Germany’s Russia problem: Ukraine crisis tests new government

Under mounting pressure to provide more help to Ukraine as it braces for a possible Russian invasion, the German government proposed last week what it thought was a bold new initiative: it would supply Kyiv with 5,000 helmets.

The announcement was met with a wall of derision. “What kind of support will Germany send next?” asked Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. “Pillows?”

In the first crisis of the post-Merkel era, Germany is floundering. The complex legacy of the second world war is weighing on its efforts to craft a coherent policy on Russia. A new government in office for only seven weeks is being pulled in one direction by its powerful pacifist lobby and in the other by Washington.

German officials say that the government is playing an important role in keeping diplomatic channels open with Russia. But critics say Berlin has failed to grasp the enormity of the threat Russia poses to Ukraine. They worry that Germany, which draws 55 per cent of its imported gas from Russia, cares more about the impact sanctions will have on its economy than about forming a united front against Moscow. Some Nato countries have even begun to doubt that Berlin is a reliable partner.

“How many people in Berlin are actually aware of the massive damage our confused Ukraine policy is doing, not only to Germany but the whole of the EU?” says Wolfgang Ischinger, a former top German diplomat and head of the Munich Security Conference.

On key issues in the crisis, Germany’s position remains fuzzy, at least in public. It has dithered on whether to sanction Nord Stream 2, the newly completed Baltic Sea gas pipeline, in the event of a Russian invasion. It has questioned the wisdom of suspending Moscow from the Swift international payment system. And it has flatly refused to send Ukraine defensive weapons.

A photo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline
Germany has dithered on whether to sanction Nord Stream 2, the newly completed Baltic Sea gas pipeline, in the event of a Russian invasion © Peter Kovalev/TASS/Getty Images

“The Biden administration has been bending over backwards to work with Germany and it is dismayed at the hot mess coming out of Berlin,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, Fritz Stern Chair at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Russia’s massive build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border comes at a difficult moment for Germany. Angela Merkel stepped down in December after 16 years as chancellor and her successor, Olaf Scholz, presides over a fragile coalition of three parties with big differences over foreign policy. For the Greens, human rights often take precedence over economic interests, while many in Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic party think Nato is the aggressor and Russia the victim.

“The government has had no time to orient itself and get a firm footing,” says Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). “Just weeks in office and it’s confronted with this massive security crisis.”

But the row over Ukraine policy has crystallised the central question about German foreign policy in the post-Merkel era. Will Scholz, who won last September’s election on a largely domestic agenda, succeed in offering the same quietly assertive leadership in western security policy as Merkel did? Or will Germany slip back into playing a more passive, reactive role that belies the country’s economic and political importance?

Friedrich Merz, the leader of the opposition, fears the latter. In a Bundestag debate on Thursday the new head of the Christian Democratic Union said the “hopelessly divided US Congress” was now “united in its view of Germany as woolly and unreliable”.

“And that is your responsibility, Herr chancellor, that’s your policy,” he said to Scholz. “You do not lead, either in Germany or in Europe.”

Berlin counters that it has played a key role in western efforts to deter Moscow from an invasion, promising economic and political support for Ukraine and warning Russia of the “high price” it will pay if it attacks its western neighbour. Scholz will meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on February 7 to discuss the crisis.

“We have been consistent in emphasising the formula of deterrence and dialogue,” says Nils Schmid, the Social Democrats’ foreign policy spokesperson. “The sanctions the allies have discussed must stand, but dialogue must now play an even greater role.”

He points to how Berlin led the revival of the “Normandy format” talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany on resolving the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern border region of Donbas, which restarted last week in Paris. “It was Germany’s involvement that reopened this little door for diplomacy,” he says.

Berlin continues to believe it exerts unique influence over Moscow which its allies lack. “Germany has persuaded itself, with Russian encouragement, that it has a special relationship with Moscow and a special responsibility for preserving peace in Europe,” says Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank. “And [it] sees Ukraine’s freely-expressed interest in getting closer to the west as a secondary issue.”

But already unflattering comparisons are being drawn between Scholz and Merkel, who led the western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Donbas in 2014, maintaining a dialogue with Vladimir Putin while also spearheading tough sanctions against Moscow that are still in force.

Under Merkel, “Berlin was the key focal point of the west’s Russia and Ukraine policy,” wrote commentator Christoph von Marschall in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel on Thursday. “Compared to that, Scholz looks like a failure.”

A photo of former German  chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin
Angela Merkel, who stepped down in December after 16 years as German chancellor, with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Germany’s thorny issues

Doubts about Germany’s stance on Ukraine have been fuelled by the government’s lack of a coherent line on Nord Stream 2, the €9.5bn pipeline under the Baltic Sea which is completed but still awaiting regulatory approval.

Critics of the pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, say it will give Moscow more leverage over Kyiv and make Europe even more dependent on Russian energy exports than it already is. The US state department has said that the pipeline “will not move forward” if Russia invades Ukraine.

However, Scholz initially insisted Nord Stream 2 was a “purely commercial project” which had nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis. Earlier this month he shifted position, saying that a Russian invasion would put the future of the pipeline in doubt. It is now widely expected that the pipeline will form part of a western sanctions package in the event of war. 

Nord Stream 2 epitomises the dilemma Germany faces. Its industry is hugely reliant on Russian gas, and will become even more so as the country phases out nuclear power and coal. “For years we have had a close mutual dependence,” says Markus Krebber, chief executive of German energy firm RWE. “We need Russian natural gas, and Russia needs foreign currency. We had tensions in the past, but the gas always came.”

Map showing Europe’s gas pipelines and that Germany is reliant on pipelines from Russia

This explains Germany’s sensitivities over the issue of sanctions. “Today, Germany is the biggest western power with real, substantial interest in economic ties with Russia,” says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “Thus it will lose the most through sanctions on Russia, unlike the US and the UK, who will lose next to nothing.”

Germany has also been strongly criticised over its stance on arms sales to Kyiv. Berlin has a strict ban on the export of lethal weapons to conflict zones and says it will make no exception for Ukraine. But it is also preventing other countries from supplying Kyiv with arms.

Earlier this month, as the US and UK rushed tonnes of “lethal security assistance” to Ukraine, it emerged that Germany had blocked Estonia from sending over some decades-old howitzers to Kyiv that previously belonged to the East German army.

Ministers have not yet decided whether they should approve or stop the arms delivery. But the mere fact of a delay has triggered howls of protest in eastern Europe. Latvian defence minister Artis Pabriks described Germany’s unwillingness to green light the shipment as “immoral”.

“If a person is walking in a dark alley and somebody is being beaten up and I’m saying ‘once you’re beaten up I’ll call an ambulance’, it’s not proper,” Pabriks said.

But Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, defended the country’s ban on arms exports to Ukraine, saying that allowing them would represent “a 180-degree change in our foreign policy” and would run the risk of “closing the door for de-escalation which has just opened up again in such a tentative way”.

Russia welcomes the German approach to the crisis. “Germany’s restrained position is a very serious factor for the process of conciliation and establishing trust and stability,” says Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian lawmaker. “They want no part in Ukraine’s provocative actions, don’t want to supply weapons for the conflict in Donbas and they’re not using this hostile, provocative rhetoric like the Americans and the English.”

But German officials are in private aware of the damage the arms issue is causing. “It’s a classic case where German principle collides with alliance politics,” says one. “It raises the question — what kind of ally are you?”

The weight of history

The arms issue also goes right to the heart of German guilt about the second world war. The prospect that Russian soldiers might again be killed by weapons from Germany is one many in Berlin view with horror.

But the argument about Germany’s war guilt enrages Ukrainians. They counter that it was Ukraine that bore the brunt of Wehrmacht and SS atrocities between 1941-44, suffering far more civilian casualties than Russia, and so has a much greater claim on German sympathy.

“We can’t understand this argument of history,” says Andrij Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin. “If we’re talking about history, then you could say Germany has a historical responsibility to Ukraine.”

Baerbock has sought to address Ukraine’s sensibilities over the issue. “We have a duty to all countries of the former Soviet Union because of the terrible suffering we inflicted on millions of people there in the past,” she recently said.

A photo of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press conference in Berlin earlier this month
Germany’s foreign minister and co-leader of the Green party, Annalena Baerbock, has defended the country’s ban on arms exports to Ukraine © Kay Nietfeld/Getty Images

But her comments were overshadowed by a scandal in the German navy that revealed with what scant regard Ukraine is viewed by some senior German officers. Naval chief Kay-Achim Schönbach was forced to resign on January 22 after being filmed saying that Putin deserved to be treated as an equal by the west, and claiming that the Crimean peninsula would never be returned to Kyiv’s control.

“What [Putin] really wants is respect,” he told an Indian think-tank. “And by God, giving someone respect is low-cost, even no-cost . . . it is easy to give him the respect he really demands — and probably also deserves.”

Russians were delighted by his remarks. “The absolute majority of Germans share his position, they just don’t want to say it out loud,” says Gavrilov, the Duma MP.

But Ukrainian officials were furious. “This condescending attitude reminds Ukrainians of the terrors of the Nazi occupation when [they] were treated as subhuman,” said Melnyk, the ambassador.

Some Germans, though, leapt to Schönbach’s defence. Harald Kujat, the former inspector general of the Bundeswehr, said the admiral was only stating the obvious — that any suggestion Crimea could be returned to Ukrainian control was “completely fatuous”. And there was nothing wrong with suggesting that the west should negotiate with Russia on an equal footing — “that’s exactly what the Americans are doing”, he said.

Kujat went even further, though, revealing a striking willingness to see the world through Putin’s eyes. “Ukraine must not become the west’s outpost against Russia, and that’s exactly what’s happening right now,” he told RBB radio.

The shadow of Ostpolitik

The remark typified the stance taken by Germany’s army of “Putin-Versteher” or Putin-empathisers in the Ukraine crisis, many of them Social Democrats. The pro-Russian tendency in the SPD is personified by Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor who became head of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream shortly after leaving office in 2005 and was made chair of the Kremlin-controlled Russian oil group Rosneft in 2017.

A photo of former German chancellor and director of the the Rosneft board Gerhard Schroeder and Igor Sechin, CEO of the Russian oil company Rosneft at the PCK oil refinery in Schwedt
Former German chancellor and director of the Rosneft board Gerhard Schroeder, left, and Russian oligarch Igor Sechin at the PCK oil refinery in Schwedt © picture alliance / Patrick Pleul/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

But Schröder, who once referred to Putin as an “impeccable democrat” and last week condemned Ukraine’s “sabre-rattling” in the crisis with Russia, is not alone. His views on Russia are shared by other prominent Social Democrats, such as Matthias Platzeck, a former SPD chair who now heads the German-Russian Forum.

“If you want diplomacy to succeed, you have to say [to Russia], yes, we recognise your security needs, your security concerns, and we will deal with them,” he told German TV earlier this month. “We haven’t done that for 30 years.”

Such views are widespread in the SPD, and make it difficult for Scholz — who famously lost a contest for the party leadership in 2019 and is still distrusted by the SPD’s leftwing — to adopt a more confrontational approach to Russia.

His task is also complicated by Social Democrats’ lingering nostalgia for Ostpolitik, the policy of rapprochement and engagement with the Soviet bloc pursued by chancellor Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and 70s. Some still firmly believe that it hastened the end of the cold war, rather than, say, Ronald Reagan’s arms race in the 1980s.

The result is that Russia continues to play an outsize role in the German worldview. “Russia is more present as a factor in Germany than elsewhere — because of our history and culture, because of the role Mikhail Gorbachev played in German reunification, because of the deep economic ties between the two countries,” says Schmid.

Line chart of Share of country’s total exports (%) showing Germany still leads EU exports to Russia

Yet even in Schmid’s SPD, sympathy for Russia has dwindled in recent years, amid growing dismay at its drift towards authoritarianism and its menacing stance towards its neighbours. “There is no longer a special relationship between Russia and Germany — the Russians destroyed it in 2014,” says the German official. “Russians have underestimated the shock the annexation of Crimea caused in Germany.”

The shift in sentiment is obvious in the coalition agreement Scholz drafted with the Greens and liberals, which contains much tougher rhetoric on Russia than any negotiated by Merkel in her 16 years as chancellor, with sharp criticism of its record on Ukraine and on democratic rights.

“The German discourse on Russia has changed a lot over the past 10-12 years — it’s become much more critical,” says Sabine Fischer of the SWP. She cites Germany’s 2020 decision to treat Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, after he was poisoned by nerve agent — in what he claimed was an assassination attempt ordered by the Kremlin.

“The poisoning of Navalny had huge resonance in German society”, says Fischer, “as has the whole crackdown on civil society in Russia.”

Yet on the official level, the tone is still respectful, even deferential. It was epitomised by the short speech Baerbock made on her first trip to Moscow earlier this month, when she spoke of the “shame and awe” she felt while laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier close to the Kremlin. “Nothing can make up for the suffering and destruction that we Germans visited upon the peoples of the Soviet Union,” she said.

Baerbock’s performance in Moscow was widely praised as sure-footed and confident, and she was given a cordial reception by her counterpart Sergei Lavrov. But observers say Russia’s respect for German sensitivities also seems to have dwindled since Merkel left power. One European diplomat in Moscow noted that Russia published its draft security proposals, which included ending Nato’s eastward expansion and denying Ukraine future membership of the alliance, just nine days after Merkel left office.

“They’d never have dared do this when Merkel was in power,” the diplomat says. “She would never have stood for it. Now they don’t care any more.”

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