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Ukrainian transit, Nord Stream II and the end of Merkel’s era: why German Vice Chancellor visited Moscow

Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel. Photo: dpa

Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel visited Moscow on Oct 28. Gabriel is Russia’s “hope” for improved relations with Germany and a solution to the problem of Crimea. The previous time he visited Moscow was Mar 2014. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin informed him of the date of the referendum in Crimea. Gabriel suggested negotiations as a way to avoid sanctions. He recommended forming a “contact group” – a prototype of the future Normandy Four.

This time Gabriel preferred not to parade his visit as, according to Deutsche Welle, he was slated by his German colleagues after saying that Germany had to change its attitude towards Russia as it could not apply sanctions and ask for cooperation in Syria at one and the same time.

During the Oct 11 congress of Germany’s Social Democratic Party Gabriel spoke against “permanent ideological castigation, constant search for new reasons for conflict” with Russia. Following criticism by advocates of a tough policy with respect to Russia, Gabriel was forced to revise his position and to say that the sanctions could be lifted only when the Minsk agreements were fulfilled.

But now Gabriel says again that the conflict between Russia and the West is making it hard for them to confront global conflicts. According to Gabriel, Germany and Russia should put the past aside and should try to find ways to restore their contacts. He believes that Russia’s key partner on Syria and Ukraine is the United States, while Germany and the EU can be just important partners. Gabriel also said that there were forces in Europe and the United States that wanted to see the conflict settled. This all shows that Gabriel’s attitude towards Russia is alternative to Merkel’s policy.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, Gabriel advises doing all for implementing the Minsk agreements. The biggest problem to him here is to ensure Kiev’s control over the border. Meanwhile, the biggest problem for Moscow is that Germany and France are refusing to recognize that Ukraine is breaking the Minsk agreements. Should they recognize this fact, they might also consider lifting their sanctions. But this will hardly happen in Jan 2016 as the deadline for the Minsk agreements to be implemented has been put off due to delayed elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. So, on Dec 31 2015 Germany and France will be forced to say that since the agreements are not implemented, the sanctions will not be lifted.

In any case, Jan 2016 will be crucial for Russia’s relations with Germany and the European Union. Germany will become the OSCE chair and, consequently, responsible for the Minsk process. In Jan 2016, the EU will have to decide either to prolong or to lift its sanctions against Russia. In Jan 2016, the EU and Ukraine will put into force their association agreement.

Gabriel’s visit to Moscow has confirmed that the Kremlin is ready to offer Germany a big “energy carrot” in exchange of improved relations. We mean Nord Stream II. On Oct 8 2015, Gabriel negotiated the project with Gazprom’s CEO Alexey Miller. During his last visit to Moscow, he said that the sides had created some platform – a strategic task force.

Not everybody in the EU likes this idea of Nord Stream II. The anti-Russian European MPs have already urged the European Commission to check up if Nord Stream II complies with antitrust rules.

In Moscow, Gabriel said that in order to be able to limit political interference in the project, Germany needed guarantees of continued gas transit via Ukraine. He meant a new long-term transit deal between Gazprom and Ukraine. That is, Ukraine as a transit country is Germany’s key precondition for Nord Stream II to be realized.

Russia’s stakes in his game are high. If Nord Stream II works out, Germany will get what Turkey seeks to get – it will become the EU’s energy hub. For Germany, this is one more guarantee of its hegemony in Europe. Of course, Germany’s term will be: Russian money and German pipes.

During the Moscow meeting, the sides admitted that the Russian-German trade was on decline. In Jan-June 2015, Germany’s exports to Russia dropped by 1/3. German companies no longer trust the Russian market. The same is for Germany’s exports to Ukraine. German businessmen seek to export more and so they are not interested in conflicts – be they in Ukraine or the Middle East. Nor do they want to see more refugees coming from those regions. Germany’s exports depend on the EU. If the European crisis develops, Germany will become less unyielding in its eastern policy. But if things get stable, it will continue being tough on Russia. Much here will also depend on Russia. If its economy gets stable, Germany may soften its policy.

Let’s see what German mass media said about Gabriel’s visit to Russia. The headline saying “Naturally, I would like to be a Chancellor” was next to the one saying “A Blitz Visit to Moscow: Gabriel visits Putin.” So, we can say that Gabriel has already started campaigning for his party even though the next parliamentary elections are scheduled for the autumn of 2017. By visiting Russia, he sought to show his voters that he was making a personal effort to improve German-Russian relations. The foreign policy of Gabriel’s Social Democrats is a lot different from that of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. More and more experts are saying that Merkel’s era is coming to an end. They perfectly remember Merkel’s pre-election promise to resign in 2016. On Oct 28, the leader of the Christian Social Union in Bavaria Horst Seehofer warned that his union might sever its relations with Merkel and withdraw its men from her government.

This is a great chance for the Social Democrats to instigate a government crisis and to conduct mid-term elections. But they are taking time as they see that even though the Christian Democrats have lost 2-3%, they have gained just 1%. In order to be a worthy rival to Merkel’s party, they need a 7% growth in votes. The only force enjoying real growth in rating is AfD. Were the elections held now, they would be elected. The same is for the Liberals. So, we see that Germany’s political field is becoming more fragmentary but this is adding no influence to the Social Democrats. Die Zeit has called Gabriel the hastiest candidate in present-day politics but what may seem to be haste may eventually prove to be strategic foresight. Of course, the visit to Moscow was part of Gabriel’s election campaign but his strategic foresight does not mean that he will play a decisive role in the Minsk process.

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