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Germany's new chancellor is (rightly) taking a chance on Russia reset

Cooperation between the two powers has been one of the best things to come out of the post-Cold War era. Let's hope he sets an example.

Analysis | Europe

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is planning to pursue a “qualified new beginning” with Russia in the near future, according to a report in Bild earlier this week. The new Social Democratic chancellor had earlier expressed a desire to build a new European Ostpolitik modeled on Willy Brandt’s policy of engagement, and to that end, he is taking the lead on matters related to Russia. 

Scholz’s effort could be worthwhile because it keeps alive the possibility of having a reliable and influential intermediary between Europe and Russia. Warnings that Russia would jeopardize the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if it took military action against Ukraine will be more meaningful if they come from a supporter of the pipeline and a proponent of better relations. Instead of leaning entirely on threats and sanctions, Scholz is also in a position to appeal to Moscow by offering incentives for constructive behavior.

Past Western “resets” with Russia have been marred by a combination of unrealistic Western expectations of “changing” Russia and an unwillingness to address Russia’s main security complaints. These initiatives have usually been too superficial to make durable improvements in the relationship with Moscow. Few Western governments see the point in making the effort now, and Biden was the first new American president to take office without making any gestures in this direction.

Scholz’s interest in developing a new Ostpolitik aimed at calming tensions and managing disputes with Russia stands in sharp contrast to most of his counterparts in other Western governments, but that is what makes his initiative potentially so important. No other major Western leader seems willing to pursue a détente policy so openly despite the political risks that it involves. 

It was inevitable that the report of Scholz’s planned Neuanfang would bring out the usual suspects to denounce it as “appeasement,” but this simply reminds us how bankrupt hawkish ideas on Russia have been for years. Russia hawks have rejected any and all diplomatic engagement with Russia for the last decade since the end of the brief U.S.-Russian “reset” under Obama, and they were quick to attack Biden simply for holding a summit meeting with Putin last year. The unhinged attacks on Scholz for supposedly “betraying” Germany’s allies reflect how worried many Russia hawks are that some major European governments might successfully bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion. We heard the same kinds of hardline attacks on Germany in the year before the invasion of Iraq when their government rightly opposed the war and ours ignored their warnings. 

U.S. and European policies have focused on throwing weapons and military exercises at the problem in the name of “deterring” Russia, but all that they have achieved is to rile Moscow and antagonize them even more. Many of the same people that told us not to worry about provoking Russia by sending arms to Ukraine now urge us to build up Ukraine’s military capacity even more, as if Russia wouldn’t interpret that as hostile. Sanctions on Russia have inflicted some damage, but the Russian government has since adapted and learned to live with them. It is clear from the record of this and other sanctions policies that relying solely on punitive measures leads to more of the undesirable behavior that they were meant to discourage. 

Scholz’s new beginning reflects strains in his own cobbled-together coalition government with the Greens and Free Democrats, and especially with his Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. During the election campaign, Baerbock was considered the chancellor candidate most likely to make changes to German policy towards Russia. It is therefore not surprising that Scholz seems to be sidelining her with respect to managing relations with Moscow. 

This division inside the government is notable because foreign policy played such a minor role in the election campaign last year, and now the tensions among the coalition partners are rising to the surface. When Baerbock was appointed to be Foreign Minister late last year, it seemed as if this could have dangerous implications for the direction of German foreign policy. It is an encouraging sign that Scholz is not willing to let his junior coalition partner call the shots on Germany’s relations with the rest of the world.

Germany also has a strong incentive to keep the relationship with Russia from imploding. A cooperative German-Russian relationship has been one of the more important, least appreciated developments of the post-Cold War era, and both countries have a great deal at stake in making sure that the relationship remains intact. This potentially makes Scholz an ideal messenger to convey shared European concerns in such a way that they won’t be simply dismissed. Where the U.S. relationship with Russia is defined almost entirely by mistrust and recriminations, Germany is a valuable economic partner that Russia can ill-afford to alienate.  

Both Russia and Europe stand to lose a great deal economically if there are major new sanctions imposed on Russia. Western policymakers need to remember that waging a more intense economic war on Russia will also mean waging it on all of the companies and countries that still do business with them, and that means that many allies will suffer as well. It would be much wiser to find a way out of the current impasse through negotiations than to cause huge economic contractions that would have undesirable ripple effects on European politics for years to come. The U.S. and Germany should closely coordinate their approaches to Russia in the coming months if Washington is to take full advantage of Scholz’s “new beginning.” Engagement with Russia is politically toxic in D.C., but it is not yet so in Berlin, and that is why we should hope that Scholz makes it work.

Hawkish posturing and threatening sanctions are easy. That is why so many politicians in Washington and elsewhere default to these options all the time. It requires no political courage or vision to endorse hardline policies that make conflict more likely. The real challenge is to look beyond short-term political advantage and recognize what advances the cause of international peace and security. Doing that sometimes means engaging in talks with governments that we would rather shun and compromising with leaders that we would rather repudiate.

There is no good alternative to engagement with Russia, and it is fortunate that Germany has another leader in the mold of Angela Merkel who understands that. As Angela Stent observed in her book, Putin’s World, “Russia cannot be isolated because it has partnerships with many countries that refuse either to criticize Russia or sign on to sanctions and do not see Russia’s actions in Ukraine as threatening to their own interests.” That was true when the book was published in 2019, and it is still true now. She also warned that “nonengagement with Russia could lead to an even greater escalation in tensions.” We are seeing now what that greater escalation might look like. If Western governments want de-escalation and stability in eastern Europe, they should be cheering and welcoming efforts at engagement like the one Chancellor Scholz is proposing.

New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Reuters) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (ID1974/Shutterstock)
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