Australian Outlook

Germany’s Big Mistake

17 Nov 2022
By Dr Steve Wood
Olaf Scholz auf dem SPD Bundesparteitag am 19. März 2017 in Berlin. Source: Olaf Kosinsky/

Germany persisted in the vain hope of transforming or at least managing Russia under the Putin regime. What went wrong and what has it cost?

Only recently has the cost of a prolonged placatory engagement with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia truly dawned on Germany’s governing class and politically aware population. This Achilles heel of German foreign policy damaged decades of practical achievements, reputation building, and deserved praise in European and international affairs. Germany’s Faustian pact with Putin involved receipt of cheap Russian gas in return for an unusually lenient stance toward an accumulating litany of hostile Russian actions. German policy was also permeated by an intangible affinity-guilt complex, which translated into compensating a contemporary Russian dictatorship for the atrocities of a past German dictatorship. Attitudes are even stranger in the territory of the defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR), where for part of the public/electorate a Stockholm Syndrome of identification with the former occupier manifested years after reunification and the Soviet withdrawal. Another relevant factor is persisting anti-Americanism, not only at the extremes of the political spectrum but in the centre. This combination of elements influenced a strategic failure, now impressed by Putin’s war against Ukraine, the ironic end of Russian gas deliveries, and the collapse of bilateral economic relations. Still, some in Germany vainly hope for reconciliation with Russia while others assert that cooperation is an imperative that must be revived.

Excepting those members of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) who were active in predecessor governments, a majority of the present Ampel (traffic light) coalition of SPD-Greens-FDP (Free Democratic Party) cannot be blamed for problems that to greater or lesser extent derive from German Russia policy. For many years, however, the top echelon of the German state, including long-serving (2005-2021) former Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and incumbent Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Foreign Minister from 2005-2009 and 2013-2017, dealt with Putin, if not the entire country, as if they were therapists treating a highly sensitive patient. German strategy, based on “dialogue,” a high degree of tolerance, and the hope that trade and investment would gradually transform Russia, was to a point understandable, if not promising. In response, the Kremlin regime’s internal and external behaviour only worsened. Germany joined other EU member states and the US in applying sanctions on Russian elites, it sent NATO troops to Lithuania, and provided various forms of assistance to Ukraine. But it was hesitant about genuinely punishing Putin by ceasing trade and investment, especially in the energy sector. Eventually, in a speech to the Bundestag (Parliament) on 27 February 2022, Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz (SPD), proclaimed a Zeitenwende in world politics and German-Russian relations most especially. Such a turning point had already been reached, at the very latest, eight years earlier, with the Crimea annexation.

A premier symbol of imprudence in Germany’s relations with Russia was the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. One was enough. The second was negotiated contemporaneous to the Minsk 2 deliberations, that is, after the Crimea annexation. What signal would that send to the Kremlin? On the one hand we want peace; on the other we want (your) gas. Former Polish Prime Minister and European Council President, Donald Tusk, said that Nord Stream 2 was Merkel’s biggest mistake. The Chancellor often referred to it as a purely commercial venture. A resounding international chorus said otherwise, to which Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), made a minor rhetorical concession. She was only one participant in the saga. Former Economics and Energy Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, of Grand Coalition government partner and nominal rival, the SPD, was a key player in relevant intrigues, as the Kremlin indiscreetly revealed. After some initial harder talk vis-à-vis Russia, Steinmeier’s successor as Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, also of the SPD, resumed the party and Grand Coalition line.

SPD attitudes and policy are traceable to the legend of Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik, which contributed to East-West détente and eventually German reunification, though how much is debatable. A more recent version, principally material though also featuring a special personal friendship with Putin, was promoted by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005), to whom many current SPD politicians are, or were, indebted. Those who supported Nord Stream 2 and broader engagement with Putin’s Russia, some quite emphatically, included Scholz, Matthias Platzeck, Rolf Mützenich, Lars Klingbeil, Manuela Schwesig, Niels Schmid, Dirk Wiese, Bernd Westphal, and Niels Annen. They found excuses for the regime’s pre-February 2022 behaviour or understated it, prioritising communication and exchange. Some members of other “mainstream” parties did the same. In the CDU they included Merkel, Gabriel’s successor as economics minister, Peter Altmaier, Minister-President of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, and failed chancellor candidate for the 2021 election, Armin Laschet. In the Christian Social Union (a Bavarian variant of the CDU), similar views were represented by its chief Markus Söder. Dissidents in these centrist parties, such as Norbert Röttgen, Manfred Weber, and a few others, were displeased with the direction of their own parties. The FDP’s Wolfgang Kubicki attracted the anger of his party when he advocated an easing of sanctions on Russia in March 2022 and an opening of Nord Stream 2 as late as September 2022. By then he was a conspicuous exception. On the extremes of the spectrum, most of the crumbling far left Die Linke, and the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), are still strong supporters of Russia and German cooperation with it.

Putin’s most vigorous opponents are the Greens, who have undergone a major evolution since the 1990s. Prominent members are now in charge of the influential ministries of Foreign Affairs (Annalena Baerbock) and Economics and Climate Change (Robert Habeck). Their reorientation of German foreign policy has a redemptive aspect, making the new government, with some exceptions, more proactively critical of the Putin regime than its predecessors. This has occurred while Germany is trapped in an “energy crisis,” largely a result of withdrawal from dependency on Russian fossil fuels but partly also the Greens own policy of  a complete exit (Atomausstieg) from nuclear power, an ambition now deferred by six months and possibly longer.

All people make mistakes. Political mistakes are the costliest. Almost overnight some former Russlandversteher (Russia sympathisers) became apologizing apologists. Later, most admitted errors of some sort. But at what cost? Many are still active in politics. Others eluded responsibility through retirement from public office. Schröder, who perceives no wrong in his interactions with Putin, is something of an alibi. A fixation on cheap gas from a supposedly reliable authoritarian regime left Germany with substantial problems in energy supply, foreign and security policy, and rebuilding diplomatic relations with states that for years warned against compacts with Russia under Putin.

Steve Wood is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of four books and articles in Cooperation and Conflict, Review of International Studies, Energy Policy, International Relations, and Cambridge Review of International Affairs. In 2022 he was the recipient of an Alexander von Humboldt research grant.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.