Chancellor's Tough Talk Against Russia Makes Germans Nervous

German and Russian relations are nearing an all-time low over events in Ukraine. German businesses do not want to punish the Kremlin and its supporters for fear it will damage the German economy.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene in Miami. Russia and Germany - it's a relationship that involves deep business ties and also a difficult shared history. The close bond might explain why German Chancellor Angela Merkel hesitated at first to take a harsh stance against Russia, when it swooped into Ukraine and annexed Crimea. But now Merkel is getting tougher on Russia, leading the charge for new sanctions. They'll be discussed when European leaders meet tomorrow in Brussels. The new sharper tone from Merkel is not sitting well with many Germans. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Like many Germans, retiree Bernard Wislaug says he's long been fascinated by Russia. So he and his wife headed to a recent Russian Festival here in Berlin to sample Russian culture and cuisine. The event offered more Western pop music and carnival rides than things Russian. It was disappointing, Wislaug says, just like the Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies toward Russia.

BERNARD WISLAUG: (German spoken).

NELSON: He says Germans want peace in Europe. And then instead of making threats, Merkel should start a real dialogue with Russia over Ukraine. His sentiment is common in Germany, especially in the business community which has pressured Merkel not to damage their country's relationship with Russia. Thousands of companies here do $100 billion in business with Russia, making Germany Russia's third-largest trading partner. Germany is also the largest buyer of Russian gas in Europe. Eckhard Cordes, who heads the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, which represents German business groups, says so far sanctions have done little to change Vladimir Putin's approach.


ECKHARD CORDES: Not only the famous men in the street - all the way up to CEOs of leading Russian companies support Putin as regards his policy towards Crimea and towards Ukraine and towards the West. So that's why we think or are convinced that additional pressure will not ease the situation, but make it more difficult to find a suitable solution.

NELSON: It's not just monetary considerations that drive German attitudes about Russia, says Liana Fix, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. She says a lot of it has to do with their painful and shared histories during the World Wars and later the Cold War.

LIANA FIX: Germany always felt the responsibility with regards to historical developments of the last century - to include Russia, to integrate Russia into the Pan-European space and to avoid any further conflict any new Cold War.

NELSON: Fix says Germany drafted one strategy after another to help modernize Russia and improve its ties with Western Europe. The last chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, became good friends with Putin, a personal relationship that continues to this day. Merkel and Putin don't share that kind of good-old-boy relationship. But the two have always been cordial. The chancellor also continued the push to improving German-Russian ties, according to analyst Fix.

FIX: And the big disappointment now is that this approach has basically failed because Russia itself has said that we don't want to become part of the European space. We don't have the same values. And we see you as a problem in our neighborhood.

NELSON: She says the tensions have led to a low point in German Russian relations since the Cold War. But even after Putin wrangled Germans by annexing Crimea and comparing it to German reunification, Merkel resisted punishing Russia economically. That reluctance is easing as her frustration with Putin over his recalcitrance grows. She and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have delivered far sharper warnings to Putin. And they lambast German business groups that oppose sanctions. Ralf Fuecks is president of the Green-Party-affiliated Heinrich Boell Foundation. He says the tougher tact is overdue, despite continued German fears about a war with Russia.


RALF FUECKS: People are really afraid about that. So we have to find a new pathway between full-fledged confrontation and going back to business as usual, as if nothing would have happened.

NELSON: Fuecks says Germany has to make it clear to Russia that any attempt to limit sovereignty in one or more former Soviet Republics will not be tolerated. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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