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POLITICS

Germany before the elections: main candidates diverge on how to handle Russia

Simon Wunder

In Germany's federal elections this September, Armin Laschet (Christian Democratic Union, CDU) and Annalena Baerbock (Green Party), the candidates most likely to win, have significantly different positions towards Russia. While Laschet emphasizes Germany's economic interests and advocates rapprochement with the country, Baerbock wants to exert greater pressure on Russia in the geopolitical conflict between liberal democracies and autocratic states.

Annalena Baerbock: Transatlantically oriented opponent of autocratic governments

Born in 1980, Annalena Baerbock managed to rise from Member of Parliament to candidate for chancellor in just eight years. She holds a degree in international law from the London School of Economics and was a foreign and security policy advisor for the Green Party before becoming an MP. In her party, she belongs to the pragmatist wing. While she lacks experience in political office, she enjoys the support of much of the media, is more popular than her Christian Democrat rival Armin Laschet and has managed to unite her party behind her to a large extent.

She differs from other politicians in her party in that she justifies her foreign policy ideas primarily in geopolitical terms and advocates a policy of «dialogue and toughness» and a «clear stance against autocratic regimes,» among which she counts Russia and China. According to Baerbock, the global situation is characterised by a «competition of systems» between liberal democracies and autocratic states, whose «hard-core power politics» pose a threat to Europe that the continent must confront in close partnership with the United States. According to her, close cooperation with the United States and a more confrontational approach towards the aforementioned states would be «a key issue» for the future German government.

Following Russia's recent military activities on the border with Ukraine and in Crimea, she called for increased pressure on Russia in the form of tougher sanctions to make the country comply with the Minsk Protocol. She also called for the suspension of the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which she said was a «harsh attack on the security interests of our Eastern European neighbors» because it was designed to cut Ukraine off from gas transit, which was «really fatal» from a geopolitical perspective. She accused the German government of viewing the project exclusively from the perspective of economic interests and ignoring its geopolitical and security significance. She criticised Armin Laschet for having expressed «very friendly tones» toward the Russian government on these issues.

She also called for a perspective on Ukraine's admission to the European Union and NATO and for the creation of a European army. However, she rejects the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Presumably to accommodate her party, which grew out of the peace movement, she supports its demands for a long-term withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany in consultation with its allies and rejects a significant increase of Germany's defense budget.

Armin Laschet: Business-friendly advocate of partnership with Russia

Born in 1961, Armin Laschet is Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous federal state. Since he was elected to the European Parliament in 1999, he has been intensively involved in foreign and security policy issues.

He advocates a foreign policy oriented toward German economic interests and, in this context, a rapprochement with Russia. He said it was necessary to «intensify understanding» and «forge stronger ties» between both countries. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now chairman of the supervisory board of the Russian energy company Rosneft, advocated a similar policy and repeatedly spoke out in favor of electing Laschet.

Armin Laschet
Armin Laschet

Laschet's advisers include several people close to business who also advocate closer ties with Russia, such as Ronald Pofalla, who is chairman of the Petersburg Dialogue, and Michael Rutz, who is a member of the steering committee of the Petersburg Dialogue and also a board member of the German-Russian Forum. According to the German weekly newspaper ‘Die Zeit’, Laschet's image of Russia was shaped above all by Natalia Köhler (née Fedossenko), who worked for him for a long time as an office manager and was suspected at times of having worked for a Russian intelligence service. However, the suspicion against Köhler had not been confirmed.

On several occasions in recent years, Laschet has promoted a German rapprochement with the Russian government:

  • Following the occupation of Crimea by Russian forces in 2014, Laschet had criticised what he perceived as «anti-Putin populism» and a «demonisation of Putin». He called the occupation of Crimea illegal under international law, but at the same time demanded that people «put themselves in the shoes of their interlocutor.» He also stressed the importance of trade with Russia for the German economy and the country's dependence on Russian gas supplies.
  • In the Syria conflict, Laschet praised the Russian government for its intervention and supported claim that the United States had supported the Islamic State.
  • After the poison attack on Alexey Navalny, Laschet did not join the calls put forward by other CDU politicians for tougher sanctions and the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 project. After the poison attack on Sergej Skripal, he declared, contrary to the findings of German security agencies, that there was too little evidence to hold Russian agencies responsible for the act.

After coming under domestic political pressure for these positions, Laschet repeatedly criticised the Russian government for acting as an «aggressor» in Crimea and for a «breach of international law.» Regarding the attack on Alexey Navalny, he recently stated that it was not the latter who should be in prison, but «the perpetrators who carried out an assassination attempt on him.»

Outlook

Germany's foreign and security policy culture, which prioritizes economic interests and seeks to avoid conflict with Russia, as well as the economic challenges expected after the end of the Corona crisis, make a fundamental change in Germany's Russia policy after the elections seem unlikely.

  • A CDU-led coalition with the Green Party would probably not make Russia a main focus. The focus of the Green Party in this case would be climate policy, which is symbolically important to them and to which the business community is distanced. A Laschet-led government would probably oppose a simultaneous tightening of sanctions against Russia because of its negative consequences for the German economy.
  • In a Green-led government, Baerbock's ideas on Russia policy would have to prevail either against opposition from the CDU or perhaps from the social democrats (SPD) and the Left Party, all of which reject a more confrontational policy toward Russia. Moreover, such a policy would only be communicable to Green Party members in connection with human rights issues.

However, in the event of a strong result for the Green Party, a rapid economic recovery in Germany after the Corona crisis, and continued offensive behavior by Russia toward Europe, Baerbock's course could prevail. In that case, a Green-led government could support broader sanctions against the Russian state and at least interrupt Nord Stream 2, probably citing the protection of human rights in order to accommodate critics from the political Left. However, a significant expansion of German defense spending would be unlikely under a Green-led government in any case, leaving Germany a weak link in NATO's deterrence of Russia.

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