By: Alexandre Almeida
Years of debates over the apparent weakness or “brain death” of NATO have faded into smoke as its purpose has become extremely clear for the first time since the intervention in Yugoslavia or even since the end of USSR. In what may be understood as an irony of historical caliber, Vladimir Putin’s Russian offensive was able to unify not only Ukrainians around their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, but also the European Union, NATO, Japan and Taiwan, among others, as the list of heavy sanctions unfolded. Instead of letting the bear stew in yet another human sacrifice and perhaps asking nicely not to be next, the West has made efforts in order to isolate Russia from the international community and pressure her to abandon its policy of territorial expansion.
Perhaps the most significant change in behavior will be that of Olaf Scholz’s German government. Three days after the invasion, the social democrat Chanceler had announced before the Bundestag, an investment of 100 billion of euros in its military forces, whilst committing to go beyond the minimum of 2% of the national GDP for defense. Twos days prior the invasion, the German government had put the brakes on the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline that would extend for 1,234 km, as a reaction to the self-proclaimed “popular republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Besides that, the law that required every adult German male to choose between a year of military or community service, abolished in 2011, may be back on the table.
Scholz’s speech symbolized a seismic change in German foreign policy towards Russia, after two decades dominated by the principle “Wandel durch Handel” (change thru trade). Their main power lines no longer have any connection with reality, if ever. According to Sofia Becsh, these lines were the following: the idea of Germany as a mediator between East and West, the premise that, to have a lasting security order in Europe, Russia was not an opponent to be taken down, but an agent to be integrated and, above all, that peace would be assured thru economical interdependence. In that way, it is intended to analyze the reasons behind this failure and try to understand which way to go in the future. In the words of the foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, three days after the beginning of the invasion: “ if our world is a different one, then our policy must also be different”.
BERLIN BETWEEN TRAUMA AND NOSTALGIA:
How did we end up here? Looking back to the contemporary history of Germany, it is possible to identify two major historical periods that define its foreign policy, one for its harmful effects and the other for its apparent successes. It is clear that the first one, as pointed out by Gustav Gressel, senior member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is the trauma associated with Nazism, being the main motive behind the special relation with Russia. Even with the growing concentration of Russian forces in the Ukrainian border, in February this year, both Baerbock and the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, defended their inaction in the face of arms shipments to Ukraine and Nord Stream 2, respectively, by resorting to the collective guilt associated with the Second World War’s past. The other reason, Gressel writes in an e-mail sent to Deutsche Welle, is about the empathy felt towards the feelings nourished by Russia related to the post-Cold War international order, drawing a parallel between the German reaction to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
Here, there is a pretext for possible revanchism. In 2001, after the wars fought in Chechnya, Putin was receiving a standing ovation in the Bundestag, by stating (in German) that the Cold War had come to an end, that “today we should renounce our stereotypes and ambitions and from now on we will work together for the security of Europe and the world as a whole”. Four years after, Putin described the USSR collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. The real change of rhetoric came in 2007, at the Munich Security Conference. Here, the Russian president openly questioned the North American predominance in international politics, NATO’s “expansion” towards the East and the project for an anti-missile defense system in Europe sponsored by the Atlantic Alliance. After a year, Russian tanks burst through Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia continue to this day under Russian occupation, being recognized by most of the international community as integral parts of the Georgian State.
In that way, we understand that the historical trauma can play a crucial role in the direction taken by a country. The possible attachment for something that has proven successful in the past is equally important. Therefore, we can speak about a (Neue) Ostpolitik, which marked the mandate of Social Democrat Willy Brandt from 1969 to 1974. Its successes include the end of the so-called Hallstein Doctrine, which denied any diplomatic relations between West Germany and any country recognizing East Germany, and also the recognition of German borders with Poland (the Oder-Neisse line), culminating the latter with the visit of the then Chancellor Willy Brandt to the Polish capital in 1970. The fact that he kneeled before the memorial of the resistance towards the Warsaw Ghetto served as an illustration of the new Germany, aware of its past and open to cooperate with its neighbors. This approach to the Eastern bloc led to a thaw of relations, however, in Anders Ulmand’s perspective, a Stockholm Centre of Eastern European Studies analyst, it did not prevent Soviet offensives in other corners of the globe, such as the ten-year war in Afghanistan1. Brandt’s exit from the scene was marred by the scandal, with one of his aides, Gunter Guillaume, being revealed as an undercover Stasi agent.
THE ROLE OF INTERDEPENDENCE
With Ostpolitik it was intended to create a situation of positive interdependence, in other words, it would be in the interests of the Soviet Union to avoid military escalation on the European continent, as this would impair the narrowing of trade and energy flows with Western Europe. We then move from the concept of dependence, defined by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye as a situation determined by external forces, to the concept of interdependence, which means a situation of mutual dependence. For Stefan Meister, leader of the International Order and Democracy program of the German Council on Foreign Relations, this mentality continued after the Soviet collapse, believing that “change through trade” would automatically lead to an approximation of Russia to the Western model. That is, Germany intended a positive2-sum situation.Everyone would benefit with this plan, right? Even though Meister points out this mentality because of the Western triumphalism that was felt in the immediate post-Cold War period, there is a logic behind it. As Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, points out, the European Union itself is a clear example of how it is possible to conciliate the interests of countries long condemned by History to battle each other through trade connections.
But Haass himself points out a glaring flaw in that reasoning. What happens when the desire for closeness is not reciprocal, or the mutual dependence is not balanced? In the Russian-German case, the approximation failed because “the Germans need Russian gas much more than Russia needs exports”. Returning to Meister’s position. Moscow interpreted interdependence not as a benefit, but as a weakness to be fixed. Therefore, Putin’s Russia adopted a neo-realist posture, according to which the liberalization of the economy and, eventually, of government institutions constitute a potential internal threat to the regime3. The occupation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the promotion of separatist movements in Ukrainian regions with a Russian-speaking majority, such as Donetsk and Luhansk, made it clear that, if Russia considered it necessary to protect its interests and despite the economic benefits of approaching to the European Union, would not hesitate to take hostile actions or even invade its neighbors, EU member states or not. To date, while the war against Ukraine continues, it would be useless to restate the obvious.
GAS PIPELINES, DEPENDENNCE AND STRATEGIC CORRUPTION
How dependent is Germany on Russian imports? According to Reuters data, dated December 2021, 32% of the gas consumed came from Russia. About 34% of German crude is Russian. 53% of the coal used in energy and steel production is Russian. In countries such as North Macedonia, Finland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova and Latvia, the situation is more dramatic: 90 to 100% of the natural gas consumed comes from Russia, according to ACER4 data from 2020.
On 31 December last year, the German government opted to start a process of deactivation of nuclear power stations in the regions of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and Bavaria, a process that will extended for 20 years and will imply an investment of around three billion euros, one for each station. Despite the increase in energy costs already felt months before the war in Ukraine and the positive view of nuclear energy both in neighboring countries such as France and in the German public opinion, a turnaround seems to be out of the plan. In the opinion of Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, keeping nuclear plants operational would not help Germany in “this foreign policy situation”.
It’s time to recognize the elephant in the room. What is the “foreign policy situation” that Habeck speaks of? The war in Ukraine, yes, but within that topic lies a crucial aspect of relations between Berlin and Moscow. It is spoken, of course, of Russia’s threat to cut off the supply of natural gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. In other words, the prophecy of all the critics of these projects, defended as purely economic, but revealed as a geopolitical weapon in Putin’s arsenal. Although still in operation, Deputy Prime Minister and former Energy Minister Alexander Novak proclaimed that Russia would be within its rights to take actions that “mirror” the effect of sanctions imposed on its economy.
Nord Stream 1 extends for 1224 km, starting from the Russian city of Vyborg and crossing the Baltic Sea to Lubmin, in northeastern Germany. Costing approximately €7.3 billion, the pipeline can transport around 27.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year. The recently canceled Nord Stream 2 project would double up that capacity. The consortium responsible for the pipeline, Nord Stream AG, is based in Switzerland and managed by Matthias Warnig. As well as a longtime confidant of Putin, Warnig is a former Stasi agent. The first section of the line was opened in November 2011 and the second in October of the following year. The approval of the first pipeline had been a political project of the then Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, accomplished in 2005, shortly before granting the post to Angela Merkel after the federal elections that year. Immediately after his withdrawal from the scene, Schröder was appointed chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG, which is entirely managed by the Russian state-owned company Gazprom. In 2017, the former chancellor also accumulated the position of chairman of the council of directors of the oil company Rosneft.
Pause for a second and see what is at stake here. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Russia has been trying to reduce Kyiv’s importance in transporting natural gas to Europe. Russian elites have found in Berlin a desire to correct past traumas and collaborate through trade, as well as a possibility for themselves to move Berlin closer into their sphere of influence by making Europe’s largest economy energetically dependent on them. Not only do they see Nord Stream 1 and 2 approved, but they manage to recruit Germany’s former chancellor to top positions in the two largest state-owned energy companies. And this is not at all ungrateful, being one of Vladimir Putin’s biggest apologists. In 2014, he justified the occupation of Ukrainian territories as a response to the Russian president’s “fears of being surrounded” and compared it to Nato’s 1999 intervention in Serbia. Other examples include defending Russian intervention in Ukraine’s elections and refusing to place any blame for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny on Putin’s regime.
At the same time, Schröder appeared to have a personal and long-lasting friendship with the Russian leader, even describing him as a “flawless democrat”. His condemnation of the February invasion, posted on LinkedIn, while identifying Russia as the aggressor, did not fail to highlight the “various mistakes – on both sides”. As reported on the Politico website, on March 10, Schröder is in Moscow, trying to mediate a peace project with Putin. The former chancellor’s relationship with the Russian regime has generated a new expression – “Schröderisation” – which can be interpreted as the corruption of another country’s political elite. That is, in Putin’s employment of former European leaders in prestigious positions in Russian state-owned companies. Other examples include François Fillon, former French presidential candidate and now a member of the board of directors of SIBUR, Wolfgang Schüssel and Christian Kern, former Austrian chancellors respectively in top positions at RZD and Lukoil, Matteo Renzi, former prime minister of Italy at Delimobil and Esko Aho, former prime minister of Finland at Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. Of these, at the time of this article, only Fillon remains in office, with the rest resigning in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
RESTARTING FROM SCRATCH: CONCLUDING REMARKS
It is safe to say that the recent change of tone from Berlin was not in Olaf Scholz’s plans. Noah Barkin, in his article for The Atlantic, recalls that the social democratic campaign was based on a project of continuity with Merkel’s mandates, with allusions to the legacy of Ostpolitik left by the SPD. However, politics or even life in general has its way of forcing someone to drop their preconceptions and go back to square one. Germany, in Barkin’s words, can no longer play the role of “a great Switzerland” today as the page of the post-Cold War international order is turned.
This new position comes at a good time for the Biden administration, which considers Germany essential to its network of alliances in Europe, as well as France, which would finally be freed from bearing the entire burden of defending the continent on its shoulders. Timothy Ogden, in New Europe in 2020, wrote that a European army was impossible because the German armed forces were “chronically underfunded” and had several logistical and tactical shortcomings. This neglect of defence by Germany was described by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, defence minister during the Merkel era, as a “historic failure”.
Assuming that the invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of a new era in international relations, it is urgent to abandon some historical essentialisms, such as the notion that a militarised Germany represents for Europe. Today, Berlin is a cornerstone of the European Union and an integral member of NATO, as is much of Eastern Europe. It is true that relations between Germany and these countries have room for improvement, but, as highlighted in the article by Sudha David-Wilp and Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff in Foreign Affairs, this will involve sending forces to Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania. That is, a Germany more focused on honouring its responsibilities to the defensive alliance it is part of is looked upon favourably by the other members.
Maybe it will be too soon to draw lines of force for the German government in the future, however, in their article for the War on the Rocks website, quoted at the beginning, Sophia Besch and Sarah Brockmeier present their visions, highlighting four major tasks to be fulfilled: ensuring the support of public opinion; openly contributing to grand strategy projects both within NATO and the EU; carrying out a deepened reform in the state bureaucracy and, finally, creating a National Security Council so that national security policy is able to respond to the complex problems to come.
The former “land of blood”5, which used to be caught between Hitler and Stalin, now only recognises one aggressor: Vladimir Putin. Critics of previous German foreign policy have for years warned against what now seems redundant: the Russian regime has a vision of its interests that is completely antagonistic with the notion of positive interdependence championed by Schröder, Merkel and Scholz. In the words of Kristi Raik, director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the Tallinn International Centre for Defence and Security, “it is not only idealistic, but dangerous to argue otherwise”.
ARTICLES AND CITED PUBLICATIONS :
Besch, S. & Brockmeier, S. (2022). Waking a Sleeping Giant: What’s Next for German Security Policy? War on the Rocks.
Meister, S. (2019). From Ostpolitik to EU-Russia Interdependence: Germany’s Perspective, in Raik, K. & Rácz, A. (org.). Post-Crimea Shift in EU-Russia Relations: From Fostering Interdependence to Managing Vulnerabilities. International Centre for Defence and Security, 25-45.
Umland, A. (2022). Germany’s Russia Policy in Light of the Ukraine Conflict: Interdependence Theory and Ostpolitik. Orbis, 66(1), 78-94.
de Haldevang, M. (2018). Putin’s relationship with Germany’s ex-leader has created a new word for corruption. Quartz.
Ogden, T. (2020). Why the Armed Forces of Europe isn’t possible. New Europe.
Barkin, N. (2022). Europe’s Sleeping Giant Awakens. The Atlantic.
Raik, K. (2021). New World Order: Germany’s Dangerous Idealism vis-à-vis Russia. Internationale Politik Quarterly.
Sudha, D-W. & Kleine-Brockhoff, T. (2022). A New Germany: How Putin’s Aggression Is Changing Berlin. Foreign Affairs.
2 Meister, 2019