It is just over a month since Germany’s center-left “traffic light” government took office and it is already worryingly clear that forging a united Russia policy is difficult and marred by underlying disagreement.
German-Russian history, traditional attitudes in German society, and long-established business links have conspired to make the issue harder and more contentious than it may have appeared during last year’s election campaign. This is compounded by the threat of what might be the biggest conflict on the continent for more than seven decades. The whole system of European security is being questioned by Russia, and Germany appears to be frozen by uncertainty.
The new government is very clearly divided between Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, who is jealous of his rights over foreign policy (Richtlinienkompetenz), and who offers softly spoken comments on Russia, and his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Greens, who is notably more plain-spoken. The Greens have previously questioned the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and have even talked about possible arms deliveries to Ukraine while arguing for a more human rights-orientated approach to global affairs.
German public opinion is also more complex than many outsiders appreciate. A January poll showed 73% do not view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as “a trustworthy partner”, while another poll, by Pew, indicated that only 16% regard Russia as a major threat.
There are deeper underlying contradictions, too. The Social Democrats, the strongest party in the new government, seem to regard “dialogue” and economics as the ultima ratio regum solution to Russian policy. The government’s foreign policy now is mired in the language of talks, with repeated incantations of the formula that nothing is solved by conflict.
Things began more promisingly. Christine Lambrecht, the Minister of Defense (SPD), visited German troops NATO’s Baltic state force soon after Russia published its demands for a new European security agreement. Everything about this visit was new for a German defense minister, especially a Social Democrat. Lambrecht expressed strong German solidarity for both the US and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), and called Russia an aggressor. She talked of possible personal sanctions against Putin’s closest circle and Putin himself. “Germany has increased the readiness of the rapid reaction force,” she said, which was “an important signal that we also act.”
Almost immediately, the Social Democrats backtracked and seemed to reconstruct their Russia policy from basics. A series of Social Democrat statements followed on Nord-Stream 2, the as-yet unopened gas pipeline seen by many outside Germany as a Kremlin geopolitical project aimed at weakening its democratic neighbors.
Scholz called Nord Stream 2 “a purely private-sector project,” while the SPD General Secretary Kevin Kuehnert said, “a possible attack by Russia on Ukraine, should not be conjured up” in order to bury projects like the pipeline. The apparent softening of tone by the SPD and the obvious divisions within the coalition caused some derision within Germany and anger among Germany’s partners, especially those in CEE countries, who felt the country’s dovishness was at their expense.
“Where do we go if the partners of a coalition. . . make the opposition redundant during their honeymoon by opposing themselves?” asked Berthold Kohler, editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a commentary.
Jakub Janda, Director of the Center for Security Policy in Prague, was enraged. There are “many German words about principles but geopolitical security of Central and Eastern Europe is sold for Russian money. Trust imploded,” he said.
The ambivalent social mood of distrusting but not confronting Russia, and the statements of prominent Social Democrats are closely linked. The current Russia policy, which has been pursued for at least two decades, still has its roots in what the German left still regards as its great 20th-century triumph — Ostpolitik. Nord Stream 2 is one element of this thinking with the bilateral interdependence in energy issues deriving to the 1960s and 1970s.
In fact, German-Russian close economic ties are largely due to the Social Democrats of the 1960s. The Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr were clear — a gradual economic rapprochement with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which was to achieve gradual political change, especially within a divided Germany.
It placed political aims above possible economic benefits. In the long term, the highest aim was to achieve the removal of the inner German border.
It is hard to discern such lofty aims among today’s Social Democrats. Are they simply seeking better business links, and the preservation of existing trade, or are they perhaps seeking to persuade the Russian regime over time, through initiatives with Russian state-owned corporations such as Gazprom and Rosneft, through the Committee on Eastern Economics? Should this energy relationship form the backbone of relations between the two countries, as energy-dependent Germany seeks a green economy and green transition? In that case, the institutions created by the Ostpolitik’s social-democratic authors could perhaps assist Kremlin-linked firms to modernize, and in the process wean them off the old robber-baron ways of business.
The question has to be asked whether Russia has the faintest interest in this sort of growing together. In the 1960s and 1970s, the hard currency deprived the Soviet Union of badly needed deals with the West, and the Federal Republic was happy to help. But today’s Russia openly says that it seeks a return to the past, which poses a huge threat to Europe’s east. Ostpolitik based on business interests without a clear political goal is outdated. Stability, which the Social Democrats assert is their greatest aim, is of course a great good. With regard to Putin’s Russia, however, there is only one thing that remains stable and that is its desire for instability, especially in the democratic states in its borderlands. Under such conditions, the Social Democratic reliance on “mutual understanding” is out of date, naïve, or conceals some other motive.
In a time of Russian-engineered turmoil, European security can only be defined in terms of Western security versus Russian. Yet the SPD parliamentary leader Rolf Muetzenich speaks of “a pluralistic security community” that “excludes war between its members and ultimately overcomes military alliances,” even as trainloads of Russian troops and armor are decanted on Ukraine’s borders. Perhaps, he muses, Europe can have alliances without militaries.
Such statements suggest that some German politicians have lost touch with reality, and are undermining European and transatlantic unity. “No more war”, a maxim internalized by the whole of German society, becomes less useful when the friendly state of Ukraine asks for weapons and is told that Germany opposes conflicts. In that case, the policy merely becomes a shibboleth. Foreign Minister Baebock explained during her visit to Kyiv this week (January 17) that the government’s “peace policy” forbids arms exports to places where wars occur. “Diplomacy is the only way,” she told her straight-faced Ukrainian counterpart. Meanwhile, RAF aircraft carrying weaponry to Ukraine were routed around Germany because they lacked the necessary paperwork.
Events in a fast-moving and grave European crisis will not wait on the German government so that it can iron out some coalition friction. For decades now, Germany has stood strong for the principles of European security based on international law. It has forged relationships and helped make the European Union an engine of unparalleled continental prosperity.
Yet there is now a risk, the possibility that those times of stability and negotiation may not be enough, and that a harder-edged policy war should be considered.
Germany loves peace, but paradoxically, its historically grounded fear of war could fuel a conflict if it weakens Western deterrence. For now, a change in policy looks unlikely. Any change in outlook may arrive after the consequences of an overly pacific policy have become clear.
Oxana Schmies is a postdoctoral researcher and analyst based in Berlin. She held post-doctoral positions at the University of Erfurt, Humboldt University of Berlin, and the Center of Liberal Modernity (LibMod) in Berlin.