ZOiS Spotlight 3/2020

Russia in German public opinion

by Liana Fix 22/01/2020
The Kremlin, Russia’s centre of power in Moscow. © Anatoliy Minkov / Alamy Stock Foto Anatoliy Minkov / Alamy Stock Foto

‘A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ That is how former British prime minister Winston Churchill once described Russia. In Germany, public opinion on the country is marked by ambiguity. On the one hand, there is gratitude for German reunification and sympathy for Mikhail Gorbachev, resulting in a rose-tinted view of Germany’s large neighbour. On the other hand, there is an image of a loved enemy, a critical perception of Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and a feeling that Russia uses its energy policy as an instrument of power. How does this complex picture affect what the German population thinks about Russia’s role in foreign and security policy?

Since 2014, the Körber-Stiftung has carried out annual surveys on German attitudes to foreign policy, which are collected and published in ‘The Berlin Pulse’. Each year, questions are asked about Germany’s key partners and the challenges for German foreign policy. The main results of the 2019 survey, which was conducted in September, and comparisons with previous years provide insights into Germans’ perceptions and preferences with regard to Russia.

Significant, continuous interest in more cooperation with Russia 

In the last three years, a clear majority of those surveyed have been in favour of more future cooperation with Russia: 78 per cent held this view in 2017, 69 per cent in 2018, and 66 per cent in 2019. There is a slight downward trend, but support remains strong: Russia is the second country, after France, with which respondents desired more cooperation. The US, since the election of president Donald Trump, has fallen to last place.

On the question of which country is the most important or second most important foreign policy partner for Germany, Russia has in recent years been competing with China for third place. Russia occupied that position in 2017 and 2018, with 11 per cent and 17 per cent respectively, behind France and the US, but was overtaken by China in 2019. As a foreign policy partner, Russia is more important for East Germans than for West Germans: 21 per cent of East Germans viewed Russia as the most important or second most important partner, compared with 9 per cent of West Germans. Similarly, 17 per cent of respondents aged 65 or over said Russia was among Germany’s two most important partners, while only 8 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds said the same.

Russia does not benefit from a worsening transatlantic relationship 

Since Trump’s election in 2016, the transatlantic relationship has worsened dramatically. Sixty-four per cent of Germans rate their country’s relations with the US as bad or very bad, while 87 per cent see Trump’s potential re-election in 2020 as negative or very negative. Fifty-two per cent want more autonomy from the US in defence policy and would even put up with a doubling of the German defence budget to achieve that aim.

However, in the German public perception, Russia does not benefit from the worsening transatlantic relationship. In answer to the question ‘What is more important for Germany, close relations with the US or with Russia?’, the US consistently comes out just ahead of Russia, while support for Russia in this context has fallen slightly:

What is more important for Germany, close relations with the US or with Russia?

2017: US 42% — Russia 32%
2018: US 38% — Russia 32%
2019: US 39% — Russia 25%

East Germans and those who vote for The Left or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) consistently favoured closer relations with Russia over the US.

These figures indicate that Russian soft power—the attractiveness of the country and its politics—is not improving as the relationship with the US worsens. To put it starkly: just because Trump is seen as an impossible figure, the Russian president does not appear in a better light. 

Despite this golden window of foreign policy opportunity from Moscow’s perspective, Russian politics has not succeeded in unequivocally winning over German public opinion. In 2017—a year that was seen from Russia as a successful one for foreign policy, especially with regard to its military intervention in Syria—48 per cent of Germans judged Russia’s role in international politics as destructive, and only 35 per cent as constructive.

Foreign policy neutrality and equidistance between the US and Russia 

A further interesting observation is that in response to the question above, 20 per cent of respondents in 2017 and 2018 were in favour of equally close relations with the US and Russia; in 2019 the figure was 30 per cent. For almost a third of Germans, therefore, equidistance—equally close relations with both countries—is the preferred policy option.

In addition, only 55 per cent of Germans were in favour of Germany’s foreign policy affiliation with the “West”, while 31 per cent would prefer a neutral stance. In the former East Germany, opinion is split: 43 per cent of East Germans endorse the West, and 42 per cent foreign policy neutrality. However, these figures do not suggest what foreign policy neutrality would mean, as in 2018 some 63 per cent of respondents still had a positive or very positive opinion of NATO.

These results indicate that German public opinion is not immune from the fault lines of international politics and the increasing rivalry between the great powers of the US, China, and Russia. That makes clear communication of Germany’s foreign and security policy to the public all the more important.

Liana Fix is a historian and political scientist who is programme director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe.