Germany is now undisputedly on the front line in the conflict between the EU and Russia over Ukraine.

This is a new situation that has immense implications for the EU’s future policy toward Russia and, especially, toward Eastern Europe. The line is making it more difficult for Russia to play EU member states off against each other. But it also obliges European leaders to set out a new strategy for Russia and Eastern Europe. Germany holds the key to both.

Being on the front line is nothing new for Germany. During the Cold War, West Germany was armed to the teeth with NATO’s conventional forces, backed up by nuclear weapons. The country was pitted against an East Germany that was supported by the armies and nuclear weapons of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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Yet even then, West Germany was divided over how to deal with the Kremlin. The Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, never gave up on the idea of German reunification. The Social Democratic Party opted for a pragmatic, cooperative approach toward Moscow centered on a policy known as Ostpolitik.

While the pacifist movement loathed NATO’s presence on West German soil, there was no getting away from the fact that Germany was on the front line. That was the reality of the Cold War.

Today, Germany is on a different forward edge that Merkel has been systematically shaping to adapt to Europe’s new geosecurity and geostrategic realities. Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula in March 2014, Merkel has realized how he has challenged the post–Cold War consensus and Europe’s security.

It is not only the territorial integrity of a big country such as Ukraine—or of Moldova, tiny in comparison—that is at stake today. The current conflict is also about the EU and the West defending a system based on the market economy, the values of a free media, civil and human rights, and, particularly, the separation of state and society. Above all, it is about not letting Putin’s Russia cow the countries of Eastern Europe into submission.

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If Merkel’s Germany buckles under the weight of Russian propaganda and the influence of (mostly) elderly male former Social Democratic chancellors and directors of pro-Russian lobbying organizations, the new front line will have been breached. That would be bad news for Europe.

Merkel continues to back the West’s economic sanctions on Russia, which are the EU’s only option for dealing with Russian aggression—apart from speeding up the diversification of Europe’s energy sources.

There are many views about the long-term goal of the sanctions. Putin believes they are aimed at regime change (if only the EU were so influential).

Then there is a group of German Social Democrats with very close ties to the Kremlin who have been critical of the sanctions. These figures include the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the former state premier of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck, who has condoned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Eckhard Cordes, the head of the Ost-Ausschuss, which represents German industry. These Social Democrats argue that Berlin and the EU should involve, not isolate, Russia.

Yet what has Merkel been doing over the past several months? She is the one Western leader who has been speaking to Putin on a regular basis to understand his motives but also to emphasize that the old way of doing business with the Kremlin is over.

So far, 58 percent of the German public supports the sanctions. Seventy-six percent of Germans and a majority across all party-political affiliations approve of Merkel’s policy toward Russia.

In conversations, top German diplomats, whether Christian Democrats or Social Democrats, all say the same thing: Berlin has hit a wall with Putin. Not only that, there is also no trust left between Berlin and Moscow.

It’s all very well that Schröder, who is on the payroll of Russian energy giant Gazprom, has warned Germany against isolating Russia. Just ask Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, what it has been like in recent months trying to reach (let alone talk to) his increasingly marginalized Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

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The reality is that the tools of diplomacy on which Germany long depended in its relations with Russia have run their course. The Chancellery, the arbiter of foreign policy, recognizes this. That explains why Merkel has opted for sanctions and a tough stance against Moscow.

It is Berlin that pushed several skeptical EU leaders to sign on to the sanctions, despite pressure from their national industries. Look at how French President François Hollande is no longer willing to deliver France’s Mistral-class assault ships to Russia. Look at how Italy’s powerful ENI energy company, which over the years has cultivated close ties to Gazprom, is looking to North Africa to diversify its energy sources.

And look at how the European Commission had insisted that the South Stream pipeline could go ahead only if Russia opened the project up to third-party access. In the end, Putin buried South Stream. The costs of the pipeline, the EU sanctions, EU energy rules, and the plummeting oil price all contributed to its demise.

With Germany now on the front line in the dispute between the EU and Russia over Ukraine, the other 27 EU governments have over time recognized Berlin’s new role. Merkel is pondering her next steps. In the meantime, as she said during a speech to her party’s convention on December 9, the country will need “staying power” to deal with Putin.