (einschlie lich der baltischen Staaten) sowie in den neuen unabhängigen Staaten auf dem Territorium der ehemaligen Sowjetunion,” Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/6162, 12 November 1993.


Col. Viktor Alksnis, cited in Yuli Kvitsinsky, Vor dem Sturm: Erinnerungen eines Diplomaten (Berlin, 1993), 100–101.


Stephan Bierling, Vormacht Wider Willen: Deutsche Außenpolitik von der Wiedervereinigung bis zur Gegenwart (Munich, 2014), 61.


Yuri von Hoef, “Friendship in World Politics: Assessing the Personal Relationships between Kohl and Mitterrand and Bush and Gorbachev,” Amity 2, no. 1 (2004): 62–82.


See the discussion of the three key moments cited here in Gerhard Ritter, The Price of German Unity: Reunification and the Crisis of the Welfare State (Oxford, 2011), 40.


Specifically, Kohl agreed to dm 550 million in additional aid for Russia and also agreed to allow Russia five more years to begin paying off about dm 17.6 billion in trade-related debts accumulated at the time of reunification. For details on the agreements, see Bulletin of the German Federal Press and Information Agency, 22 December 1992.


The lack of any clear valuation for assets was initially stunning in Russia, and very confusing to foreigners. For example, Bill Browder, later the largest u.s. investor in Russia, was approached in 1993 about taking part in a deal to privatize the Murmansk fishing fleet. A majority stake was being offered for $ 2.5 million, although Browder quickly estimated that the fleet’s ships alone were worth about $1 billion. Bill Browder, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice (New York, 2015), 55–58.


The risks inherent in the Russian market at this time can be seen in the fact that German investment stood at euro 1.145 billion in 1996, before losing over half its value in the next two years. See Note that figures were in German Marks at the time, but have been converted retroactively into Euros to be comparable with more recent data.




Angela Stent, Russia and Germany Reborn: Unification, the Soviet Collapse, and the New Europe (Princeton, 1999), 178.


Trade figures from Statistisches Bundesamt; available at


For an interesting analysis of this relationship, placing it in the context of friendships between other German and Russian leaders, see Dmitri Zakharine, “Deutsch-Russische Saunafreundschaften,” Leviathan: Berliner Zeitschrift für Sozialwissenschaft, 35, no. 2 (2007): 256–271.


Stent (see note 35), 159.


On the mood at that time see, for example, Vladimir Shlapentokh, “Russian Attitudes Toward America: A Split Between the Ruling Class and the Masses,” International Affairs 164, no. 1 (2001): 17–23; and Andrew Felkay, Yeltsin’s Russia and the West (Westport, 2002).


Yeltsin had opposed nato expansion when it was first proposed, sending a critical letter to President Bill Clinton on the subject in 1993. He also tried to use his ties to Germany to torpedo the move, as when he told German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel in January 1996 that he “saw eye to eye with Germany on virtually all international issues except nato expansion,” and urged that Germany help him stop the expansion. “Yeltsin Lobbies to Oppose nato Expansion,” Eurasian Daily Monitor, 29 January 1996.


Roland Götz, “Germany and Russia: Strategic Partners?” Geopolitical Affairs 4 (2007): 1–12.


Roger Cohen, “Warm Welcome for ‘Putin the German,’” The New York Times, 15 June 2000.


John Tagliabue, “France, Germany and Russia Vow to Stop Use of Force against Iraq,” The New York Times, 5 March 2003.


Christopher Chivvis and Thomas Rid, “The Roots of Germany’s Russia Policy,” Survival, 51, no. 2 (2009): 105–122, here 109.


See for example “Zur ‘Strategische Partnerschaft’ der eu mit Russland,” speech by Wolfgang Gehrke to the Bundestag, 1 February 2007; available at, accessed 4 January 2017.


Trade figures in this paragraph from Statistisches Bundesamt; available at


Statistics from Deutsche Bundesbank; available at


See energy experts from Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and other institutes cited in Steffen Leidel, “Germany Bound to Russia over Energy Policy,” Deutsche Welle, 3 November 2004.


Television appearance on ard, 23 November 2004.


Many saw a conflict of interest in Schröder’s decision to work for Nordstream so soon after approving the project as chancellor. As the cdu politician Ronald Pofalla put it: “Schröder geht es nicht um Gas, es geht ihm um Kohle.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12 December 2005.


See for example “Ukraine Krise: Altkanzler Schröder attackiert Merkels Russland-Politik,” Der Spiegel, 28 March 2015; and “Schröder: Sicherheit gibt es nur mit Russland,” Die Welt, 8 May 2015.


“Chancellor Recalls Communist Childhood: Merkel Admits She Still Tends to Stockpile,” Der Spiegel, 27 September 2010; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


See for example Blake Hornshell, “Putin Uses Dog to Intimidate Merkel,” Foreign Policy, 14 June 2007; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


Roland Oliphant, “Vladimir Putin Denies Setting His Dog on Angela Merkel,” The Telegraph, 2 January 2016.


Edmund Conway, “Reborn Russia Clears Soviet Debt,” The Telegraph, 22 August 2006.


Trade figures in this paragraph from and author’s calculations.


“Lovers not Fighters: German Exporters are Pushing Back against Economic Sanctions on Russia,” The Economist, 15 March 2014.




Other Western leaders—including Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and even Prince Charles—had made the comparison, but when German leaders raised it this seemed especially shocking. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble caused great controversy when he said of Russia’s actions in Crimea that “Hitler already adopted such methods in Sudetenland.” Christian Reiermann, “Fighting Words: Schäuble says Putin’s Crimea Plans Reminiscent of Hitler,” Der Spiegel, 31 March 2014; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


Trade turnover, which stood at almost euro 80.9 billion in 2012, fell to 67.5 billion in 2014 and 51.5 billion in 2014, an overall decline of almost 40 percent. Data from and author’s calculations.


Survey results for both Russia and Germany from Pew Research Center, reported in “Studie über Russland: Daheim verhätschelt, woanders verachtet,” 6 August 2015; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


Forsberg (see note 23), 39–41.


Ian Traynor, “Ukraine Crisis: Vladimir Putin has lost the plot, says German Chancellor,” The Guardian, 3 March 2014.


Forsberg (see note 23), 40.


Quote from Merkel speech to European People’s Party members in Brussels, 7 October 2015, cited in Florian Eder and Maia de la Baume, “Merkel Slams East Europeans on Migration,” 9 October 2015; available at, accessed 27 January 2017.


See for example Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, “How the 1980s Explains Vladimir Putin,” The Atlantic, 14 February 2013.

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Contributor Notes

DR. Randall Newnham is a Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Berks College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1995. His book, Deutsche Mark Diplomacy: Positive Economic Sanctions in German-Russian Relations, was published by Penn State Press in 2002. He has written a number of other pieces on German foreign policy, focusing mainly on relations with Russia and Poland. These have appeared in journals such as German Studies Review, German Politics, Debatte, and International Studies Quarterly. He received daad fellowships to study in Germany in 1993–1994 and 2000, and a Fulbright Scholarship in 2009.


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