Analysis |

History and Energy: Understanding Germany’s Shameful Russia Policy

When the Russians invaded Ukraine at the end of February, it appeared to be a watershed moment for Germany. Yet two months on, the initial fighting talk by Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been replaced by pseudo-pacifism

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Women staging a protest during a demonstration called "The real price of Russian gas and oil," in Berlin last week.
Women staging a protest during a demonstration called "The real price of Russian gas and oil," in Berlin last week.Credit: LISI NIESNER/REUTERS
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

On February 27, three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was launched, Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed a special session of the German Bundestag. Under pressure from the United States to stand beside it, and realizing that his genuine efforts to prevent the war through diplomatic means had failed, Scholz delivered what many believed would prove to be the formative speech of his fledgling chancellorship – the one that would catapult him out of predecessor Angela Merkel’s shadow.

This is a Zeitenwende moment, Scholz declared; Germany was at a “turning point.” He then pledged about $110 billion to bolster Germany’s stagnant military and raise defense spending to 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, which is nearly $3.7 trillion. This makes it the world’s fourth largest economy, behind the United States, China and Japan.

The day before, Scholz had reacted to the Russian invasion by suspending the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. A week later, Germany agreed to transfer weapons systems to Ukraine, in what seemed a dramatic policy shift for the country.

However, two months on, it all seems to have dissipated as Germany has reverted to its pre-invasion vacillation, political stuttering and sanctimonious excuse-making.

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The 2 percent defense-spending increase will apparently now be spread over four to five years (contrary to Germany’s NATO commitments); Berlin is reluctant to transfer armored personnel carriers and Leopard tanks to Ukraine – though just confirmed that it will allow the delivery of Gepard anti-aircraft systems – and Scholz is again talking about “diplomatic means” to end the conflict. This would be a noble idea if Russian President Vladimir Putin were remotely interested, which it appears he is not.

Furthermore, Germany is currently unwilling to impose an immediate embargo on Russian oil and gas exports as the Americans proposed, and is thus actively strengthening Russia’s energy-based foreign policy and indulging Putin’s imperial delusions of grandeur.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attending a ceremony in Berlin yesterday. The "turning point" of the Russian invasion appears to have quickly reverted to the status quo. Credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI/REUTERS

This is not about German pacifism, and an understandable and justifiable aversion to military power rooted in the guilt and sensitivities of World War II.

It is about a gross – yet conveniently self-serving – misjudgment of Putin’s intentions and Russian policy. It is about a reluctance to detoxify Germany’s narcotic dependence on Russian energy. And it is about abdicating foreign and defense policy responsibilities that should complement Europe’s largest and most powerful economy.

Now that Scholz has turned from resolute to cautious-anxious within weeks and seems to have reversed course, newly reelected French President Emmanuel Macron will gladly and willingly assume an even greater central role in Europe.

Germany’s mind-set hasn’t really changed on foreign policy, defense policy, Europe’s challenges and security architecture, and, particularly, on its most glaring and constraining vulnerability – a heavy reliance on Russian natural gas and oil. Yes, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock ceremoniously declared that Germany will end its oil imports from Russia by year’s end. She most certainly means it, being a Green party politician and all, but that is easier said than done. Baerbock subsequently voiced concerns that the concept of Zeitenwende is temporary and does not reflect a fundamental change of course.

Martin Brudermüller, CEO of the German chemical giant BASF, summed it up plainly when he said: “Cheap Russian energy has been the basis of our industry’s competitiveness.”

The stalling and apparent policy reversal comes at the absolute most inopportune moment: when Putin seems intent on escalating the war and creating geographical contiguity from the Donbas in the east, along the Black Sea shoreline, and westward to Odesa and the Moldova border, thus cutting off Ukraine from any access to the Black Sea – and at a time when the United States is significantly expanding its support to Ukraine and NATO is further consolidating.

An activist playing the role of a victim takes part in a protest in support of Ukraine under the slogan "March for True Peace in Ukraine," in Berlin last week.Credit: Hannibal Hanschke/AP

Whether this is due to historically rooted reticence, pure and cynical energy addiction, or a new chancellor just being naturally tentative and overly cautious, the fact remains that Germany is consciously opting not to be a central player in the biggest crisis to have engulfed the Continent since 1945; a crisis that has a much larger impact, and repercussions, on Berlin than on Paris or London.

There is a term in the contemporary German political lexicon: Putin-Versteher. Literally it means “Putin understander,” but in the current context it essentially means “Putin apologist.” And there are lots of those in Germany these days.

The Putin apologists usually reflect the political and business culture of energy dependency on Russia that Germany callously developed over decades. But the roots are historically deeper than that.

The much-maligned former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder immediately comes to mind.

When Schröder left the Federal Chancellery in 2005, he was approached by a friend, Putin, who asked him to head the shareholder committee of the Russian-controlled Nord Stream 2 project, and be paid handsomely for it.

As far as Schröder was concerned, this was the epitome of “economic statecraft” – the substitute for foreign policy that Germany had developed gradually since the end of World War II, but particularly since German reunification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Germany's former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder attending an economic forum in Saint Petersburg in 2012.Credit: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

The core idea is both astute and appealing: A Russia tied economically and bound by trade to the West is a significantly less belligerent Russia, one much less inclined to engage in risks and confrontation in Europe. A network of business ventures and financial ties would provide a clear disincentive for Russia to rekindle the geopolitical aspirations of the U.S.S.R.

And so, Schröder became Putin’s guy in Germany. Yet blaming it all on the former chancellor is wrong. Schröder is an integral part of a German economic and foreign policy tradition vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and Russia that goes back decades.

When Willy Brandt was chancellor of West Germany between 1969 and 1974, he developed and implemented Ostpolitik, a German policy of reconciliation with the Soviet Union that accompanied and supplemented then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s policy of détente with Moscow. In 1971, Brandt even won the Nobel Peace Prize for decreasing tensions with the Soviet Union.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and the reunification of Germany, investment in defense and military modernization went down substantially, and Germany fully adopted its concept of economic statecraft and a form of foreign policy pacifism. West Germany’s armed forces were much stronger than the current German military. Germany’s economic interests conveniently assumed that the Soviet threat permanently disappeared with the end of the Soviet Union.

In 2014, after Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, Germany – along with France – mediated the Minsk II agreement. This recognized Russia’s permanent presence in Ukraine and its semi-sovereign status in the so-called “independent republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. It was the effective Russification of Crimea.

At the same time, major progress was made in the planning and construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The German foreign minister at the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, followed Schröder‘s policy advocacy, both tracing the source to Brand’s Ostpolitik. Scholz is merely the latest German politician to subscribe to that policy, catering to Russia’s needs and appeasing Putin at the expense of clairvoyant geopolitics.

But just as dumping all the blame on Schröder is an exaggeration – though he surely deserves criticism for his excessive and cynical Putin-Versteher – so is faulting Scholz. These are German politicians shaped by the consequences of World War II, averse to making Germany a foreign and military power, and are products of a culture in which the German economy reigns supreme.

Furthermore, the German foreign policy-making apparatus was deliberately designed bureaucratically, making it very hard and inhibitive for a chancellor to make sweeping and dramatic changes and departures. It is decentralized, with power and authority divided between ministries and committees, on top of which Germany has no National Security Council.

Such a council would typically serve as an ideas factory, an organizing and integrating clearinghouse for foreign and defense policy. In respect to foreign policy-making, a German chancellor is far weaker and less equipped than the American or French presidents, or the British or Israeli prime ministers.

Along came Putin, presenting a clear and present danger to Europe. But Germany, after a momentary awakening, went back to pseudo-pacifism. Scholz had – and still has – a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to leave his mark. The retreat from those bold and determined initial moves to the current convolutions is not a policy. Rather, it is an abdication of policy that is nothing but Putin-Versteher.

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