BERLIN – Germanys Russlandversteher are back.
An epithet to some, a badge of honor to others, the term literally translates as “Russia understander,” but connotes something closer to a “Russia sympathizer.” In Germanys heated political climate, few words are as polarizing.
As the West debates how far to go in confronting Russia over Syria and other issues, German politicians are engaged in another round of soul-searching over Berlins role. In almost ritualistic fashion, the Russlandversteher take to nightly talk shows and newspaper columns to tangle with those calling for tougher action against Moscow.
“We must not declare Russia as a whole, the country and its people, as the enemy,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a prominent Russophile, cautioned this week.
Some observers see signs of a pending shift in Berlins position to a more forceful policy toward the Kremlin.
“We need a new start,” Stefan Liebich, an MP and the foreign affairs speaker for the far-left Die Linke party, said in a common call for dialogue that critics dismiss as an almost Pavlovian response to any hint of criticism toward Russia.
Germanys indecisive position on Moscow has frustrated its allies for years. Many worry that the influence of the Russlandversteher has played into Russian President Vladimir Putins hands, allowing Moscow to sow division in Germany and by extension the EU. Without a clear united front against Russia with Germany at the center, the impact of economic sanctions and other measures has been blunted.
Some observers see signs of a pending shift in Berlins position to a more forceful policy toward the Kremlin. But even when pro-Russia sentiments dont drive German policy, they influence it, often creating confusion over Berlins stance among its allies.
Consider Chancellor Angela Merkels response to the recent chemical attack in Syria. On Thursday, Merkel ruled out any German participation in punitive strikes. Two days later, after the U.S., U.K. and France had carried out the attacks, Merkel said they were “necessary and appropriate.”
The question of how and whether to confront Russia has caused sharp divisions in German politics ever since Russia invaded Crimea. With every new Russian provocation, such as the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine or the Salisbury chemical attack in the U.K., the Russlandversteher come out of the woodwork, demanding caution and compromise.
Angela Merkel spoke directly to Putin by phone this week, a call dominated by the Nord Stream issue | Pool photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images
The policy that emerges can best be described as a muddle. While Merkel, who advocates a tougher line with Russia, succeeded in both implementing and maintaining sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, she faces persistent pressure, even from within her own party, to roll them back.
At first glance, Germanys latest Russia debate looks like a familiar ritual. Yet some see hints of a shift in the current debate that could leave the Russlandversteher isolated.
The first indication came last week when Merkel suggested that a planned Baltic Sea gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany should not go forward until concerns over its impact on Ukraine are resolved. Ukraine worries that Russias gas operators will circumvent it with the new pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, costing the country billions in transfer fees.
“I made very clear that a Nord Stream 2 project is not possible without clarity on the future transit role of Ukraine,” Merkel said. “It is not just an economic issue, there are also political considerations.”
The pipeline is a top priority for the Kremlin. On Tuesday, Merkel spoke directly to Putin by phone, a call dominated by the Nord Stream issue.
Berlin had previously resisted pressure to intervene in the project, describing it as purely commercial. So Merkels willingness to put Nord Stream 2 on the table marks a significant change that is bound to heighten tensions with Moscow.
The second shift in Germanys Russia policy comes from a more surprising quarter: the Social Democrats (SPD). The party has long advocated a soft-shoe approach toward Moscow. Among the party, its an article of faith that their Cold War policy of détente with Moscow, known as Ostpolitik, helped bring down the Wall and paved the way to German reunification.
“Germanys stance towards Russia could become much less ambivalent over the next year, and thats probably a good thing” — Joerg Forbrig, from the German Marshall Fund
The SPDs Gerhard Schröder championed such arguments, embracing Russia while he was German chancellor. A self-described friend of Putin, Schröder is now chairman of Nord Stream 2s parent company and also of Rosneft, Russias biggest oil producer.
His successors in the leadership of the SPD, including Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel, each of whom served as foreign minister, advocate a similarly Russia-friendly course.
So its all the more surprising that Germanys new foreign minister, the SPDs Heiko Maas, has taken a decidedly tougher approach on Russia.
“When it comes to Russia policy, we need to recognize the realities,” Maas said in his first interview as foreign minister. “Russia increasingly defines itself in estrangement from, and at times in opposition to, the West. Unfortunately, Russia has become increasingly belligerent.”
Such talk is almost unheard of from the mouth of a prominent SPD politician. In the past, the SPDs strategy has been to counterbalance any criticism of Russia from Merkels conservatives, with whom they share power in a grand coalition.
Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, is close to Russia — and Putin himself | Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images
If Maas position carries the day, Germany could see the biggest shift in Russia policy in years.
“Germanys stance towards Russia could become much less ambivalent over the next year, and thats probably a good thing,” said Joerg Forbrig, a Berlin-based senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
A clearer German voice on Russia would have a ripple effect throughout the EU and NATO, strengthening the hand of countries like the U.K. and the Baltics that have been urging a more resolute stance. It would also leave Russia more isolated, an outcome many analysts argue is the only way to force Moscow to change tack.
Under Western eyes
Still, the Russlandversteher wont give up easy.
The need to protect Germanys economic interests with Russia is often used an argument against a more confrontational approach with the Kremlin. In fact, German trade with Russia is relatively modest, accounting for just 2 percent of German exports.
The real reason for strong support for Moscow in Germany lies elsewhere. Memories of the countrys bloody history with Russia run deep, feeding fears of an armed conflict few Germans want or think can be won.
Perhaps surprisingly, the strongest support for Russia is in the former East Germany. Like other Warsaw Pact countries, East Germany suffered under Soviet domination. Yet over the decades of the Cold War, many East Germans developed a cultural appreciation for Russia and personal links with the country that endure.
Whats more, many Germans view Russia (alongside their own country) as a great culture — a quiet, often unspoken justification for granting Moscow special treatment.
Wolfgang Kubicki, a senior FDP official, suggested the Sergei Skripal poisoning was actually a Western conspiracy | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
Such sentiments help explain the presence of Russlandversteher across Germanys political spectrum.
While a Russia-friendly position is established policy for both the far-right Alternative for Germany and far-left Die Linke parties, even elements of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) have recently outed themselves as Russophiles.
After Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for the U.K., was poisoned in Salisbury, Wolfgang Kubicki, a senior FDP official and one of the partys best-known personalities, suggested the attack was part of a Western conspiracy.
“NATO needs an enemy to justify its existence,” he said at the time.
Donald Trumps presence in the White House, meanwhile, has allowed the Russlandversteher to tap into Germanys deep undercurrent of anti-Americanism. The message: as bad as Russians might be, the Americans are worse.
That argument appears to be getting through. More than two-thirds of Germans believe Trump poses a greater danger to world peace than Putin, according to a poll by Forsa Institut published last week.
Against that backdrop, the Russlandversteher may be here to stay.