Germany has had to rethink its relations with its European partners twice in four years: in 2010, when the sovereign debt crisis hit the euro area - and following the winter of 2013/14, when Ukraine's westward course triggered a conflict with Russia.
When the crisis erupted in Europe, Germany defined its relations with other European states mainly as a function of its central role in the management of the crisis, and its preferences with regard to governance reform. The conflict with Russia has compelled it to reconsider its role, its preferences, and its relations with partners. Since then, the government in Berlin, which had just embarked on a year-long foreign policy review, has made three fundamental shifts: it has agreed to broad and deep sanctions against Russia, to reconceptualize its approach to the EU's eastern neighborhood, and to set the Europeanization of energy policy as a strategic goal. These, in their turn, have led it to redefine its options for cooperation with key EU member states.
During the first phase of the stand-off with Russia, the traditional reflexes of German foreign policy were very visible. Berlin rapidly teamed up with Paris and Warsaw in the Weimar Triangle format to address the rapidly destabilizing situation in Ukraine as well as the deteriorating relationship with Moscow. Ensuring the participation of France - which traditionally has little interest in the EU's eastern neighborhood - was essential for Germany. So, on an initiative from Berlin, France's foreign minister Alain Juppé and his German counterpart Frank Walter Steinmeier embarked on a joint trip to both the eastern and the southern neighborhoods of the European Union. Germany also fell back on an equally old tradition, that of closely involving small and medium-sized countries in its initiatives - for example, when Steinmeiersymbolically visited all three Baltic capitals in a single day in January 2014.
As the conflict evolved, it became clear that Germany occupied a middle ground between a group of intensely concerned central and eastern European countries on the one hand, and the far less interested countries of Europe's south. The former took a hawkish position against the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, were early advocates of strong sanctions, and wanted to counter Russian destabilization efforts directed at the neighborhood and at the EU's eastern member states with a containment strategy that included military elements. The latter, in contrast, were deeply reluctant about sanctions, and wanted to privilege energy and trade relations - if necessary, at the expense of a more principled reaction to Russia's violation of international law, sovereign borders, and the right to self-determination.
Germany, meanwhile, was open to sanctions - albeit very reluctant to tighten the screw too quickly. The reason for this preference for a slower pace were not only business interests that made themselves heard in Germany. Rather, there is a genuine concern that to quick and harsh sanctions would give Moscow an excuse to escalate. But the German government left no doubt that it was quite unwilling to counter Russian aggression militarily - not least because it was persuaded that there would be no critical mass for this position within the EU. Chancellor Merkel's rejection of this option ("there is no military solution to the conflict") included a refusal to accede to a Ukrainian request for weapons. Berlin continues to uphold the principle that negotiations should continue - regardless of Russian behavior -, either in the form of the frequent bilateral phone conversations between the Chancellery and the Kremlin, or the Normandy format which brings together the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia.
The choice of the latter format weighs heavily on Polish-German relations, because Warsaw feels unduly excluded. But this dispute is only the most visible of several disagreements between Poland and Germany. Poland, together with the Baltic states, advocates a stronger NATO military presence in eastern Europe. It is also highly critical of the recent agreement between Brussels and Kiev to interrupt the implementation of the Association Agreement until early 2016, and even more of the decision to give eastern Ukraine a special status that involves extensive self-administration as well as the creation of local police units which are criticized in Poland as a creeping legalization of the facts created on the ground by Russia. In both cases, Germany is thought by its partners to have played a key role.
Over time, Berlin's preference for a face-saving "off-ramp" option for Putin has slowly but surely had to be revived. Germany now appears to be committed to a long game, and one which acknowledges a basic paradigm shift (initiated by Russia) towards systemic competition between the EU and Russia - and assumes that in the end, the West will prove to have the better model of governance. A key variable of this strategy is the successful transformation or at least stabilization of Ukraine. Because there are no illusions in Berlin that Moscow will retreat from its aggressive stance, this includes the recognition that a frozen conflict in Ukraine's East may have to be accepted - and some concessions to Russia in order to end the fighting. But if a rollback appears impossible at this point, that makes containment all the more important, in order to prevent a failure of Ukraine's choice to associate itself with Europe. Berlin's stance is that compromise and strength should go hand in hand. This keeps it firmly in the middle between the hawks and the doves in Europe.