Can Steinmeier Overcome German-Russian Estrangement?

On October 25, 2017, Federal President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid a working visit to Russia. Formally, he came to participate in the ceremony to transfer the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Moscow in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Germany will celebrate this anniversary on October 31. 

The visit was coordinated on short notice and came as a surprise to the expert community. From March to October 2017 the new president of Germany was essentially absent from the German public and political discourse, including the discussion of Russian-German relations. In all probability, he did not want to influence the election campaign. 

This visit to Russia was his first foreign trip after the parliamentary elections held on September 24, 2017. In line with the German constitution, once the new Bundestag first convened, Steinmeier dismissed the former grand coalition government. Formally, during the new coalition talks, he became the main authorised representative of the German state, in particular for talks with senior officials of foreign countries. 

The last time the president of Germany, Christian Wulff, came to Russia in October 2010, he held talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Before that, German President Horst Köhler visited Russia in January 2005. Steinmeier’s presidential predecessor Joachim Gauck refused to visit Russia, considering the Russian president a political outcast. 

Putin and Steinmeier know each other well. They met many times and discussed the entire range of international political problems. Both were well prepared for the talks in Moscow. On October 12, 2017, President Putin met with the representatives of German big business in Sochi and laid out his foreign policy ideas to the Valdai Club also in Sochi on October 19. On the eve of his visit, the president of Germany clearly expressed his position on major bilateral issues in an interview with Russian and German journalists. Apparently he had discussed it with Angela Merkel; by tradition, German foreign policy is formulated by the German Chancellery in cooperation with the Foreign Office (foreign ministry counterpart). Importantly, there are no major divergences on Russia between the president and the chancellor – they both believe Germany should maintain a tough position on Crimea, south-eastern Ukraine and the Minsk Agreements. Moreover, the main premises of this policy were adopted when the current president headed the Foreign Office. 

The main task of the president of Germany during foreign visits is to uphold the current foreign policy strategy and core European values (democracy, human rights and the like).  It was clear from the very start that the president of Germany would not bring any new initiatives and would focus on this value-based approach. This is why the German side insisted on a working rather than official visit and a specific agenda: first he planned a dialogue with civil society representatives, then the transfer of the cathedral, and only after that a meeting with President Putin. 

The president followed the agenda.  Having met with Memorial representatives and Mikhail Gorbachev, he noted the difficulties with advancing civil society in Russia and criticised the country’s policy towards “foreign agents.” At the same time, Steinmeier signalled to Russia a readiness to gradually restore mutual trust against the backdrop of Germany’s tough approach on Ukraine, which would determine the substance of top-level political and economic cooperation in the years to come. In this context, it is important to note his forward-looking statement about the need to continue such meetings, especially between the leaders of states. In doing so, Steinmeier was also addressing the political establishment of Germany and Europe in general. 

The president of Russia emphasised the positive aspects of bilateral relations, as he did during his meeting with Chancellor Merkel at their May meeting in Sochi. President Putin highlighted successes in economic, scientific and cultural cooperation. He bluntly stated that the Western sanctions had failed to achieve their goals, as Russian and German companies gradually adapted to them. Importantly, the presidents noted their shared views on the need to eliminate terrorists in Syria and boost efforts to facilitate a political settlement. On Ukraine, President Putin expressed hope that the initiatives advanced by Steinmeier in the past within the framework of the Minsk Agreements would be carried out. 

The visit and the exchange of views demonstrated that there would be no radical changes in Germany’s policy towards Russia. It would continue to be determined by progress in implementing the Minsk Agreements. There are no grounds to speak about an independent German foreign policy for the time being. Importantly, the visit “will facilitate the development of bilateral relations between the Federal Republic and the Russian Federation.” And moreover, regardless of the composition of the next coalition, the German government will facilitate rather than impede relations between Berlin and Moscow. The current president of Germany is ready to encourage this process.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.