Few people in Moscow fully appreciated the depth of the German disappointment. As a result, no one expected Berlin to take a leading role when the EU imposed sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war. Even when the first two levels of the EU sanctions mechanism (suspension of ongoing negotiations and targeted sanctions against individuals and organisations) had been activated, many still believed that Germany would prevent sectoral economic sanctions from happening. But the escalation of the Donbas war and the downing of Flight MH17 in the summer of 2014 left Berlin with no option but to act. From a German perspective, the Minsk Agreements aimed at ending the Donbas conflict and negotiated by the Normandy Four in September 2014 and February 2015 were not a result of the trust-based relationship between Berlin (and Paris) and Moscow, but of the increasing international pressure and isolation Russia was facing. Moreover, many in Berlin were perfectly aware that Kiev was forced to make painful concessions in the face of Russian escalation dominance.
Since 2014, the list of thorny issues on the bilateral agenda has been growing steadily: in 2015, the computer network of the German Bundestag was hacked, and the attack traced back to the Russian military intelligence agency. In January 2016, Russian state officials and mass media grossly inflated a false story about the alleged abduction and rape of a 13-year-old Russian-German girl, Lisa, by a group of immigrants in Berlin. Russian advances vis-à-vis right-wing extremist parties in various EU member states, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the 2017 French presidential election brought it home to many in Berlin that Moscow's interference in domestic developments elsewhere was no longer limited to Russia's immediate neighborhood. Added to all of this was Russia's inhumane military campaign in Syria, the attempted Novichok murder of Sergei Skripal in 2018 (with several casualties and one dead), and, over and over again, Russia's unconstructive attitude in the Donbas peace negotiations. In August 2019, Tornike Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen rebel commander in the Second Chechen War who had sought asylum in Germany, was killed in broad daylight in central Berlin. The perpetrator was arrested immediately. The ensuing investigation not only linked him to Russian state agencies, but also provided evidence that the murder had been ordered by the Russian leadership. Last but not least, since last month's contested presidential election in Belarus, Moscow has thrown its weight behind the country's longtime ruler Alexander Lukashenko, who has used brutal violence to try to suppress the mass demonstrations against the rigged election.