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Will Russia force Germany to become a European power once more?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a 2014 commemoration of D-Day in France (Sean Gallup/Getty)

Stefan Meister could not have been more than 30 seconds late for our meeting, in his office in a leafy and embassy-filled Berlin neighborhood across from the city zoo. He arrived out of breath and apologizing, and asked one of the three interns buzzing outside his door for water. (One of the interns who had escorted me into the office, up a flight of green and gray marble stairs, had commented that the building was formerly the Croatian Embassy and, before that, "some Nazi thing.")

As one of the relatively few Russia experts in Germany, Meister is impossibly busy, shuttling between the German Foreign Ministry and foreign capitals and holding meetings in his living room–size office in the German Council on Foreign Relations. Journalists and think tanks, especially Americans, were calling on him with growing frequency; the Brookings Institution sought him for a six-month fellowship in Washington (he negotiated down to one). During our hourlong meeting, he excused himself, apologetically, to take a phone call from another journalist seeking comment on the latest moves in Ukraine.

Germany’s central role first in leading Ukraine negotiations, and then in confronting a newly aggressive Russia, has made it Europe’s de facto leader during the biggest security crisis the continent has faced since the breakup of Yugoslavia. Germany has filled this role well, but with extreme reluctance. The country, after all, foreswore militarism and regional leadership after World War II, and during the Cold War became a kind of mediator between East and West. Its new role as American partner in defending the Western order against Russian revisionism has not been without controversy there, and has led to something of a quiet identity crisis among public and policymakers.

The suddenly overwhelming demands on Meister’s time reflect the world’s understanding of how important Germany has become, and how little understood is Germany’s view of itself and its new role. The fact that he is one of only a few Russia experts here is a sign of how unexpected this shift has been, how perhaps it is Germans most of all who were taken by surprise. One telling detail he mentioned: only a couple of weeks before our meeting, he said, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had installed an emergency "red phone" that directly links the German leadership with that of Washington and Moscow.

Meister described a deep hesitation among both the public and government to take on these new demands, held back by grim memories and a collective guilt that are indeed never far from the surface there. He also put his finger on something that I sensed throughout my conversations in Germany: that the country, though it has been dragged into leadership, has no vision for itself or its new place in Europe. That the country is drifting from crisis to crisis and week to week for want of anything approaching a long-term strategy, so unwilling is it to admit to itself that its era of comfortable weakness is no longer possible.

This national identity crisis matters for more than just Germany. As then–Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in a 2011 speech in Berlin, "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity." What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Meister lightly edited for length and clarity.

Max Fisher: How, in your view, has German policy toward Russia changed since the Ukraine crisis began?

Stefan Meister: It is a game-changer. It’s a complete loss of trust between the leaderships; Putin was lying several times to Merkel and to Steinmeier, just telling them wrong information. All the policy we’ve developed up to this crisis has failed to some extent. And this was really a shock for the German political elite. Now they finally understand it; up until now they just didn’t want to listen. The result is a shift from a policy emphasizing the economy over politics to one emphasizing politics over the economy.

Until this crisis, German business was very influential in influencing the agenda toward Russia and the eastern neighborhood. Now there’s been a politicization of everything and increasing securitization of relations with Russia. Merkel is saying to business, "You have to accept sanctions. And shut up." Because this is so fundamental, it’s about the European order, it’s about us. This is really new.

Merkel in particular, as a person, is very tough on Russia. She was always skeptical about Russia, about Putin. She tried to never meet him when [Dmitry] Medvedev was president. Her feeling that something in this will not work was right. German Social Democrats [a prominent center-left political party] had been decisive on setting Russian and Eastern European policy in the last 30 years, it was mainly Social Democratic ideas. [Former Chancellor Gerhard] Schroder was a key person in that context. That policy has failed, which even they understand now.

So we need something new, but we still don’t know what. The whole policy for 30 years was based on engagement, cooperation, economic development, and so on. And now we find out it’s about security, it’s about order. Even economic interdependence [with Russia], which was always seen on the German side as win-win, is now used as a weapon against us. So we’ve learned that economic interdependence can be a negative.

Max Fisher: Does that mean there is now debate within the German foreign policy establishment about what the new policy toward Russia should be?

Stefan Meister: Sure, it’s a fundamental debate. We had this review in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the whole of German foreign policy, which took two years until the end of last year. And the Ukraine crisis came right in the middle of it.

Max Fisher: That’s some timing.

Stefan Meister: In the end it was good timing, in my opinion, because the whole discussion was about "Where are we as Germany?" We’re an economic power, but in terms of security we are very weak. We have more crises in international relations, we have a weak European union, and we have to take more responsibility in international relations. We have to take more responsibility in the European Union. But how to do it?

And in the middle of this review, the Russia crisis came in. Russia is I think much more than an economic issue, and it’s more than just a big neighbor for Germany. It is about the German foreign policy identity to some extent. German-Russian relations are historically very important — in terms of World War II, in terms of unification, in terms of even much older history — it’s played a crucial role. Russia was always a priority of German foreign policy. If you fail with your approach, which we’ve had now for 30 years, you need to do a really serious rethink.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Obama at a White House briefing in February 2015 (Alex Wong/Getty)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with President Obama at a White House briefing in February 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Max Fisher: But it sounds like you’re saying that it’s about even more than just Russia and Ukraine, that it’s about, as you say, Germany’s foreign policy identity.

Stefan Meister: Yes. And since this came in the middle of this review process, it became very important because it was the first test case for what this new responsibility will look like. And I think this is one reason why Merkel took this risk and took on a role of leader in negotiating with Putin over eastern Ukraine. It was also part of this "white paper" [a formal document the German government issues every few years outlining its security policies] discussion we have now in terms of the military sector, the idea that we need a new white paper, we need to invest more in the Bundeswehr [the German armed forces], and we need to be more prepared for crises even in terms of a robust mandate for our military.

That’s a new discussion for a German society that has been socialized since the war as a pacifist society. "We’re standing back, the Americans will protect us, NATO is the key, and we just pay for everything." Now we have to take leadership, we have to invest in our army, we have to invest in soft security and hard security, in [intelligence] analysis. We are deeply lacking in analysis on what’s going on in Russia. We have an intelligence problem. All of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities became visible.

I also took part in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs review process in how to approach Russia and the Ukraine crisis. What we found out was that we’re lacking in the instruments, in the resources to implement [new policy]. So we need to win time in order to create these resources.

And then we have a society that is still very pacifist, that is critical of Putin but maybe also very anti-American. So you have to take your society along with you, you have to take the voters with you if you want to take over more responsibility. [German] society is just saying, "No, we don’t want to have this. Why can’t we be like we’ve always been, very peaceful and stepping back?" That’s a hindrance for leaders who need to go further.

This is the situation right now; we’re in a transformation process that will take time. In parallel, we have to manage the Euro crisis, a crisis of the institutions of the European Union. We have problems in the trans-Atlantic relations, the NSA scandal is a big issue here. And there is Russia and Ukraine. There are too many fronts that are open.

Max Fisher: When people in the German foreign policy establishment have this debate, do they just talk about these problems individually? Or are people expressing specific visions for what the new German foreign policy identity would be? Is the discussion at that broader level, of identifying a new role for Germany?

Stefan Meister: Well, everything is linked, certainly. Putin is playing the [EU and NATO] member states against one another, and he’s trying to weaken the EU by influencing populist groups within its members. He’s trying to attack trans-Atlantic relations.

I don’t think he’s very sophisticated in this or that he has huge resources —that’s not the case. It’s just the problem that we are weak and lacking unity. We have a growing part of European society, including in Germany, that’s skeptical of the European Union and relations with the US. We didn’t fix these problems before, and now we’re paying for it.

Politicians think in terms of the short term, in terms of crisis management. The problem is that Putin is using Ukraine as a bargaining chip to renegotiate the European order, in terms of security relations, in terms of energy, in terms of economic relations. But we do mainly crisis management. So at one point we try to address the Euro crisis, and at another point Ukraine, and at another engage with Putin. But everything is linked, and Putin is a good tactician.

And something we’ve learned with this crisis is that there is no European Union as a foreign policy actor. The EU is an instrument of the member states to implement agreements and so on. You need leadership inside of the European Union. Germany is now taking over leadership on the Russia crisis, but it needs partners, it needs a coalition of member states to deal with this. But the big member states — look at France and the UK — are dealing with domestic crises, so Germany’s lacking partners at the moment. But other member states are afraid of a strong Germany.

Max Fisher: What’s interesting to me is that when I talk to people in the US or in other NATO states, they increasingly say what you’re saying, that they would like for Germany to take even more of a leadership role, to step up and start making the decisions. Is the German government, do you think, feeling more pressure for a strong Germany?

Stefan Meister: Yes, that was one reason we had this review. There was increasing pressure from the US, and also from other member states in the EU, that Germany should take more responsibility and leadership.

A German soldier holds a military drone during exercises in Germany (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

A German soldier holds a military drone during exercises in Germany. (Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Max Fisher: But it’s sensitive, right? When it was the EU crisis, it was about German economic leadership, and that was okay. And in the early stages of the Ukraine crisis, it was about German diplomatic leadership and mediating with Russia, and everyone was basically comfortable with that. But now people are talking about troop buildups, about being more confrontational, about military measures to deter Russia from more aggression, and it seems like culturally that’s very sensitive here. Is it tough to overcome that?

Stefan Meister: That takes time, but it takes more time than maybe we have at the moment. This is a society that says, "Yeah, Putin is a problem, but we don’t want to have a rearmament of the Bundeswehr or of aggressive power." There’s a big part of the society that is very skeptical about this. Even the German elites don’t feel comfortable with this. They need a learning process for taking leadership.

There is an impulse, if there is conflict, to engage, to seek to mediate. It’s in the genes, it’s very deep-rooted. We are a "compromise" society to some extent; we like to find compromise. But this is in some ways our weakness with the Russians, because with the Russians compromise is a weakness. You have to be strong and tough in Putin’s view. And Merkel came to understand this.

Other member states of the EU, southern states like Spain or Italy, they ask, "Why do we have all these conflicts with the Russians? We have an economic crisis, so let’s just do business with them." So a problem is the European Union itself; they want to have leadership, but if one state is becoming too powerful, then it creates problems. Everyone’s talking about leadership but also they’re afraid of German leadership, that it would become a hegemon and dominate, that it would even return to its old policy toward Russia and make deals with Putin. From the US perspective, it looks very easy to have Germany do more. But from the perspective of the European Union, it’s much more complicated.

You have people here saying that we need to reanimate "the West" as a values community. Trans-Atlantic relations really are in crisis, and there really is no "West" anymore; only Russia remembers us as "the West." We need to find allies with which we agree on values and interests, and that is the US and much of Europe.

Max Fisher: Is that a source of debate here among German foreign policy people? On whether Germany should pursue a more independent role, versus one that’s in support of, or is leading within, a larger Western or European community?

Stefan Meister: Not really. We do a lot of crisis management, but we are lacking really strategic debate about the future of our foreign policy. I don’t see a deep strategic debate about where we stand now or where we’re going. And we do need that fundamental new discussion, about our future within Europe and the EU and also about our relationship with the US. Maybe these come up on talk shows, but I don’t see political decision-makers discussing these, I don’t see a serious strategic debate, vision, or ideas of where we want to go. And this is a big problem in a lot of Europe.