Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Monday, 31 August 2009 17:34 UK

Russia strengthens ties with Germany

Germany's September elections have focussed attention on the country's strategic energy partnership with Russia, but as international affairs writer William Horsley discusses, other countries are nervous about those unpredictable ties with Moscow.

Dmitry Medvedev greets Angela Merkel in Sochi, Russia, 14 August 2009
Merkel's message at Sochi was that bilateral ties were back on track

Chancellor Angela Merkel had an important message for German voters and the outside world when she met Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev on 14 August in Sochi.

The message was that just one year after Russia's conflict with neighbouring Georgia, the "strategic partnership" between Germany and Russia was back on track and getting stronger.

Mrs Merkel's message is popular at home and could help her get re-elected for another four years. But it troubles some of Germany's neighbours.

Germany has long called for a single foreign policy among European countries, for their common good.

Now it is accused of putting its own interests first, at the expense of nations in Eastern Europe which fear they might again fall under the shadow of a domineering Russia.

But the economic inter-dependence of Germany and Russia already goes deep.

And both major German political parties - Mrs Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats led by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - make clear there is no turning back from a close embrace of Russia.

Ailing shipyards

Germany is Russia's largest foreign investor and trade partner.

Russia values Germany as the biggest customer for its gas, and now sees it as an influential advocate for its interests in the West.

In Sochi the German chancellor and Russian president unveiled plans for closer collaboration.

They include a joint venture to create a world leader in building nuclear power plants, and state-backed export credits to lift German industry out of its downturn and help struggling Russian firms through the credit crunch.

Russia was invited to step in to rescue the Opel car firm

Russia was invited to step in to rescue ailing German shipyards, a memory chip plant and the Opel car firm.

The two leaders will also set up a joint energy agency with wide powers to improve security of supplies and energy efficiency.

It confirmed, Russia's policy of favouring Germany, exemplified by the controversial Nord Stream pipeline project to take Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to a terminal on the German coast, bypassing transit states like Ukraine and Poland.

Richest fields

Nord Stream has a German political champion in the former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.

The project now seems assured of completion despite bitter opposition from Poland and other northern states, which see it as part of a strategy by Russia's state monopoly Gazprom to gain a stranglehold on vital energy supplies to Europe.

Pipe-laying in the Baltic
Nord Stream seems assured of completion despite bitter opposition

Russia has rewarded the firms involved with rights to develop some of the richest gas fields in Siberia.

Some critics object that big bilateral deals by Germany and other countries undermine the EU's efforts to develop an open and transparent European market in energy.

But German leaders say their closeness with Russia benefits the whole of Europe.

And Russia has toned down its hostility to the EU-backed rival Nabucco pipeline project, to carry gas from the Caspian region westwards bypassing Russian territory, since Germany showed interest in it.

Hostile actions

But energy is now a vital security concern for all, and Poland and its neighbours in Eastern Europe say Russia's favouritism to Germany contrasts with its bullying tactics towards states that are less compliant or useful to Moscow.

They cite hostile actions like the 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia's computer networks, this year's cut-off of gas to the main Ukrainian pipeline, and trade embargoes on countries that refused to do Russia's bidding.

And last year's war in Georgia showed that Russia again poses a real military threat to Europe, said Constanze Stelzenmueller of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Tank in South Ossetia (file)
Last year's war in Georgia showed Russia's military strength

She cast doubt on Germany's willingness to use its influence to stand up to Moscow when necessary.

Indeed, senior Russian officials have thanked Germany for helping them achieve some of their key foreign policy goals, such as blocking Georgia and Ukraine's prospects of early membership of the Nato alliance, and averting serious damage to Russia's relations with the EU as a result of last summer's Georgian conflict.

The response of major European powers to that war was attacked as spineless by two leaders of the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, former Polish president Lech Walesa of Poland and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

They called on US President Barack Obama to renew America's commitment to the region's security, and not to allow "wrong concessions" to Russia.

But last year, when British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for "the widest possible coalition" against Russian aggression in Georgia, his call fell mostly on deaf ears.

For now, Europe seems bound to follow where Germany leads.

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