Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is Dmitry Medvedev’s worst enemy, yet he probably doesn’t even realize it. As the SPD’s primary foil to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the foreign minister has enthusiastically advocated a Schröderian policy line on Russia, counted upon by the Kremlin to support their positions. This was most recently demonstrated by Steinmeier’s efforts on behalf of Russia to prevent the Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. He told the Leipziger Volkszeitung that the West “had gone to its limits” already in its relations with Moscow by recognizing Kosovo, and urged that there was “no compelling reason” to further antagonize the fearsome Russians by offering MAP to Ukraine and Georgia at the Bucharest Summit. Germany was shocked and embarrassed – for this was the first time an official deviated from the previous explanation that NATO enlargement should not include these two countries because of domestic political conditions, and was a confession that instead Berlin was simply pandering to Russia. Leaving aside for a moment whether or not NATO enlargement is a strategically desirable move, and leaving aside the contentious Kosovo issue and the legitimate grievances of Serbia, the fact that the Foreign Minister of a leading European Union member so actively acts as an Ambassador for Moscow’s interests – in striking contrast to the principles-based policy of Chancellor Merkel – is extraordinary example of how obsequiousness weakens the position of reformists within the Russian government.
This is not the first time Steinmeier has reacted with fear to Russian threats. In the past, he has also been in the service of Gazprom to fight back the European Commission’s unbundling package, joined SPD leader Kurt Beck in helping Russia blackmail Lufthansa over a cargo hub, and has edited his speech transcripts for a softer touch on Russia’s democracy deficit.In return for this obsequiousness, Mr. Steinmeier has become a joke in Russian newspapers. The most damaging feature of this dynamic is that Steinmeier and the SPD continually give power and influence to the hawkish siloviki faction within the Kremlin, rather than the civilian reformers. The siloviki argue that the West only respects a hard line of threats and zero compromise – and when Steinmeier proves them right, liberal-leaning members of government such as Dmitry Medvedev are significantly weakened.It is remarkable how these former spies-turned-corrupt-state-corporatists have shown that they know how to play inside German politics, and create and exploit fissures between Merkel and the SPD. Meanwhile, everyone can see that there are serious divisions among the clans governing the Kremlin (even the president-elect has admitted it), yet Germany has not yet shown that they how to take advantage of this situation to encourage positive changes for Russia. The Kremlin’s influence over Steinmeier is a self-perpetuating cycle – as his policy responses are continually seen as rewards and encouragement for Russia’s hawks. Until this dynamic changes, it is difficult to imagine how the good guys within the Russian government will ever reach roles of real influence.