Ignore Germany’s Russia policy

Until recently, Russia looked isolated from the Euro-Atlantic community. Not any more. Ahead of European Union leaders’ talks on Russia later this month, Germany has called for greater cooperation with Russia on climate change as a way to restore Brussels’ frayed ties with Moscow. In doing so, Berlin is recycling the same approach to Moscow which has failed time and again over recent decades.

The European Union (EU), according to a document drawn up by Berlin, should develop a ‘concrete and detailed strategy’ on global warming as part of a broader attempt to ‘selectively engage’ the Kremlin. Germany’s ‘non-paper’ – which is EU-speak for a document used by member states to air ideas without having to take formal responsibility for them – describes Russia as an ‘indispensable’, if ‘often difficult’, actor, and says that the EU has a ‘vital interest’ in stable and predictable relations. 

For most of the post-Cold War period, Germany was seen as Russia’s ‘lobbyist’ in Europe. This changed in 2014, after which Berlin abandoned many of the illusions about partnership with Moscow which had built up since the 1990s. Nevertheless, Germany continued to pursue a policy of dialogue and cooperation at the same time as the EU-imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia. Berlin believed, for example, that Moscow had an interest in de-escalating tensions over Ukraine and that expanding energy relations with Russia would draw it closer to Europe.

This belief was mistaken. Russia is not a neutral observer to the conflict in Donbas, but instead a party to the conflict. It has a greater interest in keeping the conflict ‘semi-frozen’ as a way of influencing Ukraine’s development. Nord Stream II, meanwhile, is an endeavour with no economic rationale beyond financially rewarding the Kremlin and some of Putin’s closest acolytes. 

With its latest document, Germany suggests repeating these actions while – presumably – expecting a different result. Such behaviour is dangerously misguided.

There are few signs that Russia attaches the same significance to climate change as does Germany or the EU. It was only in 2019 that Putin acknowledged climate change was a result of human activities. At government level, Russia adopted a national action plan in 2020 which called on the country to ‘use the advantages’ of warmer temperatures. The plan listed an increase in the area of arable land and the increased accessibility of the Northern Sea Route for commercial shipping as just two of the things that would bring ‘additional benefits’ to the country.

It is true that Russia is a signatory to the United Nations’ landmark Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016. Yet, the agreement uses 1990 as its benchmark, a year when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union and Moscow emitted nearly 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon. Thus, Russia can effectively increase its emissions – in 2019, they stood at 1.68 billion tons of carbon, up from 1.53 billion tonnes in 2009 – and still meet its commitment to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030.

There are a number of lessons for the UK to draw from this. One is that cooperation for its own sake, as the leading Russia analyst Keir Giles argues in his book Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West, ‘is of no interest to Moscow’. The current Russian leadership views the world in zero-sum terms, in which compromise is understood as weakness and win-win situations are not possible. It follows that discussions which take place at the behest of Euro-Atlantic countries are unlikely to lead to a mutually acceptable settlement because such a settlement would amount to Russia giving in to Euro-Atlantic pressure.

Another is that what is important to Euro-Atlantic countries, including the UK, is not necessarily important to Russia, or at least not as important. Climate change, which is often cited as an issue where interests overlap, is one such example. It is certainly the case that sustained, high-level engagement with Moscow on climate change is needed, but such engagement is unlikely to be fruitful while Russia’s leadership insists that warmer temperatures will benefit their country. UK policymakers are thus required to disregard their own ideas about what is or is not a logical and rational course of action, because what they believe to be a driving factor in Russian decision making may not be a factor at all.

Dr Andrew Foxall is Senior Research Fellow in Russian Strategy at the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford.

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