Relations between Russia and Germany have been in difficult waters for many years now. The meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Putin in Meseberg has not changed this. Of course, there are common interests such as energy security. 40 percent of German gas imports are coming from Russia. Thus, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is a project both countries would like to see implemented. Another issue where interests converge is non-proliferation policy towards Iran. Both, Moscow and Berlin want to preserve the JCPOA with Iran. However, the list of conflictual issues is much longer: Ukraine, Syria, European defense, cyber security, human rights, sanctions – just to name a few.
Neither are economic relations a success story. Since its peak in 2012 (80 billion Euro), bilateral trade has dropped because of mutual sanctions and the weak state of the Russian economy. In 2017, the negative trend ceased, bringing the trade volume between Russia and Germany back to 57 billion Euro. But given the risks that possible trade wars pose for global growth, it is not clear whether this trend can be sustained.
On the societal level, there is an issue with identity: Germans and Russians dont‘t look at each other as favourably as they did in the past. In 2016, we polled Germans and Russians about their attitudes towards Europe. Only half of the Russians and half of the Germans said that Russia belongs to Europe. In another poll issued by Körber-Stiftung in spring 2018, only 32 percent of Germans said that they want Germany to cooperate closely with Russia. It will take time and a considerable improvement of the political climate between both countries until these patterns will change again to the positive.
Last but not least, the voices in Germany arguing for a more accommodating policy towards Russia never seem to be able to muster enough critical mass in order to impact the established policy towards Russia. Among the relevant players in Berlin, there is a pretty solid consensus that Russia’s behaviour in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East requires Germany to stay the course. For the time being, a reset in German-Russian relations is inconceivable.
Against this background, it is not surprising that the Meseberg meeting between Chancellor Merkel and Putin took place in a sober atmosphere and did not produce any „quick wins“. Both, Merkel and Putin have been in power longer than any other leader in Europe. They have met frequently and know each other well. They can even converse in their mother tongues with one another. But most importantly, both have demonstrated many times that they are able to stay the course and persistently pursue their interests. It is not very likely, though not impossible, that the new policies of President Trump will bring both sides closer together over time. Even if recent proposals by leading German politicians for Europe to form a counterweight to the US, thus rebalancing transatlantic relations, would become policy, this would not necessarily grant more concessions to Russia.
Meetings like Meseberg are important, even if they don’t produce tangible results, let alone breakthroughs. Under current circumstances, it is more realistic to expect further stagnation and muddling through between Berlin and Mosсow.
Thomas Paulsen is member of the executive board of Körber-Stiftung in Hamburg.