By Cornell Overfield*
(FPRI) — Two words capture a broad swathe of U.S. and European political concerns over the past twelve months: elections and Russia. However, in a year when it seemed that every election threatened potentially dire consequences for American interests, the European Union, or the liberal post-war order if Russian interference had its way, the finale has been reassuringly anti-climactic.
Germany’s federal parliamentary elections took place on Sunday, September 24, and the contest between the mainstream parties was so bland that some labeled it a Schlafwahlkampf, a “sleeping campaign.” Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) enjoyed a steady double-digit lead over Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the polls and those who tuned into their sole debate could be forgiven for thinking they were campaigning together. This should not be much of a surprise, since their parties have been governing together in a coalition for eight of the past twelve years.
In the background, however, lurked the fear that Russia might interfere with the election, as it has been accused of doing in Britain, France, and the United States. On November 8, 2016, Angela Merkel established the Russia-election nexus in Germany, saying that Russian meddling “could play a role during the election campaign.” Immediately following the French election’s second round, Clint Watts, a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, sounded the alarm over the seeming inevitability of Russian interference in the German election. In his view, the Russians influenced the American election and tried tipping the French election in favor of Marine Le Pen—now, they would replicate these tactics in the lynchpin of Europe. In Congressional testimony on June 28, Brookings Senior Fellow Constanze Stelzenmüller suggested that Germany enjoys natural resilience to information warfare thanks to its healthy institutions, genuine political pluralism, and independent, trusted, quality media, but warned that the threat of Russian influence remained very real. Indeed, had Russian information warfare managed to convince German voters to throw out Merkel and the CDU, Russia might have won a respite from the anti-Russian sanctions and unity which Merkel’s principled leadership has imposed on Europe.
When the promised hacking and interference failed to materialize, experts attributed Russia’s low profile to the surety of Merkel’s reelection and the degree of attention which Russian interference and influence drew during and after the U.S. and French elections.
The understandable obsession with Russian actions towards Germany largely overshadowed the other half of the Russian-German relationship: what Germany’s parties think of Russia. The uncritical assumption in press reports is that a Merkel victory ensures continuity in German foreign policy. However, both within her own party and in the other parties, there are a variety of attitudes toward Russia, and as Merkel attempts to build a new governing coalition, it is worth exploring how they may shape the policy of whatever government emerges from these elections.
While Angela Merkel and the CDU claimed first place in the elections by a hefty margin, they also fell well short of an outright majority. Instead, as has been the general rule in German politics, she will have to forge a coalition to govern Germany for the next five years. As Stelzenmüller points out, each party has its Putinversteher—“Putin Whisperers”—who lobby for a stronger German-Russian relationship by promising that they will manage Putin while German firms reap profits. But the whisperers take on different accents and volumes in each party. Thus, which parties Merkel partners with and their positions on Russia may prove to be the real Russia question of this election.
Since 2014, Angela Merkel has persistently stood up to President Vladimir Putin, whether through leading Europe to impose sanctions on Russia or calling out the possibility of Russian interference in the German election. Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the Bavarian CSU, sister party to the CDU, may admire Russian social conservatism and call for lifting sanctions in the name of Realpolitik, but a drastic shift in the CDU’s willingness to hold Russia to account is unlikely as long as Merkel remains at the helm.
Each party’s vision for Germany’s relationship with Russia can be found in their party platforms and the recent behavior of their leadership. Combining this analysis with the possible political constellations will highlight the possible paths along which Russian-German relations could evolve in the coming years.
The Alternative für Deutschland and die Linke are both highly unlikely to enter government, which bodes well, as they toe friendly and soft lines, respectively, on Russia.
Alternative für Deutschland (Blue)
The right-wing populist AfD is well known as the most Russophile party in German politics. In its 2017 party program, the AfD proclaims that peace rests on a friendly relationship with Russia, and calls for deeper Russo-German economic cooperation. The program also explicitly supports an end to sanctions and proposes a new European security structure which includes Russia and accommodates Kremlin interests.
Notably, the AfD uses its warm relationship with the Kremlin to appeal to the sizeable population of Russian-German voters. The party recently drew fire and ridicule for publishing a Russian-language xenophobic ad in Hamburg, which tapped Russia’s “Tatar-Mongol yoke” narrative to encourage Russian-speaking Germans to vote for AfD in order to secure Germany’s borders.
Die Linke (Red)
Although the Left does not embrace Russia to the same degree as AfD, its position as the leftist umbrella party yields a 2017 election platform sympathetic to Russian concerns and interests. This softer line is occasionally branded a legacy of the party’s origins in the Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Deutschlands, the East German governing party, but its position seems to be based more on anti-imperialist ideology than Cold War allegiance to the Soviet Union’s “successor.” The platform blames NATO expansion for renewed confrontation between Russia and the rest of Europe and laments that talk of a Cold War peace dividend has been supplanted by retaliatory sanctions and arms buildups.
Die Linke’s proposals center around the proposition that “security in Europe can only be security with, not without or against Russia.” The platform demands an end to military maneuvers, the withdrawal of German soldiers from Eastern Europe, and a NATO treaty forswearing further expansion. The party stakes no explicit position on sanctions, but calls for a new security structure, inclusive of Russia, to replace NATO and work towards European disarmament.
The Likely Partners
The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), and die Grünen all take the critical step of clearly denouncing Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and display a willingness to maintain sanctions for as long as Russian behavior warrants such a response. However, as their party platforms and leadership illustrate, they each approach the German-Russian relationship emphasizing slightly different method and goals.
The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Red)
In its party platform, the SPD notes that Russia’s actions in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea strained the Russian-German relationship and violated fundamental principles undergirding European peace and security. The platform commits to maintaining sanctions in the absence of progress in implementing the Minsk Accord (a 2014 agreement which implemented a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, to be followed by the withdrawal of Russian forces from and decentralization for the region), but also suggests that dialogue and détente must be the goal of Germany’s diplomacy towards Russia. Indeed, like die Linke, the SPD also declares that “peace and security are only possible with, not without or against, Russia.”
Going back to the 1950s, the SPD has historically emphasized more cordial ties with Moscow than did the conservative Christian Democrats. Those who view the SPD as a possible force for a softer German approach to Russia also point to former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s resurgent popularity in some party circles. Near the end of his term, Schröder hastily approved the Gazprom-controlled Nordstream natural gas pipeline (which links Germany and Russia by way of the Baltic Sea, bypassing Central Europe), then accepted an offer to chair the project’s board shortly after leaving office. Last month, he was appointed an independent director of Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil company, and the CDU pounced on the opportunity to tar the SPD as pro-Russia and Schultz as a weak leader.
However, this overstates the SPD’s position on Russia. Whatever its historic tendencies or willingness to engage in dialogue with Putin in 2014, it was part of the government which supported and imposed sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, Martin Schulz is a firm Europeanist who has promised to be an obstacle for Trump’s agenda and tweeted criticism at U.S. President Donald Trump over Trump’s attempt to downplay his son’s meeting with a Russian attorney. His survival as party chairman is an open question, but as long as he leads the SPD, it seems implausible that it would embrace Russia at the expense of defending the European community.
The Freie Demokratische Partei (Yellow)
The FDP platform posits that the peaceful European order rests on non-negotiable principles of “the sovereign equality of states, the inviolability of their borders, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, as well as free elections, democracy and regard for human rights.” It explicitly condemns Russia’s war in Ukraine as a violation of Kyiv’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inclusion of free elections and regard for human rights as non-negotiable principles implicitly criticizes Moscow for its tarnished reputation in those fields. On sanctions, the FDP proposes loosening or lifting sanctions if Russia substantially changes its behavior, but promises intensified sanctions in the case of a military escalation.
The FDP notes that Germany and the EU remain closely bound to Russia and propose a medium-term goal of “arriving at a new partnership with Russia.” This is to be achieved through dialogue, whether formally through the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe or informal contacts between German and Russian civil society, which will foster trust, and thus, security.
More than any other party, an analysis of the FDP’s position on Russia is incomplete without taking its leadership’s actions and statements into consideration. After a disastrous 2013 election, which left the FDP out of the Bundestag for the first time in its history, Party Chairman Christian Lindner’s dynamism and flair have led the FDP back into political relevance, and occasionally, controversy.
On August 5, Lindner whipped up a furor by suggesting that a “permanent provisional arrangement” recognizing Russia’s occupation of Crimea might be necessary so Germany could have a constructive relationship with Russia. Some attributed this comment to the FDP’s pro-business slant and a desire to reopen the historically-important Russian market to German firms. The CDU, SPD, and Greens all roundly condemned Lindner for apparently softening on Russia.
Much less publicized, however, have been Lindner’s qualifying clarifications and promises of even harsher punishment for Russian recalcitrance or aggression. In an August 28 interview, he unequivocally confirmed that the FDP would not accept Russia’s claim to Crimea, but suggested that there was an urgent need to engage in dialogue with Russia to avert spiraling escalation and eventually solve the Ukraine conflict. He has also taken to proposing the cancellation of the Nordstream 2 pipeline expansion if Putin fails to moderate his behavior or offer concessions.
The Greens (Green)
In its party platform, the Greens condemn Russia for fueling a rise in conflict and commit to maintaining sanctions against Russia as long as Russia maintains its posture in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. However, the Green party emphasizes that a solution for Ukraine’s conflict can only be reached through politics and diplomacy, beginning with the full implementation of the Minsk Accords. The platform also criticizes Russia, alongside China and Turkey, for suppressing freedoms and undermining the rule of law.
The Green party has consistently opposed Russia in statements beyond its party platform. For example, it recently disparaged Russia’s UN Security Council resolution proposing a peacekeeping mission in the Donbas as a “poisoned suggestion.” Indeed, the party’s staunch and determined opposition to Putin prompted Sputnik to run an article examining “[The] Greens as a danger for the German-Russian relationship.”
Peering into the Coalition Crystal Ball
The election is now behind us, and while the complicated process of establishing exactly how many seats will even be in the Bundestag is still underway, the general results are in. The CDU/CSU took 33%, the SPD a paltry 20%, AfD stormed to 13%, the revived FDP took 10.5%, and the Greens and the Left each took roughly 9%. The possible options for a governing coalition have become clearer, with the CDU/CSU facing two possible paths back to the chancellery, while the left hypothetically could still form a minority government. Each arrangement would bring a different angle and approach to German-Russian relations, as explained for each coalition below, ranked by the number of seats each coalition would control.
Grand Coalition (CDU/CSU-SPD): A continued CDU/CSU-SPD government with Merkel as Chancellor would likely bring little change to Germany’s Russia policy under current conditions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is typically given to the junior partner of a coalition, but even with the SPD nominally in charge of foreign policy, Merkel would continue to set a firm tone with respect to Russia. The polling was indeed correct, and this arrangement would command a majority in the Bundestag, but this would be a reluctant marriage.
The SPD is chafing under the current arrangement, which constrains their ability to differentiate from the CDU as Merkel swings it to the center. The rapid decline of SPD fortunes over the last decade has already demonstrated the danger. Party members may reject this alliance out of fear that another 5 years of the grand coalition could drain the SPD of what little distinctiveness it has remaining. Indeed, as the results came in, Schulz quickly asserted that the SPD would go into opposition, but it is not inconceivable that a collapse in the “Jamaica” talks, the prospect of political instability, and an attractive coalition deal could lure the SPD back to the CDU/CSU. Whether or not the grand coalition is renewed, this election might drive the SPD to slide closer to the Left on Russia, particularly on sanctions, in order to establish clear differences between themselves and the CDU. The SPD and the Left party platforms already share similar language emphasizing the need to include Russia in security projects rather than design security projects against Russia.
Given the drawbacks to the grand coalition, Merkel will probably first try to form a coalition with the smaller parties. In the run up to the election, pundits floated CDU alliances with the Greens (Black-Green), with the FDP (Black-Yellow), and with both the Greens and the FDP (Black-Yellow-Green – or “Jamaica,” on account of the colors of their national flag). With the results in, only the Jamaica coalition would corral a majority of Bundestag seats.
Jamaica (CDU/CSU-FDP-Greens): In a Jamaica coalition, a partnership with the FDP and the Greens might encourage Merkel to condemn human rights abuses in Russia more consistently. Furthermore, if Lindner is serious about cancelling the Nordstream 2 expansion in the event of Russian obstinacy, the Greens would likely welcome an opportunity to punish Putin while also fighting Germany’s fossil fuel habit. Both encourage dialogue and promise an end to sanctions in exchange for substantive change in the Ukrainian situation, but, like Merkel, neither party is eager to grant Putin unconditional leniency.
As mentioned, the secondary party in a coalition traditionally takes up residence in the foreign ministry. Christian Lindner’s presence in government could cause certain headaches for Merkel as she seeks to set a consistent Russia policy because Lindner is known for his fluctuating statements and because the FDP platform’s emphasis on dialogue with Russia. While Merkel is unlikely to approve Lindner’s Crimea proposal or give the FDP autonomy in foreign policy (and Lindner himself has indicated he might prefer the finance portfolio), he might create headaches if he were to offer divergent views and alternative policies during interviews. However, in the event of any further Russian aggression, the FDP is also the only party on record for supporting harsher sanctions and other punishments.
Red-Red-Green (SPD-Greens-the Left): The SPD’s potential tie-up with the Left and the Greens seems highly unlikely, considering that it would require the two mainstream-left parties to tolerate both an unstable, minority government and the Left’s radical leftism. In the unlikely event that Schulz’s desire to become chancellor overcomes those drawbacks, this arrangement would probably result in a softer position on Russia, but the Left might prefer domestic portfolios which allow party members to promote its vision for Germany. Furthermore, considering Schulz’s EU background, it seems unlikely that he would countenance the Left running German foreign policy.
AfD might have stormed to a new national high, but with the votes counted, Angela Merkel has avoided any serious challenge, whether from a German competitor or Russian information warfare. Each possible coalition would bring a different flavor of Russia policy, whether the souring status-quo of the grand coalition or the Jamaican emphasis on human rights. But the worst case scenario has not and (apparently) will not come to pass. Rather than orienting away from Western Europe and towards Moscow, Germany might even emerge from the 2017 election with a government even more firmly opposed to Kremlin aggression.
About the author:
*Cornell Overfield, an intern at FPRI for the summer of 2017, studies International Relations and History at the University of Pennsylvania.
This article was published by FPRI.