(Bloomberg) - When Secretary of State Annalena Baerbock travels to Russia this week, she will follow a path trodden by German officials, and it is one that has been shown to lead to friction with its biggest Western ally.
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As US President Joe Biden's administration appears to be deterring Russia from invading Ukraine, Germany's readiness to confront President Vladimir Putin is being questioned. Baerbock's task will be to demonstrate that questions about the new Berlin government's decision are misplaced.
Her meeting in Moscow on Tuesday with her colleague Sergei Lavrov is part of a long tradition of German-Russian diplomacy, which the outside world has sometimes seemed to create unusually close ties with.
Now Germany's willingness to impose harsh sanctions, the coherence of the Tripartite Coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and above all its stance on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, are all questions of presumption. Some U.S. officials are talking about a "Germany problem" as a result, according to two people familiar with the Biden administration's mindset.
In Germany, "a significant section of the public believes that Russia should be given an exclusive zone of influence in return for keeping gas supplies afloat," Stefanie Babst, a former senior NATO official, wrote in a piece to the German Foreign Relations Council. .
The government denies any disagreement with the United States over Russia. True, a majority of Germans want Nord Stream 2 to start sending gas from Russia to Germany, a poll released on January 6 found. Yet only 17% of respondents saw Russia as a credible partner. Total trade between Germany and Russia was worth about $ 90 billion in 2013, before Russia's annexation of Crimea resulted in sanctions. It was halved by 2020.
Yet even the perception of German ambiguity has prompted some analysts to warn of a looming clash with Washington.
The situation has an echo from four decades ago, when West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl rejected Ronald Reagan over the US president's efforts to confront what he called "the evil empire". It also involved a German refusal to cancel a gas pipeline. "Two allies in trouble," was the headline in Newsweek at the time.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has stressed unity with allies and partners in confronting Russia over its military build-up, including working together to impose "serious economic costs" should it invade Ukraine.
However, a former official with ties to the current US administration said one point of concern is how much Germany would be on board in the form of potential reprisals against Russia. The fact is that Europe is more strongly tied to Russia economically and culturally than the United States, so the calculation is different, said Nils Schmid, SPD's foreign policy spokesman in the German parliament, the Bundestag.
"It's easy for the United States to urge Germany to take a tougher line," Schmid said. "The West must ask itself whether it is ready to pay the economic price," including a possible energy boycott. "There are good reasons not to," he said.
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There are still questions of unity on Russian politics within the coalition that took office on December 8th. Baerbock, a co-leader of the Greens, has been more critical of Moscow in public than Scholz, whose Social Democrats enjoyed a historic proximity to Russia.
Nothing has done more to burn Berlin's reputation for hot ties to Moscow than Nord Stream 2, which is awaiting certification from German authorities, just as Europe is struggling with an energy price crisis. Supply via the new route could help mitigate it.
But its status as a political project was secured from the start when the first Nord Stream became champion of the then SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He joined the board of Russian gas giant Gazprom PJSC within months of leaving office in 2005. The United States says Nord Stream 2 is giving Russia a stranglehold on European energy security.
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The threat of US sanctions was removed after Biden and Merkel reached an agreement last summer in which Germany agreed to act to ensure that Russia would not use it or any pipeline "to achieve aggressive political goals." Scholz has been less explicit in linking the fate of the pipeline to the current standoff, saying only that any breach of Ukraine's borders would have "serious consequences."
Still, Schmid, the SPD legislator, said the chancellor is ready to consider measures against Nord Stream 2 should Russia invade Ukraine. Juergen Trittin, a Green legislator and veteran of the Schroeder government, said both Baerbock and Scholz have made it clear that cooperation with Russia on energy issues is in jeopardy if Putin uses "energy as a weapon", something that is not currently the case. is any indication of.
Germany's ties to Russia are rooted in a long common history that helps explain its approach today. At the height of the Cold War in 1963, the Social Democrat Egon Bahr proposed steps to form the basis of Eastern politics, the policy of rapprochement with the East, which was advocated by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and followed by successive governments.
Among its facets were an emphasis on peace, realism, critical dialogue with Russia and the role of economic relations. These key themes have not lost any of their relevance today, according to Ulrich Kuehn, a political scientist who wrote a paper in 2016 entitled: "The Conflict over Ukraine: What We Can Learn from Egon Bahr."
"I would say that Nord Stream 2 has a pretty long tradition of German chancellors doing business with the Russians / Soviets," Kuehn said. "This is sometimes what may look questionable from a Washington perspective." Still, he said, "from the German perspective, it looks pretty consistent."
Putin regularly refers to Bahr's ideas, most recently at his annual press conference last month. In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, published in June, the Russian leader said that Bahr "proposed a radical restructuring of the entire European security system after German unification involving both the USSR and the US. But none in the USSR, US or Europe. were willing to listen to him. "
The most striking historical parallel to the current situation comes from the early 1980s, when the Greens had emerged as a protest movement and led the opposition against the stationing of US nuclear missiles in West Germany. Helmut Schmidt's SPD-led government faltered in its commitment to the broadcast, and the United States was concerned that Bonn was heading out of its path towards "neutralism."
The arrival in October 1982 of Kohl at the head of a conservative-led coalition was met with relief by the Reagan administration. Only Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, chose a relaxation policy with Moscow.
In a contemporary paper entitled "West Germany: Reliable Partner?" historian Wolfgang Schlauch records how tensions more than any other problem were caused by the construction of a gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe. Where West Germany saw the pipeline as a "stabilizing factor" in relation to the East, the Reagan administration saw the potential for supply disruptions and Soviet leverage - and offered to send American coal as an alternative.
US sanctions were applied and lifted after Washington realized that transatlantic relations were at their lowest level for years. Kohl pushed the missile position through the Bundestag, but stuck to the pipeline.
Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council, today sees a historic shift under a new generation of German politicians for whom reunification is a matter of course and understanding of Russia has diminished. Still, he said: "I do not think there will be a sharp crisis and Germany will turn its back on Russia completely."
For Trittin from the Greens, disagreements with Washington over relations with Moscow are inevitable: "Europeans must continue to live with Russia."
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