Frank-Walter Steinmeier is making the first visit to Russia by a German president since 2010. It may look like a diplomatic olive branch, but Moscow and Berlin can hardly expect a normalization of relations.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's trip to Russia on Wednesday is a return to the tradition ignored by his immediate predecessor. Every German president since reunification has seen it as an obligation to pay a courtesy call to Russia, until Joachim Gauck, who served as president from 2012 until 2017. Gauck, a former East German human rights activist and pastor, had a strong distaste for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent. Indeed Gauck made no bones about that fact. The two met only once, when Putin stopped in Berlin on his way to Paris early in the summer of 2012.
Attempts by both countries to organize a Gauck visit to Moscow remained half-hearted throughout his tenure. Berlin repeatedly blamed scheduling conflicts, but there were also rumors that Putin lacked a desire to welcome Gauck to the Kremlin after the frosty reception he himself received in Berlin.
Better relations in the past
Gauck's predecessors had a markedly different approach to dealing with the Kremlin. Roman Herzog, who served as president from 1994 until 1999, was the first German head of state to speak before Russia's parliament, the Duma, when he visited Moscow in September 1997. In his speech, he outlined the necessity of both countries building a common future.
Visits by then-Presidents Johannes Rau (2002) and Christian Wulff (2010) to Moscow were marked by their warm atmosphere. Both men were accompanied by their wives, and both remained in Russia for several days.
Under the shadow of the Ukraine conflict
Steinmeier, too, has a friendly attitude regarding Russia. In fact, those who know him well say that he is among those Germans who continue to exhibit an irrational respect toward Moscow. It is no coincidence that as foreign minister, Steinmeier took pains to visit Yekaterinburg each year, where he gave lectures at the Ural Federal University and held discussions with students.
Still, Steinmeier views Putin critically. He also made no secret of his great disappointment with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with whom he negotiated as a peer for hours during the so-called Normandy format meetings in an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
His visit to Moscow must also be viewed against that backdrop. The president has expressly emphasized that the trip is a working visit, not a state visit. And that is how it has been conceived from the start. There is to be no possibility for the Kremlin to use the visit as a way to pretend that Russia did not annex Crimea or intervene in the Donbass.
Russia returns cathedral to Protestants
After placing a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier, Steinmeier met with representatives from the Russian human rights organization Memorial. He then met with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the German ambassador's residence.
Steinmeier worked to return the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg to Russian Protestants
Steinmeier also visited the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, which the Russian state has decided to return to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The event was taken as the main impetus for Steinmeier's visit. Steinmeier was actively engaged in negotiating a return of the church to Russian Protestants during his time as foreign minister.
The German president has not changed his views on Russia's actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It is no accident that Steinmeier reiterated his condemnation of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula as illegal according to international law when he visited the Baltics en route to Moscow. Moreover, he promised German support for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in ensuring their own national security, as well as within the NATO alliance.
"I have no illusions about the state of our relationship," Steinmeier told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ahead of his trip. "But speechlessness is not an option as far as I am concerned."
Steinmeier knows better than almost anyone in Germany just how difficult it can be to find a path out of a dead-end situation. He experienced that difficulty first hand during diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. When Steinmeier meets the Russian president – the last stop on his trip – it is extremely unlikely that he will make the case for renewing a "strategic partnership" or the "partnership for modernization." Most likely, he will attempt to determine whether the Kremlin is prepared to enter constructive dialogue with the West, and whether, for instance, Russia would agree to the stationing of UN peacekeepers throughout the Donbass region.