Opinions - 05.09.2017 - 00:00 

2017 Bundestag elections: Russia-Germany relations

Relations between Russia and Germany are at an historical low. Ulrich Schmid on the political parties’ diverging perspectives on Russia.

5 September 2017. On 29 September 2001, the newly elected President Putin gave a much-noticed speech before the German Bundestag. He promised – in German – that he would contribute to "building a common European home". The deputies expressed their thanks with a standing ovation. This seems like an eternity ago. Since the violent annexation of Crimea in February 2014, German-Russian relations have been in permafrost mode without a climate change in sight. Chancellor Merkel placed herself in the forefront for a peaceful solution of the Donbas conflict and the signing of the two Minsk Protocols. At the same time, however, Germany is the driving force in the European Union behind the sanctions against Russia. In officialise, the "restrictive measures" were imposed because of "the illegal annexation of Crimea and deliberate destabilisation of Ukraine". In German politics, the Christian Democratic Union and the Greens support the Chancellor’s hard line.

Friendly attitude towards Russia
However, there are also numerous dissenters from a variety of political persuasions. When he was Minister for Economic Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel paid several courtesy visits to Putin even after the annexation of Crimea. Gabriel basically represents a friendly attitude towards Russia that is widespread among SPD grassroots. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, however, Gabriel soon returned to the terra firma of power-political reality. He even had a verbal sparring match with his opposite number, Sergey Lavrov, during a press conference.

CSU boss Horst Seehofer attracted attention because of his two visits to Moscow in 2016 and 2017. He was accorded a great reception because due to its world-political isolation, the Kremlin posts every western visitor as a gain in prestige. Seehofer is fired by a double motivation: on the one hand, he is preparing to reinforce Bavarian-Russian economic relations after the sanctions have been lifted, and on the other hand, he likes the Russian government’s conservative attitude towards traditional values.

The boss of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, represents an ostensibly pragmatic stance. His suggestion that the annexation of Crimea should be regarded as a "permanent provisional arrangement" triggered a critical echo in the German media. With this attitude, he is doing a disservice to the liberal ideals of his party: the FDP stands for all those constitutional principles which the Kremlin violated with its Ukraine policy.

Anti-Americanism links the Left Party and Alternative für Deutschland
As a guest on various propaganda programmes of Russian state television, Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party has justified Moscow’s aggressions. The Kremlin finds its natural ally among Germany’s political parties in the AfD: the party leadership cultivates relaxed relations with the Kremlin. In February 2017, Frauke Petry travelled to Moscow on a semi-secret mission, and Alexander Gauland openly admires Russian society closing ranks behind the shoulders of a strong leader.

Wagenknecht, Petry and Gauland belong to the new Third Position which, in its friendly stance towards Russia, blends right-wing and left-wing ideologies into a populist mix. Their consensus is constituted by a radical anti-Americanism that is combined with a critical attitude towards the elites and a commitment to the "people". Protagonists from the right and left wings who "understand Putin" are past masters of "whataboutism": they counter western criticism of Russia with references to violations of international law by the United States. However, they remain blind to the precarious logic of their position: you cannot justify a theft just because things are being stolen all over the place.

Russian meddling in the Bundestag elections?
The President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, has been warning of Russian meddling in the Bundestag elections for some time. He has his sights on hacker attacks, in particular. A certain role is also played by the news portals Sputnik and RT, which paint an unfavourable picture of the Chancellor and present the EU as a crisis-ridden bureaucracy detached from its citizens. Maassen referred to the Lisa case, which had made the headlines in January 2016: the first channel of Russian television spread the fake news that the 13-year-old girl had been raped by refugees. This made waves among German Russians, in particular.

However, the charge of "influencing public opinion" is tantamount to kicking at an open door in an open democracy like Germany. Public opinion is always a mixture of right and wrong, balanced and biased arguments. Although Maassen’s warning must be taken seriously, it must not be overvalued since it ascribes to the Kremlin a power of influence that it has rudimentarily at the utmost. Even in the age of filter bubbles and fake news, Germany’s differentiated media culture is still able to make "the unforced force of the better argument" (Habermas) prevail.

photo: photocase / superdesign

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