Prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea, there were clear indicators of a divide between the United States and Germany when it came to assessing Russia, which contributed to some friction in relations. In 2014, however, a shift in occurred as the German belief in “change through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung) was replaced by a strategy revolving around “managing an antagonistic relationship.” This awakening strengthened U.S.-German political-military relations and, despite intense Russian lobbying efforts to encourage defectors, enabled Germany and the U.S. to forge a consensus in support of trade, credit, and technology sanctions tied to the Minsk process. The alternative to sanctions was either acquiescence to a violation of international norms and rules as well as the violent dismemberment of Europe’s largest state or to engage in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine.
Russia matters differently to the United States and Germany. U.S.-Russian relations can be characterized by a narrow but strong focus on a few key strategic issues of global importance. Unlike Germany, the U.S. is capable of strategic autarchy, is energy independent, and is far less economically connected with Russia, with only one-tenth of Europe’s trade. Though the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is one of the few issues that garner bipartisan support in the United States, the North Korean nuclear crisis, the future of Iran in the Middle East, and coping with China’s rise are higher priorities for the Trump administration than Russia. By contrast, German-Russian relations are regionally focused. Beyond deep historical and cultural ties, Germany imports 30-35% of its oil and gas from Russia and has a strong and extensive business relationship with Russia. Germany also does not have the luxury of foregoing cooperative relations with Moscow given their geopolitical proximity.
While there are limits to how far any German policy can go in terms of punishing or isolating Russia, President Trump is constrained in forging a more cooperative Russia policy by congressional sanctions, a national security team that views Russia as a short-term threat and adversary, and ongoing investigations of possible campaign collusion with Russian security services.