Merkel’s defiance of Moscow runs counter to cultural sympathy for powerful factions

Chancellor’s stance on Putin has provoked claims of ‘Russia-bashing’

For eight years Angela Merkel's political trademark has been cautious, incremental politics – even in the most dramatic moments of euro crisis. The standoff with Russia over Crimea has seen the German leader do something out of character: go out on a limb.

On Thursday, she told the Bundestag that Russia's disregard of international law to annex Crimea left Moscow isolated and the G8 defunct, and opened the door to economic sanctions.

Taking a bold stand in complicated situations with uncertain outcomes has not been her style. In doing so, she risks conflict with an influential section of the German political, media and business elite which, since the start of the crisis, has portrayed President Vladimir Putin as a Russian bear with a thorn in its paw: someone who needs sympathy, not sanctions.

On the surface, German arguments echo those heard elsewhere in Europe. Ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a notable Putin ally, flags Putin’s “encirclement angst” and criticises the either/or choice Brussels presented to Kiev: between EU accession or closer ties with Russia. If Russia hits back against this strategy, so the line goes, the EU and Nato only have themselves to blame.


Behind these arguments in Germany lies a centuries-old obsession with Russia as a wild, untamed refuge for the romantic German imagination. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche viewed the vast Russian empire as a welcome contrast to western Europe's "miserable, small kingdoms . . . and anxiousness" while Thomas Mann, articulating a common view at the time, described Germany and Russia in 1918 as natural soulmates and allies, equally bullied and misunderstood by the West.

Historic love affair
The influential German poet Rainer Maria Rilke fell hard for Russia – and a Russian woman – during a 1920 visit, saying the experience in this land of "unfinished gods . . . made me what I am". The German-Russian love affair's low point was the 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, sacrificing the countries and "subhuman" Slavic peoples between them – until the two powers declared war on each other.

Even at the chilly heights of the cold war, when one Germany was a Moscow puppet state, dreams of a German-Russian alliance lingered on and coloured the era of Ostpolitik . It's not all that surprising, then, to hear Germany's opposition Left Party, successor to East Germany's ruling SED, offer "yes, but" arguments on Ukraine: Russia's annexation of Crimea breaches international law, they say, but so did Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 – with European support.

But this empathy is visible right across the German political spectrum. Leading Social Democratic Party (SPD) representatives have attacked criticism of Moscow as "Russia-bashing". Armin Laschet, deputy leader of Merkel's CDU, has attacked "anti-Putin populism" in the German media and, despite Russia's illegal Crimean strategy, said it was important to "put oneself in your partner's place".

German business leaders are opposed to sanctions, seeing an unacceptable economic cost to their interests. The Handelblatt business daily went even further, arguing that the Crimean referendum corrected Nikita Khrushchev's "vodka-induced whim" to hand over the peninsula to Ukraine. Forcing a reversal of the annexation could undermine Putin's authority, the newspaper argued, threaten his fall from power and plunge Russia into chaos – with consequences for us all.

German calls for greater empathy for Moscow often mask something else entirely. For instance, Dr Alexander Rahr, an influential Russian analyst in Germany, says the “emotional over-reaction from Putin” was prompted by fears that Ukraine’s EU association agreement was a slippery slope to full Nato membership.

Opportunity squandered
But, two years ago, he told the Kremlin-friendly Komsomolskaja Prawda newspaper he felt Putin had "romantic notions" of Germany, where he once served as a KGB agent, and had shown a "pure heart" in his dealings with Berlin. Germans had rebuffed his approaches and squandered a historic opportunity, said Rahr, because Berlin was under the influence of the US and Israel, which "constantly rubs [Germany's] nose in the Holocaust".

He also hit out at what he described as aggressive western attempts to “force other people to also become democrats and liberals in their thinking”.

What makes Germany’s Russia empathisers so effective is their dismissal of anyone who offers a critical analysis – based on Putin’s concrete action rather than speculation on his motives – as having a shallow and disrespectful understanding of the complex Russian soul.

Berlin promises to continue its robust and critical position towards Moscow, co-ordinated with European neighbours, and says Germany’s Russian empathiser camp is more vocal than influential.

But this group's consistent opposition to sanctions or further action against Russia is reflected in opinion polls. Further deterioration in the Crimean crisis could find the usually pragmatic Angela Merkel in an unusual position: on the wrong side of public opinion.