Don’t Expect Anti-Russian Ardor from Germany; Germans are looking for a rapprochement with Russia. One popular politician wants to ensure they get it.

Map of Germany

(Bloomberg – bloomberg.com – Leonid Bershidsky – August 9, 2017)

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the darling of Russia hawks because of her steadfast insistence on Ukraine-related sanctions against the Kremlin. But if she wins the September election, as seems likely, she may get a foreign minister who openly favors a more accommodating Russia policy. A large part of German society is behind such a pragmatic softening.

Christian Lindner, the charismatic leader of the Free Democratic Party, a small free-market party with a socially liberal bent, has faced relentless press criticism since saying in an Aug. 5 interview that Russia’s annexation of Crimea should be considered “a long-term provisional solution.” Lindner — also an advocate of a close relationship with the U.S. — has been calling for “encapsulating” the Crimea problem to take “positive intermediate steps” and put forward “proposals that would allow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to correct his policies without losing face.”

If the FDP gets back into parliament, as polls predict, it will be the preferred coalition partner of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, as it was in many previous governments. The junior coalition partner usually gets the foreign minister’s portfolio. (The legendary foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who excelled in the job under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was an FDP member.) That would put Lindner in the hot seat.

Lindner acknowledges that accepting Crimea’s inclusion in Russia is a taboo, so he’s been careful not to call for anything as drastic as lifting European Union sanctions. Instead, he’s coated his detente proposal in historical analogies:

“We have never recognized the annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union, but statesmen like Willy Brandt and Walter Scheel have been able to develop an Ostpolitik which Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher pursued right up to German unification.”

Conservative and centrist commentators have nevertheless accused him of proposing a Kuschelkurs — a policy of cozying up to Putin. And, given Lindner’s possible role in the next governing coalition, the government felt compelled to issue a statement saying its position on Crimea hasn’t changed: It was a human rights violation and a threat to peace in Europe. Lindner has found himself in an uncomfortable endless loop of self-justification. He told the tabloid Bild:

“The signal to Moscow should be that Russia has a place in the house of Europe, only if it abides by the house rules again. As long as that’s not the case, there can be no cooperation. I don’t know if there’s readiness in Moscow to change course. But I know that it won’t start with big questions but with small ones.”

These may sound like puzzlingly opaque statements, but they appear to be in line with the feelings of those voters Lindner is trying to capture: The FDP party base in the business community and far-right Alternative for Germany supporters, whose popular backing the FDP is trying to erode with some hardline rhetoric on immigration. A poll published on Wednesday showed that by suggesting more openness to Russia, Lindner scored with both these groups — and that 44.4 percent of Germans agreed with him, while 43.2 percent disagreed.

A plurality of Germans and a majority of both right-wing and extreme left-wing voters don’t want Russia as an enemy. Lindner is trying to exploit that without directly supporting Putin’s agenda: The leader of a party calling itself both Free and Democratic can hardly afford Putin advocacy in the style of failed French presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon.

But what exactly are the “small questions,” “intermediate steps” and “face-saving proposals” Lindner is talking about? He’s never described them, but Germans — likely including Merkel — understand what he means.

The EU last week added some Russian officials to its sanctions blacklist following revelations that gas turbines built by German industrial conglomerate Siemens had been moved to Crimea, violating earlier sanctions. But the German government hasn’t punished Siemens or pushed it to withdraw from Russia. The company has gotten away with closing one of its Russian joint ventures (far from the biggest one) and suing the buyer of the turbines in a Russian court, which is highly unlikely to overturn the deal.

Nor is Germany likely to do anything about popular Hamburg techno band Scooter’s recent concert in Crimea, which had Ukraine up in arms and threatening eight-year prison sentences for the musicians.

Germany also hasn’t compromised on its strong support of Nord Stream 2, a Russian pipeline project to bring natural gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea that Eastern European countries, primarily Poland, are trying to halt. The U.S., too, opposes it, hoping to supply more liquefied natural gas to Eastern Europe. To make sure the project goes through, Russia is signaling readiness to relax the gas export monopoly of state-owned Gazprom — the biggest legal obstacle to more Russian gas supplies to Europe. If Russia liberalizes gas exports and Germany pushes through Nord Stream 2, it could be seen as one of the “intermediate steps” Lindner suggested.

It’s possible that Lindner is merely talking openly about something that Merkel would rather keep quiet — the cautious shaping of a new Ostpolitik that will ignore the unresolved Ukraine crisis and refocus on reaching out to Russia without changing the current sanctions regime — but also without its overzealous enforcement. Whether or not the FDP leader becomes foreign minister, Germany will move in that direction because that line was historically successful with the Soviet Union and because there isn’t enough voter demand for a hard-line policy.

A quiet, piecemeal rapprochement will do as little to change Putin’s calculus as open U.S. hostility. But at least German business interests can benefit while all the requisite nods to human rights and the sanctity of borders are made.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved. Article also appeared at bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-09/don-t-expect-anti-russian-ardor-from-germany