Moscow and Berlin continue to sharply disagree on many critical international matters. After the Ukraine crisis, ‘business as usual’ has been impossible and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Russia lost Germany’s support back in 2014, or even earlier. seventy-three years after the end of World War II, and 28 years after reunification, younger generations of Germans owe Russia nothing. Germany is, and will always be, a disciplined member of NATO and the EU; it will not take any initiatives that might look risky, inappropriate, or untimely to other members of these organisations. To cut to the point, there are absolutely no reasons to hope for any breakthrough in German-Russian relations simply because a new coalition government has finally arrived at Berlin.
However, a new government in Berlin is always a new opportunity – not only for Germany itself – but also for its international partners, including Russia. After all, the Federal Republic is not just another European country. It has always been a driving force behind European integration, an articulated – and sometimes explicitly dissenting – voice in NATO. Is there another country that could be more interested in overcoming the new division of our common continent; in avoiding a nuclear and conventional arms race in Europe; and in preventing nationalism, populism and unilateralism from getting the upper hand anywhere between Lisbon and Vladivostok?
All other European capitals notwithstanding, it is Berlin that has the highest stakes and the strongest position in dealing with Moscow. The current change of the guard in Berlin cannot produce a miracle in the relationship with the Kremlin, but it can help to reverse the dynamics.
Despite all of the difficulties facing Germany’s government, there are a few proposals that are within reach of the new coalition. No single proposed solution will dig us out of the hole we are in, but they will definitely make the sides of the hole less steep.
Firstly, Germany should consider a NATO-Russia crisis management group. Urgent measures are needed to secure ourselves against human errors, miscalculations, inadvertent escalations, and other unfortunate developments. The NATO-Russian Council was designed for this purpose, but its current state does not look exceedingly optimistic. An ad-hoc mechanism is needed – not to replace the NATO-Russia Council, but to help hold on until the time when NRC can operate at its full capacity.
Secondly, Germany should take a more active position on Ukraine. Given the current downward trajectory of US-Russian relations, it looks very unlikely that the US-Russian bilateral dialogue (between Ambassador Kurt Volker and his counterpart, Vladislav Surkov) could lead to even a limited progress in Donbass anytime soon. The time has come to reactive the Normandy format process, including at the top political level. The pause in the Minsk process has been too long, and there is a growing danger that we will lose the only legitimate mechanism of managing the crisis in and around Ukraine.
Thirdly, the new coalition government in Germany should come up with a new energy plan for Europe. The European energy agenda almost completely deteriorated into battles about Nord Stream-2. However, by broadening the energy agenda, one can turn this field from a highly divisive one, into a consolidating one. This could include exploring energy partnerships between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, promoting energy efficiency and the development of renewables, moving to common energy standards, providing energy infrastructure safety, and many other ‘non-toxic’ dimensions, where Germany can rightfully claim leadership positions.
Fourthly, Germany should offer a more flexible anti-Russian sanctions’ mechanism. The four-year sanctions war between the West and Russia demonstrates the need to create a more nuanced, more calibrated set of economic incentives and disincentives for the other side to consider. This is not a suggestion that Germany should push for a complete lifting of sanctions tomorrow. Nevertheless, sanctions usually only work if the side imposing sanctions can expeditiously react to even minor changes in the behaviour of the other side.
The new German government should also engage more strongly with the OSCE. The 2016 German Chairmanship of the OSCE gave birth to the Structured Dialogue on current and future security challenges, which remains one of the most promising formats of the East-West communications. Today, the OSCE still needs much more German attention and German vision – a political investment definitely worth making. Also, Germany should get involved in preserving the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). If this bilateral agreement between Moscow and Washington collapses, European security will receive a colossal blow. For instance, Germany could offer to host a special US-Russian summit with the sole task of saving the INF.
Last, but not least, Germany traditionally played an important role for cooperation with Russia in research, education, and culture, which accommodated a very sizeable Russian diaspora. To keep Russia as a part of Europe, Germany should lobby in Brussels for Schengen visa liberalisation or even a non-visa regime for Russian students, scholars, and civil society leaders.
Do any of these proposals look like a manifestation of an appeasement approach or like they compromise the core values of German foreign policy? Would they divert too much attention and energy from other priorities or lead to difficult problems between Germany and its allies? If the answer is no, then these proposals should be considered by the new coalition government to reverse the dynamics in the relationship between Moscow and Berlin.
 Nord Stream is an offshore natural gas pipeline from Vyborg, Russia to Greifswald, Germany that is owned and operated by Nord Stream AG. The project includes two parallel lines.
Andrey Kortunov is Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council