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What drives German policy on Russia?

Olaf Scholz, the new Chancellor of Germany, was in Washington, DC this week. It was not an easy visit. Those he undertakes next week to Moscow and Kyiv will be no easier. Germany’s policy towards Russia is coming under increasing international scrutiny. Even in his own country, he is portrayed as the ‘invisible[↗]’ chancellor and as failing the first foreign policy test of his term of office.

His critics accuse him partly of a failure of leadership: a reluctance to speak out publicly about the massing of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border or to get involved in international efforts to support Ukraine’s position; and partly of a general disposition to be over-sensitive to Russia’s security concerns. 

There is substance to the charges. Germany has refused to provide military equipment to Ukraine and has even vetoed[↗] the supply by Estonia of artillery from the former German Democratic Republic which Germany had sold on in the 1990s. Instead, the German Government made a much-derided[↗] offer of 5,000 helmets. And Germany has been unwilling to use the Nordstream II gas pipeline, which is about to come on stream, as a lever for demanding a pull-back of Russian forces from Ukraine’s borders. 

In an interview[↗] on 6th February 2022 with ARD, the main German public broadcasting channel, Scholz defended himself against the criticism, arguing that not supplying lethal weapons to conflict zones was a long-standing German policy; that he was in regular touch with Germany’s allies, particularly Emmanuel Macron, President of France; and that Germany’s priority was to achieve a coordinated western approach rather than to take initiatives of its own. But he seemed unable to communicate with any clarity what that approach should be.

The accusation that Germany is somehow too soft on Russia is not new. During the Cold War the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) had a policy, the so-called Harmel doctrine, of defence and détente and Germany was firmly associated with the détente aspect of it. From Willy Brandt onwards German chancellors and foreign ministers were assiduous in exploring diplomatic contacts with the Soviet Union and its satellites.

There were objective reasons for this. In any war in Europe, particularly if it involved nuclear weapons, German territory would be the first to be devastated. Germany was in addition a divided country and any improvement in East-West relations meant some alleviation of the conditions under which those in the German Democratic Republic were forced to live. It was natural therefore that Germany’s leaders tended to take an optimistic, perhaps occasionally over-optimistic, view of the prospects for political engagement. These pressures no longer exist. Germany is not a front line state anymore. But the habit of looking first to diplomatic solutions is deeply engrained in German foreign policy thinking. 

So too is an aversion to militarism. Defeat in the Second World War still casts a long shadow and though the Bundeswehr is popular and respected there is no tradition in Germany of celebrating military traditions or exploits. This easily translates into an assumption that war is always wrong and that Germany should never do anything to facilitate it: hence the restrictive policy on arms sales (though in recent years Germany, now one of the world’s top five arms exporters, has sold substantial amounts[↗] of weaponry to the Middle East).

But these factors have not in the past, under both Christian Democrat- and Social Democrat-led administrations, prevented German governments from taking tough, and sometimes domestically controversial, decisions affecting Russia. Germany has always been a dependable NATO ally and has accepted the logic of NATO’s policies. Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s support for the stationing of Pershing II missiles on German territory in the 1980s showed real political courage. So too did the decision of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government in 1999 to authorise the participation of German forces in the NATO operations in Kosovo and later in Afghanistan. 

It is sometimes claimed that guilt over the Second World War is a factor in Germany’s attitude towards Russia. This did not, however, prevent Germany from actively espousing the cause of NATO or European Union (EU) enlargement nor logically should it cause Germany to give priority to Russian interests over those of Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic states, where in Lithuania Germany leads the NATO battle group as part of the Enhaced Forward Presence.

Mercantile considerations do, however, play a role. German exports[↗] to Russia in 2020 amounted to US$26.3 billion. More importantly, Russia provides 16% of Germany’s gas imports[↗] and gas accounts for over 15% of Germany’s electricity. The original purpose of the Nordstream pipelines under the Baltic Sea was to ensure that neither Ukraine nor Poland could use gas supplies from Russia for purposes of political leverage. 

Officially the German Government claims that Nordstream II is a private-sector venture and has been reluctant to include it in discussions about sanctions on Russia. At their joint press conference in Washington this week Joe Biden, President of the United States (US), said in terms[↗] that if Russia took further military action against Ukraine, no gas would flow through the Nordstream pipeline. Scholz conspicuously failed to agree.

Schroeder, Scholz’s predecessor as Social Democrat chancellor, has become a figure of embarrassment in Germany as a result of his involvement in Nordstream II. He is chairman of its board as well as a board member of Gazprom and a consistent defender of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, whom he has described as a ‘lupenreiner Demokrat’ (a flawless democrat). Scholz sometimes reminds journalists that he, not Schroder, is now chancellor. But some of the mud sticks.

Unlike his predecessor, Angel Merkel, Scholz does not dominate his government. He is not the chairman of his party, many of whose leading figures are more left-wing, and more sympathetic to Russia, than he is. He also heads a three-party coalition. His political style is cautious and risk-averse and he is not a natural communicator. He has been slow to show in relation to Russia and Ukraine the sort of leadership that Germany’s partners have been used to.

Artis Pabriks, the Latvian Minister of Defence, has called[↗] Germany’s policy towards Russia (and the People’s Republic of China) ‘immoral’ and ‘hypocritical’. Estonian and Lithuanian politicians have spoken in similar terms. Germany is not used to criticism of this kind. Nor does the relationship with France appear to be flourishing: Macron went to Moscow this week on his own, unaccompanied by his German colleague.

German ambivalence about how to deal with Russia has created an opportunity for the United Kingdom (UK). With France focused on diplomacy and Germany uncharacteristically absent, Britain has become, along with the US, the principal provider of military assistance and advice to Ukraine; and the primary advocate of the need for containment as well as diplomacy in dealing with Russia. This has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Europe.

The fact that the Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft delivering this assistance fly via Denmark and Poland, avoiding German airspace, has a symbolic impact. So too does the creation of a trilateral security partnership between the UK, Poland and Ukraine. This crisis is one where the EU plays virtually no role and where the ‘Normandy’ format of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia seems to have reached the end of the road.

Whether we like it or not, cold war is back in Europe. During the last one the UK was a skilful, respected and influential actor. It provided an element of sober realism, alongside Germany’s enthusiasm for political engagement and France’s occasional maverick tendencies. Maybe this is how the roles will once again play out.

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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