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28 March 2016

In an emotional trap

Russia’s actions, including in its “hybrid war” against Germany, are often misinterpreted as having strategic intent 

Many of Russia’s foreign policy elite believe Moscow is playing a global game that will determine the fundamental structure of the contemporary world order. In this context, Ukraine and Syria are seen as a battlefield for the principle of national sovereignty, despite the campaign of humanitarian interventions and sponsored “orange revolutions” conducted by the West. And in this battle, many tools are considered legitimate since the strategic adversary – the West – is also allegedly using them, and has been doing so for a long time. 

Perhaps officials in Moscow were guided by these very ideas when they politicized the case of Lisa, a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin from Berlin, who was allegedly abducted and raped by migrants. As a result, anti-migrant demonstrations took place in several German towns – not without the involvement of the Russian media, and perhaps other organizational resources. Several thousand Russian immigrants to Germany took part in the demonstrations. The German leadership stated that Russia was interfering in their internal affairs of state. At the same time, representatives of the German authorities began to officially voice their suspicions that Russia was secretly supporting right-wing radical organizations in Germany with the aim of fomenting anti-immigrant sentiment, and was intensifying their intelligence activities in the country, including making cyber-attacks on the servers of the Bundestag.

Signs of a deliberate strategy in Russia’s actions following the recent souring of Russian-German relations have also been noticed by many international experts and journalists. Moreover, suspicions have been raised that the Russian leadership personally chose Angela Merkel as the target of their attacks in an attempt to affect the distribution of political forces within Germany, against the backdrop of the German Chancellor’s falling ratings due to her unpopular migration policy.

However, the reality of individuals making Russia’s foreign policy decisions is not so straight forward. The Kremlin is regularly confronted with a number of serious problems: limited material resources for offensive foreign policy, a lack of true allies in the international arena, and a foreign policy of military and political actions conducted on several fronts at the same time, with constantly changing local conditions. That being said, Russian foreign policy is inherently reactive: Moscow reacts to external “irritants” (the Eastern Partnership Program, NATO enlargement, deployment of the United States missile defense system in Europe, etc.), rather than developing its own foreign policy agenda.

The wavering of the illusion of Ukraine’s Eurasian integration prospects after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych was a catalyst for Moscow’s extremely negative reaction. However, after eventually being cornered by the international policy of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, the Russian authorities decided to overturn the chessboard and launch the Syrian operation. The Russian plane downed over Sinai only accelerated their fervor, and as a result Russia became an active participant in two major armed conflicts which are going to be frozen in the mid-term perspective, rather than solved, which would require the significant involvement of forces on behalf of Moscow.

Therefore, despite seeming tactical successes (in Syria, the regime legitimate from Moscow’s point of view is still in power, while military and political dialogue is being conducted with France and the U.S. regarding Syria), things are not moving in the right direction at all for the Kremlin. Factors and subjects getting in the way of Russian plans are constantly popping up, which is the main reason why the Russian leadership is caught in a so-called emotional trap today. This is an effect that occurs when an individual (or a collective) firmly believes that they are able to adequately make serious decisions while at the same time being torn by emotions and passions. The most interesting thing is that outside observers could also see all this as purely rational (the resurrection of the Russian empire/the USSR, etc.). Caught in this emotional trap, Russian leadership bases its decisions on increasingly unrealistic prerequisites, while its international life boils down to a black-and-white “He who is not with us is against us”. As a result, emotions arising from all sorts of resentments constantly take over, as does the desire to pay back grudges and irritations caused by international partners not behaving as Moscow desires.

The so-called hybrid war waged by Russia against Germany is a vivid illustration of this emotional effect. It is not so easy to even rationalize Russia’s actions (obvious, at least, in the information space), since it is precisely Germany (unlike, for example, the U.S. or France) that exhibits a clear and consistent approach to Russia, based on foreign-policy pragmatism rather than a normative one. Germany was the architect of the Minsk agreements and has continued to put pressure on Kyiv to implement them. So it is Berlin that is sparing no effort to prevent a military confrontation between NATO and Russia, and is trying to promote development of a trade and political compromise on the alignment of European and Eurasian integration projects.

But it seems that Berlin’s behavior is getting on Moscow’s nerves on three main points. First, despite Russia’s assertions that the Minsk agreements are not to be implemented primarily by Kyiv, Germany has once again advocated continuation of the policy of sanctions against Russia. It would seem that against the backdrop of terrorist attacks in Paris, Russia has virtually managed to persuade France to cooperate on the Syrian issue, and has received the support of a number of EU countries (Hungary, Slovakia and Greece) on the lifting of sanctions. But Germany has not made any concessions. As Europe’s “formative force”, Berlin refuses to recognize the annexation of Crimea, affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.

Secondly, Germany has pointedly refused military and political cooperation with Russia on Syria. Today, only the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is trying to publicly maintain confidence that international agreements on Syria will be implemented. Representatives of the German authorities have repeatedly displayed a negative attitude to the disastrous humanitarian consequences of the presence of Russian air forces in Syria, as well as Bashar al-Assad staying in power.

Thirdly, the Erdogan factor has caused a powerful surge of emotions in relation to Germany. Not only does Germany not argue with Turkey today (despite differences of opinion on the role of the Kurds in the Middle East, human rights issues, etc.), it has also entered a strategic alliance with Turkey to fight the influx of migrants to the EU. Chief of Staff of the German Chancellery, Peter Altmaier, clearly stated that Turkey was behaving in a more European way than even some of the EU member states. Turkey has been promised money, and importantly, received publicly-expressed gratitude from the largest EU member state. Although Russia has not officially commented on that, many members of the Russian media loyal to their government have published detailed comments on the fact that Germany and the EU have practically sided with Turkey on both the Syrian issue and in relation to Russia.

Therefore, Russia’s “hybrid war” is more an emotional step than something that has been very well thought through. An attempt to interfere in German policy became red-hot because of the refugee issue, and was instantly wound up. Apart from an institutionalized distrust, Moscow can hardly achieve anything using such methods. Whereas the war in Ukraine has affected mainly the external contours of German security, informational, political and intelligence activity on the territory of Germany itself is perceived by German elites as an immediate threat. Besides this, speculative conclusions will be even more important than any facts here. Thus, numerous German media outlets and politicians have stated as fact that Russia wants to divide Europe by supporting extreme-rightwing forces.

It is extremely difficult to break free from the reactive emotional trap, and unfortunately, this won’t happen without some seriously sobering events, for example, a drop in the popularity of geopolitical plots among the Russian population against the backdrop of socio-economic problems at home.

Germany and the EU are now facing the question of how to respond to such “hybrid wars”. Alarmists, perhaps secretly hoping for “imperial overstretch” by Russia, believe that a serious military and political response is first necessary. There is yet another line of reasoning: Russia is unlikely to succeed, since the majority of Russians residing in Germany are supposedly not on Putin’s side in, for example, the propaganda war. An appeal to consider the way these Russians live in Germany, the extent of their integration into German society and what else can be done in this respect, would be a much more rational response. This is exactly how most of the German media reacted to the situation, which gives hope that the mirage of the “pan-Russian world” will not continue to live on in Germany after its creators have already forgotten it.


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