Germany and France are key players in EU’s relations with Russia. Both have in the past prioritized Russia over the other countries in the post-Soviet space. They have traditionally been the most important counterparts for Moscow’s “bilateralism” toward the EU, in other words, its focus on big EU member states while neglecting EU institutions and smaller EU countries and often trying to capitalize on their divergences. Until recently, Berlin and Paris were the main promoters of a strategic partnership between the European Union and Russia. Moscow, for its part, considered them its most important strategic partners in Europe. 

Yet relations between Germany, France, and Russia differ significantly—as did, for a long time, the set of drivers behind German and French policy toward Russia. The German attitude toward Russia was (and is) shaped by the legacy of World War II. The DNA of Willy Brand’s “Ostpolitik” became deeply engraved in the German collective memory as a key contribution to German unification and the end of the Cold War. For much of the post-Cold War period it inspired the German belief that “change through rapprochement” (“Wandel durch Annäherung”) would eventually lead to the integration of a democratized Russia into the European political and security order—and would automatically have a positive impact on the whole post-Soviet region.

Moreover, close partnership with Russia was also considered a necessary precondition for the integration of the East Central European states into the EU and NATO—another key mission of united Germany in the 1990s and early 2000s. Political relations between Germany and Russia were underpinned by growing economic interdependence. Already in Soviet times, Germany was Moscow’s biggest Western trade partner. This trend continues up until today despite mutual sanctions, while Germany still heavily relies on energy imports from Russia. 

The picture in Franco-Russian relations looks very different. France occupies only a minor position in Russia’s foreign trade. While Germany is pursuing energy transition, France relies on nuclear power and is therefore much less dependent on Russia’s main export commodities. From a French perspective, political partnership between the two countries unfolded more on the international level, where France and Russia share a number of key features: both have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, both are nuclear powers and consider themselves great powers in the international system, both have often taken issue with U.S. international hegemony. This created a certain bond and empathy in the French political elite and society for the grievances Russia increasingly voiced regarding Western, particularly U.S. and NATO, policy in its neighborhood and beyond. 

However, the past few years saw significant change in French and German attitudes. In Germany this process was first triggered by disappointment over the meager results of Medvedev’s modernization policy, which Germans had placed a lot of hope in, and the conditions of Vladimir Putin’s return to power. Events in Ukraine in 2014 added yet another dimension to these concerns: for the first time ever since the end of the Cold War, Germans came to see Russia as a source of instability and a threat to European security. If Russia was taken by surprise by Berlin’s tough policy in light of the annexation of Crimea and the unfolding war in the Donbas, Germans were dumbstruck by the ferocity of Russia’s response to EU sanctions.

The representation of the refugee crisis in Germany in 2015 in Russian state and foreign-language media, including the infamous “Lisa case,” had a very detrimental impact on Russia’s image in Germany. If in 2014 Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine was perceived as a threat to European security but not to German security as such, Russia now came to be seen as jeopardizing stability in Germany by spreading fake news and stirring tensions between communities. Russian attempts in 2016 to influence the presidential elections in the United States raised even more concern. In the run-up to the Bundestag elections in September 2017, activities of the Russian media and contacts between a variety of Russian actors and Germany’s new far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, were observed by a majority with great apprehension. Today there is very little trust in Germany vis-à-vis Russia.

Paris supported Berlin’s approach toward Russia and Ukraine, but was too weakened by internal crisis and Francois Holland’s flagging presidency to take a stronger role. Public opinion in France was less critical of Russia’s policy in Ukraine; unlike in Germany, two important political forces, the Republican Party under its presidential candidate Francois Fillon and the far-right extremist National Front and its leader Marine Le Pen, fiercely criticized the EU’s sanctions policy and called for rapid normalization of relations with Russia. In France, as in Germany, the Russian intervention in Syria from September 2015 created a linkage between the European refugee crisis and relations with Russia. Political actors who argued in favor of normalization with Russia felt vindicated as Moscow asserted its role in the Middle East and presented itself as a stabilizing force. This effect was bombed to rubble in the Russian-Syrian air campaign against Aleppo in 2016.

Before the French presidential elections, Russia openly supported Macron’s two main adversaries, including by financial payments to the National Front. However, the coming to power of Emanuel Macron changed the situation substantially. Macron emerged on the ruins of the French party system as a non-establishment candidate with a European agenda, who looks to relations with Russia through the lens of European and Franco-German cooperation. Attempts to hack and damage his election campaign, which apparently can be traced back to Russia, made him even more skeptical vis-à-vis Moscow. French public opinion may still be more open to Russian narratives on Ukraine—the new president and his environment are certainly not. Moreover, both Russia’s “allies” in French politics, the Republican Party and the National Front, suffered crushing defeats in the elections and will take time to recuperate—if they are able to recuperate at all.

The domestic situation in Germany and France remains ambiguous. Macron’s reform agenda will continue to meet with domestic resistance. Merkel never faced similar challenges when forming a government—which is why she has yet to be able to respond to Macron’s European initiatives. Right-wing populist and extremist forces capitalizing on migration will be a factor to reckon with in both countries for some years to come.

What is important to note, though, is that the perceptions and attitudes informing French and German policy toward Russia have changed substantially over the past few years. Trust in Russia has crumbled, particularly with the experience of Russian attempts to impact elections. Today, German and French positions reflect much more the skepticism ingrained in the EU’s “five guiding principles for relations with Russia” than previous ideas of a strategic partnership with Moscow. This will render it impossible for Russia to simply return to traditional bilateralism. If, at some point in the future, a Russian leadership wants to normalize relations with the EU and rebuild European security, it will have to take into account, among many other things, the almost complete collapse of trust in its relations with Germany and France.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Sabine Fischer