Berlin, Germany – Both are the same age, speak the other’s native languages ââfluently, are former residents of Dresden in Communist East Germany, and define political figures of their time.
Shared experiences have underpinned the relationship between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was at times courteous – the couple exchanging gifts of beer and smoked fish – and at times deeply recriminal.
Merkel’s 20 visits to Moscow throughout her tenure made her the main representative of Europe and the West in the corridors of the Kremlin.
Now, as Merkel prepares to retire from politics after the German federal election, her successor will take over at a time when Russian-German relations are at their lowest in years.
Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine, its continued crackdown on political opponents, and perceived attempts to undermine democracy in Germany have led to a breakdown in dialogue and growing doubt in Berlin about maintaining a cooperative approach. towards Russia, analysts told Al Jazeera.
“This is the question: what is the future of relations between the EU and German Russia with a regime that is more aggressive on the outside and repressive on the inside?” Â», Declared Stefan Meister, expert on Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
“I think there will be even more alienation.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its covert use of military forces in Ukraine in 2014 broke the diplomatic status quo with Germany, which has since played a leading role in imposing EU sanctions and supported Ukraine with more than one billion euros ($ 1.18 billion) in financial assistance. .
Mutual trust declined further after a 2015 cyberattack on the German parliament, which the federal prosecutor entrusted to an agent from GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
Merkel denounced the hack, which included the theft of 16 gigabytes of emails and sensitive data, as an example of Moscow’s “hybrid war”.
Germany nevertheless maintains strong economic ties with Russia, its second largest trading partner and a major supplier of natural gas.
“The basis of relations between Germany and Russia is more economic than political,” Alexander Baunov, senior researcher at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s more about trade, deals, technology and investment than about who is the most important in the world.”
Replacements for Merkel
The two favorites to succeed Merkel as chancellor – Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Christian Democrat leader Armin Laschet – are both part of the current government coalition and have indicated they will not walk away. not Merkel’s approach of separating diplomatic criticism. economic cooperation.
Neither Laschet, currently head of Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, nor Scholz, the country’s finance minister, have significant experience in foreign affairs, or with Russia in particular.
Scholz, whose SDP currently leads the polls, criticized Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s “inviolable borders” and its attempt to destabilize European politics, while also proposing a renewed European “Ostpolitik”. to the reconciliation policy of his predecessor Willy. Brandt to the USSR.
âIf things are to change, there must be bridges and channels of dialogue in order to get back to a better relationship,â he said during a foreign policy discussion in June.
Laschet also criticized Russia’s interference in other countries and the Kremlin’s crackdown on critics in his country. He called for more dialogue and the development of a united approach on the part of EU member states.
“We have sanctions, but severing diplomatic ties or something like that would be wrong,” he told broadcaster Deutsche Welle earlier this year.
The two leaders are backing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which when completed will deliver 55 billion cubic meters (1.9 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas per year directly from Russia to Germany.
The Green Party, which is third in the polls and could be a coalition partner in the next government, is significantly more hawkish towards Russia and could influence policy if it is put in the foreign ministry. The party said its candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had been the target of a Kremlin-backed campaign of abuse on social media, including doctored images and conspiracy theories, for opposing the pipeline.
“As far as Laschet and Scholz are concerned, one has to expect more or less continuity,” said Liana Fix, director of international affairs at the Koerber Foundation.
âThe only question left is how strong the value base will be. So to what extent would they focus on human rights and national developments in Russia? [or rather] on economic interests?
The last section of the nearly 2,500-kilometer (1,553-mile) Nord Stream 2 pipeline was welded on Monday, and Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom, its sole shareholder, expects it to start pumping gas under the pipeline. Baltic Sea later this year.
Germany has backed completion of the $ 11 billion mega-project despite threats from the United States to sanction the companies involved and fears that Ukraine will remain vulnerable when its current gas transit deal with Russia expires in 2024.
Supporters, including the German industrial sector, have argued that the pipeline is necessary for German energy security and its phasing out of coal.
But prioritizing its economic interests has undermined confidence in Germany in the eyes of Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine, Fix said.
“It is not known how a strong stance on Russian sanctions against Ukraine has combined with Nord Stream 2,” she said.
On her last trip to Kiev in August, Merkel tried to allay fears that the pipeline was being used for political purposes by warning of retaliatory sanctions. However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy remained unconvinced.
“I think not to notice that this is a dangerous weapon, not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe, is a mistake,” he said in a statement. joint press conference.
Divisions within Europe on the pipeline will not go away and could be exploited by Putin, Meister told Al Jazeera.
“This will always create a vulnerability or a weak point for Germany, criticized by Washington and also criticized by very many EU member states,” he added.
Criticism of the imprisoned Kremlin
The poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny last year has cast a new veil on relations between the two countries.
After falling seriously ill on a flight, Navalny was rushed to Berlin for treatment at Charite Hospital, where German investigators confirmed the presence of Novichok, a rare nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union. German officials have suggested that its use indicates the involvement of Russian state actors. Russia has denied any involvement and said it had seen no evidence that he was poisoned.
The German government has continued to defend Navalny, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after returning to Russia, on what human rights groups have called politically motivated fraud charges.
Merkel opened up about her plight with Putin during their farewell meeting in August.
“I once again asked the president to release Navalny and made it clear that we would stay on the case,” she said.
Putin bluntly dismissed his concerns, saying there was nothing political about Navalny’s conviction.
This growing rift between the two longtime counterparts does not bode well for Merkel’s successor, who will lack the stature and respect she has built over the years, Meister said.
âThere isn’t much room for dialogue at the moment. Now there are very few topics left that Russia has an interest in talking about with Germany, Europe or the West. “