Central-Eastern Europe’s role in Ostpolitik

Opposing the influence of Germany and Russia

Marcin Kacperek
2 May 2014

The Yaltan order and the European integration put Germany into a special framework of allied control, which has been getting out-of-date year by year. After launching Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik in 1969 – which constituted the first strategic act of assertiveness in German foreign policy since the Second World War – Germany succeeded in its reunification in 1990, to finally win its almost full liberation from post war commitments during the current euro crisis.

One may think the Second World War status quo ante bellum has returned with all its nightmares, especially for Central-Eastern Europe. Yet that must not be the scenario. Some circumstances have changed and this time they really seem to do matter.

During the last Security Conference in Munich, both recently re-elected foreign minister of Germany – Frank-Walter Steinmeier and President Joachim Gauck, spoke about the necessity for Berlin to take a “greater responsibility in foreign policy,”[1] which has to be seen as a natural outcome of strengthening its role within the European Union in the course of the euro crisis.

The first opportunity to take such a greater responsibility came together with the current events in Ukraine. This opportunity, however, turned out to be a harsh test for the Federal Republic. The short-term ineffectiveness of sanctions put on Russia, as well as the discrepancy between the stances of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Steinmeier towards the crisis in Ukraine have revealed some substantial weaknesses of Germany’s eastern policy and the necessity to redefine the guidelines of Ostpolitik.

The Ostpolitik was based on two or three main assumptions: that increasing cooperation with the Eastern Bloc countries will result in tightening bilateral relations (Wandel durch Annährung), that Russia (then the USSR) is a key contributor to stability in Eurasia, and that there is a necessity to maintain political dialogue and economic cooperation beyond ideological differences.

All these assumptions, with some marginal deviations depending on the ruling coalition, have been consequently applied by all German governments over more than the last two decades. However, since NATO’s and the EU’s eastern enlargement and the coming into the power of Vladimir Putin, the trend has begun (apart from Gerhard Schröder’s extraordinary term) to gradually question the basic assumptions of Ostpolitik. The turning points here were undoubtedly: the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, the third presidential election of Putin, and finally – most significantly – the recent annexation of Crimea.

The above-mentioned questioning of the assumptions of Ostpolitik relates to all three of them, but to a different degree. Whereas the first seems to be already outdated because of successful transformation and cooperation with Central European countries and the failure of the Partnership for modernization project (admitted recently even by Steinmeier), the two latter still remain uncertain. Both of them are of strategic importance, and it is on these two that the future shape of Germany’s new Ostpolitik and form of Germany’s “greater responsibility in foreign policy” in a post-Yaltan order will mostly depend.This, however, will also be a result of: the future political constellation, competence rivalry in foreign policy between the German Chancellry and Auswärtiges Amt, the attitude of public opinion, energy policy, U.S. and other allies’ policy, the progress of Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, and of course – above all – of Russia’s behavior.

For today, it seems obvious that there is no way back to the old style Ostpolitik and typical Russia first policy, even for SPD (the Social Democratic Party of Germany). The question is only, to what degree the Berlin policy against Moscow can be moved forward. In the short-term, Germany will most probably strive for a peaceful solution in Ukraine, perhaps even agreeing to the Kremlin’s concept of the country’s federalization. In case of Putin’s further escalation of the conflict or a civil war on the Dnieper, Germany will however probably be ready to impose economic sanctions on Russia or even support military solutions.

Whatever the scenario, in the long-term Berlin will most probably loosen its ties with Moscow, especially as the Energiewende progresses, European integration advances, and the new left (die Grüne Piraten) gains in strength. In this context, the role of Central-Eastern Europe should also not be underestimated. Within the framework of NATO and the EU, in the light of its relative rise in power (and trade volume with Germany), tightening of mutual cooperation, and the prospect of progress of EaP countries, the region should be able to oppose the influence of both Germany and Russia and finally overshadow the second in the eyes of the first.

[1] Rede von Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier anlässlich der 50. Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/DE/Infoservice/Presse/Reden/2014/140201-BM_M%C3%BCSiKo.html


Marcin Kacperek is a graduate of international relations at the Faculty of Political Science and Journalism of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. He is a member of the Polish Forum of Young Diplomats (Forum Młodych Dyplomatów) and a participant of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic and Consular Training 2014. His areas of interest include the Weimar Triangle, the Visegrad Group, Central and Eastern Europe, and world politics.