Editor’s Note: Rafael Loss (@_RafaelLoss) is an expert on European security and defense policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He is based in Berlin. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The first hundred days are proving to be particularly unforgiving for Germany’s first government of the post-Merkel era.
Since assuming office December 8, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his cabinet have had to confront an unprecedented Russian troop buildup along the border of Ukraine and the prospect of major war in Europe. To date, their performance does not inspire confidence about Germany’s ability to lead in this moment of crisis.
Roughly half of Germany’s natural gas imports come from Russia. That reliance will become increasingly important in coming years as Germany embarks on a simultaneous phaseout from coal and nuclear energy. Russia is also an important destination for German exports. And for historical reasons, German leaders have long desired close relations with Russia.
Slowly but surely, Germany has maneuvered itself into a position of vulnerability vis-à-vis the Kremlin.
Germany’s complicated relationship with Russia is unique among its European neighbors. Germany’s first Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor, Willy Brandt, pursued détente with the Soviet Union from 1969. Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” – the normalization of relations between West Germany and Eastern Europe – paved the way for the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, which recognized the national borders of post-war Europe.
This was an important goal for Soviet leaders anxious about shoring up their Eastern European satellites. But it also gave dissidents and civil rights activists in the Soviet empire a manifesto for liberal reform.
But Russia in 2022 – as has become abundantly clear from its demands for a wholesale revision of the European security order it put in front of the United States and NATO in December – is a very different beast to the Soviet Union of the late Cold War, which sought political consolidation and hard cash. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is also not interested in joining the political West, as it appeared to be during the 1990s.
Instead, the Russian President detests America’s continued presence in Europe as epitomized by the NATO alliance. He sees the European Union as weak and divided and liberal democracy as doomed to fail.
Putin first led the charge against the United States’ global hegemony at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. In 2014, only months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin gave a speech at the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi. The theme of the conference on international politics was: “New Rules or a Game without Rules?”
The specter of renewed aggression against Ukraine is supposed to force an answer now. And it calls into question Germany’s Russia policy of the past two decades.
German governments since 2000 – led by Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who has close personal and business ties to Russia, and then by Christian Democrat Angela Merkel – sought to deepen relations for mutual benefit, prosperity and stability. Putin, meanwhile. identified and cultivated pressure points to weaponize these interdependencies.
The Russian President also skillfully manipulates German guilt. He benefits from the fact that many Germans associate the atrocities Nazi Germany committed against Eastern Europeans largely with Russia. Although they suffered proportionately more deaths and greater destruction, Poles, Belarussians, and Ukrainians in turn receive little empathy. Largely ignored by Germans is the price Eastern Europeans paid for German-Soviet collaboration during World War II and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe from 1945.
Germany is thus both most vulnerable to Russian blackmail and most willing to see Putin as deserving respect and understanding. He is sometimes seen as both a powerful leader and a victim of circumstances backed into a corner by unrelenting Western pressure.
This is not a majority view in German government or policy elites. But occasionally, important people, such as Germany’s navy chief, express such sympathies for Putin (and the chief was forced to resign shortly afterward). It underlines why principled leadership is so important, and the lack of German leadership is so damaging, for Western efforts to dissuade Moscow from renewed aggression against Ukraine.
Still, after assuming office in December, Scholz reiterated his claim that the German-Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 was a purely “private-sector project” and that it should not be mixed up with political or geopolitical questions. Germany’s new defense minister and the SPD general secretary backed Scholz, as did other political leaders who consider energy relations as an important channel for dialogue with Moscow.
It took weeks of consultations with NATO and EU allies for the Chancellor to consider the pipeline as part of a deterrent sanctions package. It seemed as though Scholz needed to be dragged to this realization, which his coalition partners, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party, already shared with allies in Washington, Paris and Warsaw all along.
Berlin is treading water on materiel support for Ukraine as well. When Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Greens visited Kyiv in January, she offered a hydrogen partnership and German support for beefing up Ukraine’s cyber defenses. In recent days, Germany announced it would sponsor a field hospital and send 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine – about as useful as sending “pillows,” quipped Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, who is well known in Germany from his days as a heavyweight boxing champion.
But arms transfers remain off the table. Baerbock explained this restrictive stance in reference to Germany’s wartime history. Another foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, also from the Greens, defended the country’s participation in NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 with an impassioned reference to German history, too: The atrocities committed by Nazi Germany obligated Germans to stand up to aggression.
Arms transfers alone do not amount to a strategy to deal with the revisionist great power at Europe’s doorstep. Unfortunately, nothing indicates that Germany is prepared to formulate and implement a long-term competitive strategy that accounts for Russia’s desire to coerce Ukraine and other post-Soviet states into abandoning their Western aspirations.
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The United States is focusing its attention on a rising China that is putting increasing pressure on the regional security order in the Indo-Pacific. France, although engulfed in a presidential election campaign, is proposing building blocks for what could evolve into a European strategy on Russia. Allies in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere long for recognition of their evidently justified security concerns.
Germany must step up. If it does not, a picture suggesting British military airplanes avoided German airspace en route to Ukraine might come to symbolize Germany’s role in this crisis, and the rerouting of European security relations around Europe’s center.