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The end of Germany’s illusions

Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine has shattered many illusions about security in Europe. For Germany it has posed a particular challenge, one which the German political leadership has so far struggled to meet. 

During the Cold War, Germany insisted that the policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), of which it was a loyal member, towards the Soviet Union should be a combination of robust defence and political engagement. This was partly because Germany, as a front line state with 19 million of its fellow citizens living under a communist dictatorship, had particular national interests which were not shared to the same degree by other allies, but also because of an inherent conviction that dialogue is always useful. The concept of ‘Wandel durch Annäherung’ [‘change through rapprochement’] became embedded in Germany’s approach to East/West relations.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, this conviction intensified. Germans felt, rightly, a sense of gratitude to Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, for his role in delivering German reunification and at both the public and private sector level contacts with Russia increased. Many of the big German companies invested there and all of them sought to exploit the new Russian market. In the reverse direction, German energy companies signed long-term contracts for purchases of Russian oil and gas. Over[↗] 30% of the gas consumed in Germany comes from Russia. Germany pays Russia an exuberant amount for these imports, with some estimates as high as around €200 million (£170 million) a day, money which of course helps finance Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The culmination of this energy dependency was the decision in 2005 by Gerhard Schroeder, then Chancellor of Germany, to authorise the construction of the Nordstream 1 gas pipeline across the Baltic from Vyborg to Lubmin. There was no operational need for a new pipeline. Germany could already import Russian gas via Poland and Ukraine and had done so since the 1970s. But the new pipeline, which began operating in 2011, meant that the gas could flow directly into Germany: there was no scope for the Polish or Ukrainian governments to threaten to cut off or reduce supplies as political leverage in their dealings with Russia. Unsurprisingly both governments, the Poles in particular, were harshly critical of the project.

Schroeder described Russia as a ‘strategic partner’ and Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, as a ‘flawless democrat[↗]’. After losing the federal election of 2005, Schroeder took up the Chairmanship of Nordstream and later became a board member of Gazprom, Russia’s biggest multinational energy corporation.

His successor, Angela Merkel, made Germany’s dependence on Russian energy even more acute. She allowed herself to be panicked by the nuclear accident at Fukushima[↗] and brought forward the closure[↗] of all of Germany’s nuclear plants without any plan for how the lost energy supplies would be replaced. The last three running plants may be kept online[↗] for longer than planned. In 2015, after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, she approved the construction of a second Nordstream pipeline.

Merkel was not naïve about Putin in the way that Schroeder was (and apparently still is). Although she speaks Russian and he German they never had a close personal relationship. But she was reluctant to acknowledge that Russia posed a military threat and under her chancellorship German defence expenditure and capability declined. Although nominally signed up to the NATO target of 2% of gross domestic product expenditure on defence, she never made any serious effort to actually achieve it. She did, however, along with Nicholas Sarkozy, then President of France, try to broker an agreement[↗] between Russia and Ukraine in Minsk in 2015 to stop the fighting in the Luhansk and Donetsk areas. It was never implemented.  

Merkel left office in 2021 and was replaced by the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz at the head of a tripartite coalition involving the Greens and the Free Democrats. When Russia intensified its offensive against Ukraine in February this year, Scholz had neither the skills nor the temperament to respond. His background is in economic and social policy: a former Mayor of Hamburg, Minister for Social Affairs and Finance Minister, he had little experience of defence or security issues.

More significantly, he is a poor communicator. He likes to reflect and consult before reaching a decision and he is not used to taking a lead. Germany’s initial response to the Russian invasion was therefore to hunker down in its traditional policy bunker: arms supplies to Ukraine, other than 5,000 helmets, were ruled out on the spurious grounds that Germany did not supply lethal weapons to conflict zones (Royal Air Force supply flights were routed around[↗] German airspace before the invasion because of uncertainty about whether they would be allowed); only minimal sanctions were to be considered; Nordstream II was not to be affected; and, as always, the emphasis was on political dialogue.

Scholz was much criticised in the German media for his failure to rise to the occasion. He appeared paralysed by events and for a time virtually disappeared from public view. Annalena Baerbock, from the Green Party, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, seemed to be making all the running and was surprisingly hawkish about what needed to be done.  

But on 27th February 2022, all this seemed to change. In an unusual Sunday session of the Bundestag, Scholz made a speech[↗] in which he described the Russian invasion as a ‘Zeitenwende’ [a watershed moment], which ‘marked a change in the history of our continent’. He announced policies which, if implemented, would effectively reverse Germany’s security policy of the last 30 years: Nordstream II would not enter service; tough economic sanctions on Russia were imposed; anti-tank weapons were to be delivered to Ukraine; and an additional €100 billion (£85 billion) would be added to the German defence budget, with a view to rapidly meeting NATO spending targets. He also announced[↗] the end of German imports of oil from Russia by the end of 2022 and gas imports by 2024.

The immediate reaction in Germany to Scholz’s change of heart was surprise and relief. Friedrich Merz, the Christian Democratic Union opposition leader, came out firmly in support, as did most of the press. But as time went on the German government began to revert to its more cautious approach. Deliveries of tanks and artillery to Ukraine were promised, but never seemed to actually materialise, and pressure was put on[↗] Canada to return to Germany, contrary to its sanctions policy, a Siemens turbine engine from the Nordstream I pumping station which was in Canada for repair.

It is beginning now to dawn on German public opinion that sanctions can work both ways; and there is much public discussion about what would happen if Russia decides itself to close the Nordstream I pipeline before the advent of winter. Talk of energy rationing and shortages is in the air and the Federal Government seems unable to offer any clear perspective of what may lie ahead. Germany’s vulnerability is acute not just because of the extent of its reliance on Russian gas, but because it has not invested in storage facilities for liquid natural gas, which can be imported from elsewhere in the world.

Many German commentators themselves admit that[↗] the German Government’s performance on Ukraine has been unimpressive. It has also attracted criticism in Eastern Europe: not just in Ukraine itself, whose previous ambassador in Berlin was outspoken in condemning[↗] Germany’s reluctance to supply heavy weaponry, but also in the Baltic states. Artis Pabriks, the Latvian Defence Minister, described[↗] Germany’s policy toward Russia as ‘immoral’ and ‘hypocritical’. 

Germany is not used to hearing language of this kind. It is particularly galling for German politicians that the European government which has done best in articulating a coherent response to Russia’s aggression is that of the United Kingdom (UK). Seeing Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister and a hate figure in Germany, feted by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, and being thanked effusively by the Finnish and Swedish prime ministers for his help in getting them into NATO, was not something they had reckoned with. 

But it is not only in the field of security policy that Germany is having to deal with new realities. Inflation is at 8% and growth forecasts are down. Every other country in Europe is experiencing the same, but in the past Germany would have been expected to deal with the crisis better than others. Now its performance seems to be merely average. Traditionally its economic success has been the key to Germany’s leadership in the European Union as well as to the regard in which it is held in the wider world. This success can no longer be taken for granted.

German voters seem to have turned against their government. Scholz’s personal popularity ratings are low and his party has done badly in two Lander [provincial] elections in recent months. The heady days of the election victory of September last year are long gone. For all her failings Merkel managed, during most of her 16 years in power, to make Germans feel good about themselves. They don’t any more.

Sir Paul Lever was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Germany (1997-2003) and Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (1994-1996). His most recent book is Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way (I.B. Tauris, 2017).

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