There are few, if any, signs that Russian-German relations will improve over the next few years. While both sides do not want a further deterioration in relations, there is little momentum for any significant softening in either side's stance.

German politicians are not interested in further exacerbation of the crisis that is of no benefit to either side. Pictured: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: AP

For a different take read: "Why German-Russian relations could be on the mend"

The new German "White Paper," the highly anticipated document outlining the nation's future security policy, labels Russia as a threat to peace and security in Europe. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, that's causing quite a stir in Russian media circles.

The hype is not quite clear, since over the past two years official Berlin used this kind of language to describe Moscow's stance on the situation in Ukraine. Thus, the use of such wording in the document in question comes as logical and hardly novel. Actually, we do not know for sure what the White Paper states exactly since it has not been been officially published yet, and Die Welt, which shared the information, does not disclose its sources.

In any case, the German Ambassador to Russia issued a statement that Germany did not see Russia as an adversary, and said the story with leaked quotes from the document was entirely speculation. Nevertheless, this raises the question about the current state and further prospects of Russia-Germany relations.

At present, bilateral relations are at their lowest point in the past quarter of a century. What caused this crisis, and is there hope for leaving it behind?

Problems emerged long before Ukraine

In the fall of 2012, Moscow hosted Russia-Germany intergovernmental consultations. The meetings of the two countries' top politicians (first and foremost, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel) had been traditionally held in this format at least once a year. In spite of the formal atmosphere, the Kremlin meeting gave off the feeling of a diplomatic cooldown. It is particularly significant that as of today, these were the last intergovernmental consultations.

This telling example clearly demonstrates that problems in Russia-Germany relations started long before anyone had any concept of what would transpire in Ukraine. To a great extent, the cooldown resulted from the internal political situation in Russia that was increasingly criticized in Germany, which believed that Moscow was moving in the direction opposite from the democratic path of development advocated by Berlin. The hopes for a gradual rapprochement between the two countries on grounds of common values were growing more and more futile, as the criticism of human rights violations in Russia became increasingly pronounced.

As for Russia, it exhibited signs of certain disappointment largely due to its clearly exaggerated hopes for a bilateral strategic partnership. Moscow did not fully understand that in spite of the desire to maintain good relations, Berlin's priority had always been its ties to the EU and NATO, regardless of the party in power. Russia was definitely displeased with growing criticism on Germany's part.

Of course, back in 2012 there was no talk of an acute crisis, for neither Russia nor Germany was interested in a major setback in bilateral relations. The situation would be better described as a cooldown and stagnation. However, even back then, it was obvious that the tendency was there to stay.

Post-Crimea relations

Russia's incorporation of Crimea radically accelerated the cooldown. The two parties predictably developed very different opinions on the matter. From Russia's perspective, the inhabitants of the peninsula exercised their right to self-determination. Germany interpreted the move as a clear breach of international law, a dangerous precedent, and a threat to European security.

The incompatibility of these two opinions caused a diplomatic stalemate that defies a simple and quick resolution. For German politicians, going back on strict anti-Russian measures is as hard (if not impossible) as returning Crimea back to Ukraine would be for their Russian counterparts.

The ensuing events in Eastern Ukraine further deepened the gap between Russia and Germany. Moreover, the annexation of Crimea cast a major blow to German political, business, and social circles that consistently advocated the improvement in Russia-Germany relations. As of today, German proponents of building rapport with Moscow are mainly represented by marginal players that have no say in Berlin's foreign policy.

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Slow improvement

Still, a certain improvement (including a partial or full lifting of sanctions) is quite possible in the medium-term perspective. German politicians are not interested in further exacerbation of the crisis that is of no benefit to either side. Besides, the Ostpolitik concept of detente developed in Germany in the 1960s for dealing with the countries of the Eastern bloc is garnering support.

The concept rests on the premise that strong measures cannot push a nation towards democratic development and the adoption of Western values; these goals are much more likely to be accomplished through cooperation and persuasion. It is this idea (and not the acceptance of Russia's political stance) that informs Germany's actions aimed at overcoming the current crisis.

Russia's desire to improve the relationship is more pronounced, but Moscow is also not ready to compromise on key issues. Unfortunately, Russians still widely misinterprete Berlin's motives, in particular by assuming that Germany does the bidding of the U.S.

Obviously, Washington has a special relationship with Berlin (a much closer one than the above-mentioned Russia-Germany "strategic partnership"). Clearly, German politicians take into account the opinion of their partners, which include not just the U.S., but also EU members. However, Berlin's foreign policy predominantly promotes German interests and values, which dictate that peace, security, and democratic development in Europe are a lot more important than the ability to sell goods in Russia.

At the current time, we can say that Russian-German relations have hit rock bottom. The two countries are definitely not interested in further deterioration of the situation, so in the next several years, we are likely to see a gradual and cautious improvement. However, there is no reason to hope for a breakthrough, since the best we can count on is a cool stagnation, similar to the one experienced during the period 2012-2013.

In the near future, it will be impossible to restore the positive dynamics exhibited in the 2000s. That would require truly monumental shocks, which are not at all likely to happen. After all, neither the situation in the Middle East nor the European immigration crisis has had much of an impact on Russian-German relations. And it would be too much to expect that an event such as the launch of a new gas pipeline could lead to a dramatic change in bilateral relations.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.