The lack of a decisive German stance towards Russia has been already strongly criticised in the post-2014 build-up of Russian-Ukrainian escalation but is now reaching a new peak with the outbreak of war. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine took a surprising turn of political events in Europe: Germany as a military power. “Wir sind entschlossen und handeln geschlossen” [We are determined and act united”] was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ (SPD) first significant statement in response to the Russian invasion, which his government, the ‘Ampelkoalition’ of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens was, at first, unable to put into effect. In comparison to its Western allies, USA and the UK, Germany was criticised for not reacting quick enough, e.g., by putting the brakes on the EU’s SWIFT sanctions for a few days and only being willing to restrict Russian banks later than most of its EU partners. Now, the EU-27 have decided on a new package of sanctions, which comes at the end of a two-day EU leaders’ summit in Versailles, in which the bloc ruled out speeding up its accession process for Ukraine. At the core of the new sanctions is the ban on the export of EU luxury goods to Russia, which will hit France and Italy particularly hard. Meanwhile, Germany’s continues to reject a full embargo on Russian gas and oil, threatening its credibility in the EU. Why is it so difficult for Germany to join other leading EU states in putting morality above economic interest?
Germany’s historical ties with Russia
Germany and Russia undoubtedly have a complex relationship with many ups and downs. In the 20th century, it was marked from bitter enemies in two world wars through the Soviet occupation zone in East Germany to the historic reconciliation when Russia supported German reunification in 1990. Gorbachev is known as the pioneer of German unity, particularly in Western Germany, where he is still hailed as a “hero”. The fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not set relations back is mainly thanks to Willy Brandt’s (SPD) “new Ostpolitik” of the early 1970s which has been defended by the social democrats ever since. Based on the idea of change through rapprochement, economic engagement on both sides developed into an overall positive relationship towards the Soviet Union, including the Eastern European states. Re-unified Germany continued this policy while putting even greater weight on change through economic interlocking. Also culturally, bilateral engagement flourished. The Petersburg Dialogue and the German-Russian Forum boosted communication and mutual encounters between both societies through e.g., student exchanges. Hundreds of thousands of Russians of German origin settled in Germany and nowhere are so many people learning German as in Russia. In a nutshell, Germans no longer regarded Russia as a threat, while Russians have begun to regard Germany as one of Russia’s most devoted allies with Berlin attempting to assist the Kremlin in its efforts to integrate with the West, for example, by lobbying for Russia’s admission to the G7 in 1998. Only with Putin’s controversial re-candidacy in 2012 did a trend reversal become apparent, which intensified in 2014.
The Nord Stream 2 dilemma
While Germany condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea through the EU and its sanction regime, its initiation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in the immediate aftermath reverses this logic. Nord Stream 2 and Germany’s gas dependency has long been the number 1 contentious issue in Germany’s positioning vis-à-vis Moscow. Gas plays an important role and serves as a substitute as long as renewable energies are not sufficient. Germany has very little natural gas reserves. Only about 5% of consumption could be met by the country itself and the trend is downward. Over half of its natural gas comes from Russia (51%), which makes Germany the largest importer of natural gas from Russia in the EU. Plus, there remains the risk that Putin may even shut down Nord Stream 1 or that the gas supplies through transit countries like Ukraine are disrupted due to the invasion. National gas storage facilities are already only half full and Germany’s only alternative to Putin’s gas is US liquefied gas but, according to experts, this is far from compensating for Russian natural gas.
Until recently, this project was maintained with the narrative of a “purely economic project”, but from the moment it was negotiated, it served the resurgence of ‘old Russia’ and Putin’s geopolitical ambition. The pipe would have rendered the traditional Russia-EU gas routes through Ukraine insignificant with an estimated economic loss of 2 billion euros per year. For the Kremlin, it was not about getting the gas out of Russia, but about changing the supply routes. It took the invasion of Ukraine with its devastating political and humanitarian consequences, as well as international pressure, including from US President Joe Biden, who threatened to put an end to the project himself, for Germany to decide against the flow of gas through Nord Stream 2 for the time being. Finally, the German public too seems to understand the political component, who publicly say they would rather freeze than get gas from Putin.
Long-lasting conflict between Russland-Versteher and Russland-Kritiker
Chancellor’s Scholz’ initial silence on Nord Stream 2 can be explained by the position of his own party as the SPD just cannot seem to let go of the success story of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. In Germany, there is an obvious non-consensus policy towards Russia with the dividing line being between the so-called ‘Russland-Versteher’ (Russia-understanders) and ‘Russland-Kritiker’ (Russia-critics). Turbulences between Russia-understanders and Russia-critics are not new. In 2014 their divergent positions led to fierce disagreements about EU sanctions towards Russia; this now explains the initial reluctance of the German government to impose SWIFT sanctions. Yet, the tables have turned even for Putin’s allies in Germany when Russia brutally invaded Ukraine. Matthias Platzeck, who as chairman of the German-Russian Forum cultivated a particularly close relationship with Russia and strongly criticised Russia’s exclusion from the G7 as a response to the annexation of Crimea, is now more lenient and admits there’s “nothing left but a pile of broken pieces”. And while some ‘Russland-Versteher’ like Platzeck are distancing themselves from the Kremlin, others are being distanced. In a clear sign of disapproval, the office staff of Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, or “Gas-Gerd” as he is called because of his controversial lobbyist role as head of the shareholder committee for Nord Stream 2 and the supervisory board of Rosneft, cleared their desks after he failed to break ties with his long-time friend Putin. Schröder has travelled to Moscow on his own initiative, where he is seeking talks with Putin. Perhaps for him a chance to rehabilitate himself in Germany, and for us a glimmer of hope that Putin’s closest can dissuade him from his madness. Especially after the diplomatic attempts between Lavrov and Kuleba in Antalya failed in a shocking and sobering way.
U-turn in German Foreign Policy
In contrast to Scholz, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock does not seem to take on the softer SPD stance and is clearly more tough on Moscow. What is surprising is that she – more directly than Scholz – goes against her party’s principles (pacifism), invoking the need of military deliveries by justifying the urgency to protect Ukraine and the UN Charter. Many see this as an absolute U-turn in German foreign policy after the Second World War. With Bearbock, Germany is heard as more offensive, bluntly accusing the Kremlin of lying, emphasising how this is not a Ukraine crisis, but a Russia crisis and calling on the world to ostracise Russia, new tones in German foreign policy.
Considering that only days ago, the coalition considered arms deliveries as dangerous conflict accelerators and the NATO’s 2% target to be only attainable in distant future, one can certainly argue in favour of a fundamental shift. As Scholz’s hesitancy fades, he has astonished not just the opposition but also the public with his proposal for a 100-billion-euro special fund for the Bundeswehr. Even compulsory military service, which had been suspended after 55 years is on the table again. Yet, it remains questionable whether this would reduce current threats or rather serves as a distraction from actions that are more urgent in the short-term such as a full stop on oil and gas from Russia.