The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do nearly 40 percent of Germans endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a welcoming ceremony as he inspects the Vice-Admiral Kulakov anti-submarine warfare ship in Novorossiysk, September 23, 2014. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin via Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea has found supporters in an unlikely country: Last Sunday, an opinion poll in Germany found that nearly 40 percent of the country's population accept the move.

The surprising result has stirred debate in Germany, prompting some to ask: Is Germany -- which just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet-era communism -- Russia's closest ally in the West? The answer is, of course, fairly complex.

Last week's opinion poll was conducted by Infratest dimap, a well-regarded German institute that interviewed 1,000 Germans above the age of 14. It also determined that 43 percent of Germans do not feel immediately threatened by Russia's foreign policy. But that does not necessarily mean Germans consider Putin's actions justified. Case in point: An Infratest dimap survey conducted in August found that 80 percent of Germans blamed Putin for the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.

So the more recent poll could instead indicate that Germans want to stop Putin from pursuing his strategy in eastern Ukraine but believe the West also needs to make a concession -- by officially accepting the Russian annexation of Crimea.

If that conclusion sounds like a stretch, consider that it has an outspoken German proponent in Matthias Platzeck, the former head of Germany's Social Democrats. Platzeck, who led the eastern German state of Brandenburg until last year, has proposed legalization of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Last week, he said: "The annexation of Crimea needs to be settled legally to make it acceptable for everyone." At times, he added, smarter people should succumb to their opponents.

While Platzeck's views have been widely criticized by other German politicians, they have also caused the public debate that led to the recent opinion poll, whose results might not have surprised close observers of German-Russian relations. In the August poll, 40 percent of all Germans also said they could understand why Russia felt threatened by the west.

Germans themselves have grown increasingly critical of the West. After trust in the United States suffered during the Iraq war, the NSA spying scandal provoked new anger and provided arguments to those who wanted to position Germany as a negotiator between Russia and the West, rather than as a strong U.S. ally.

"A war of monologues won't help us," Platzeck said on German television on Sunday. "You don't have to like President Putin to see that he's the President of Russia right now and will continue to be so over the next years. If we want to prevent more people from dying, we need to pursue our dialogue with Russia."

Some of Platzeck's comments are not that distinct from Germany's official reaction to Putin's escalation strategy. Germany is led by a coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, who have historically tended toward engaging Russia.

The country also heavily depends on oil exported by Russia, and many German companies operate on Russian territory, making them potential victims of any future Russian retaliation.

Given those ties, Social Democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has so far preferred diplomacy over threats. Some right-of-center commentators argue that this strategy has been rather unsuccessful. One German newspaper, for example, recently mocked Steinmeier's approach as the "diplomacy of just opening doors," but failing to force Putin to change his strategy with sanctions or other coercive measures.

However, as Sunday's poll showed, a substantial number of Germans would probably prefer open doors to confrontation.

SEE ALSO: Eight months after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a complicated transition