16 November 2023
Germany’s Troubled SoulFollowing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany is abandoning its intimate relationship with Russia. But when peace eventually returns, Germany may find it difficult to resist returning to its embrace
Germany/Russia geopolitical embraceReading Germany’s turbulent history is quite simply exhausting for an Australian like me. Even celebrated historian Fritz Stern wrote of the “Five Germanys I Have Known”, meaning Weimar, the Third Reich, postwar West and East Germany, and the unified country after the end of the Cold War. Over the same period, Australia has lived peacefully under one single democratic Constitution, which has changed little.
But as historian John Lough has written, rather than being a period of celebration, the post-Cold War period has been dominated by “Germany’s Russia problem”, and the struggle for balance in Europe. Germany’s political leadership turned a blind eye to Russia’s authoritarian turn, its kleptocracy, crackdown on business, human rights abuses, and interference in other countries.
Germany was remarkably low-key in its reactions to the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17, Russian cyber attacks on Bundestag (the German federal parliament), and the assassination of Russians on foreign soil. There is a feeling that Russia should not be pushed into a corner, out of fear that it could lead to conflict. Chancellor Merkel even obeyed Russia’s veto on Ukraine’s possible membership of NATO.
And some former German politicians have become agents of influence for President Putin’s regime. For example, since leaving public office, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has worked for Russian state-owned energy companies, including Nord Stream AG, Rosneft, and Gazprom.
Going soft on RussiaGermany was not the only Western country to go soft on Russia. The City of London (“Londongrad”) is well known for laundering the ill-gotten gains of Russia’s oligarchs and offering them easy access to British passports and high society. But Germany is remarkable for its acceptance of Russia’s egregious behaviour.
After Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, Western countries applied strong sanctions against Russia. However, Germany was always concerned that such sanctions would be tolerable for Russia.
And these sanctions did not stop Germany from signing up to Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany running through the Baltic Sea, financed by Gazprom and several European energy companies. Donald Trump was quite rightly outraged by Germany’s commitment to Nord Stream 2, arguing that “Germany is a captive of Russia”. This pipeline has since exploded during the Ukraine war.
And while Germany became increasingly dependent on Russia for its energy supplies (something which only worsened following the decision to phase out nuclear power), it has also become ever more dependent on an increasingly authoritarian China for its exports and the potentially erratic US for its national security.
What drove Germany’s appeasement of Russia?How could Germany, a country with such deep knowledge and experience of Russia, and which understands its importance for European security, make such basic errors in its Russian strategy?
Germans feel a deep sympathy for Russians and believe they know Russians better than other countries. Germany and Russia have lived at relatively close quarters for a number of centuries, developing cultural, business, and political linkages. In addition, many German communities actually moved to Russia.
This has fostered Germans’ deep emotional connection with Russia. Cultural elites rejoice at perceived parallels between the German and Russian soul through – Goethe and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
History intertwinedAgainst this historical background, the Soviet Union was deeply shocked by Hitler’s invasion of their country. Although the Soviets played a leading role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, they suffered many more casualties, losing around 27 million people during the war, with the most military deaths of any nation by a large margin.
Germany’s Post-World War II GuiltSo Russians know well how to play on Germany’s postwar guilt feelings. In a sign that great powers tend to take each other more seriously than they do smaller countries, Germans do not feel the same sense of guilt and responsibility toward Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics, which suffered more at the hands of the Nazis than did the Russians.
At the same time, many Germans feel immense gratitude to Russia for the unification of East and West Germany. This event, almost “out of the blue”, was a dream come true for many Germans, even if the reality was not always a dream.
Germany’s Hope for Political RapprochementAlso, as a holdover from Cold War Ostpolitik (“eastern policy”) begun in the late 1960s, Germans believed that trade and investment in Russia would encourage Russia to move in the direction of openness and liberal democracy.
The German business sector was keen to exploit the natural complementarities – German technology and Russian resources – that have driven the economic and business relationship for centuries. German business saw the natural gas relationship as one of mutual dependence – Germany needed the gas, and Russia needed the German gas market.
Unfortunately, during the post-Cold War period, the German establishment ignored multiple warnings about Russia’s bad behaviour from its Central and Eastern European neighbours, which had been former Soviet satellites.
Responding to Russia’s invasion of UkraineRussia’s invasion of Ukraine was more of a shock for Germany than for most countries. The invasion completely upended all the assumptions of Germany’s post-Cold War strategy for relations with Russia.
Germany then provoked international outrage in the leadup to the invasion with its clumsy offer of 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine to help it defend itself against a possible Russian invasion
Increased German Assistance to UkraineGermany has since stepped up assistance to Ukraine, notably by offering military equipment and accepting refugees. And now Germany is matching the US in its provision of military assistance, something which is very welcome in light of political chaos in Washington and its threat of reducing assistance to Ukraine. But Germany is still not doing enough to help Ukraine win the war.
One remarkable adjustment is that Germany no longer imports energy directly from Russia. It previously imported around half of its gas from Russia and more than a third of its oil.
Missing German LeadershipAt the same time, the forlorn figure of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems unable to provide Germany and Europe the leadership they require at this juncture. Scholz and his Social Democratic Party do not seem to appreciate that the world has moved to a new phase where hard military power is increasingly necessary to ensure peace. Scholz’s refusal to say Ukraine should win the war against Russia – or even that Russia should lose – is indicative of his weak-kneed leadership.
Scholz has announced that Germany plans to double military spending from 1 to 2 percent of GDP. This will make Germany’s military spending the biggest spender in Europe and the third biggest in the world. But it will take a long time to lift the capability of its depleted military. And while Germany’s inaugural National Security Strategy is promising, it also falls short in some areas.
ConclusionGermany’s post-Cold War policy toward Russia was overly optimistic and misguided. It was based on wishful thinking and a policy of denial. Just because Russia was no longer communist didn’t mean that it was no longer a threat. Germany ended up strengthening authoritarian tendencies in Russia, which ran counter to German and Western interests.
The dramatic change in Germany’s Russia policy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is welcome and long overdue. But what will be the shape of Germany’s Russian policy after the end of the Ukraine war? Europe and the West more generally need a Germany that adopts a hard-nosed, realist posture vis-a-vis Russia. Germany’s “special relationship” must be with the West, not Russia.
The great fear, of course, is that Germany will have difficulty stepping out of the shadow of its own history and that many of Germany’s traditional pro-Russian instincts will remain.
This article by John West was first published by EconCurrents on November 5, 2023.