A Revival of Ostpolitik? By Raphael Conte
An analysis of Germany’s Russia policy and the underlying reasoning
In a post-Merkel world, Germany is facing numerous challenges in the foreign policy sphere. Most recently, in the context of the current threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s lacklustre response has been widely criticised, damaging its credibility as a western ally. For instance, in response to the German government’s proposal to supply 5,000 helmets, the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitchko asked: ‘What kind of support will Germany send next? Pillows?’ This outburst encapsulates the wider domestic and international disapproval of Germany’s refusal to export armaments to the Ukraine, further spurred by revelations that Germany had obstructed the shipment of 9 outdated East German howitzers from Estonia to Ukraine. Even in the non-military sphere, Germany has hesitated with the threat of sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion. These sanctions would involve excluding Russia from the SWIFT payment network and suspending the project of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Although it would perhaps be an exaggeration to view Germany’s actions as a reincarnation of Willy Brandt’s conciliatory Ostpolitik of the late 1960s and 1970s, they pose deeper questions regarding Germany’s foreign policy and global role under its new government, whose chancellor, Olaf Scholz, won on a largely domestic policy platform in the September 2021 general elections. However, a recent poll, revealing that 59% of Germans concurred with the government’s ‘restrictive arms exports policy’ suggests that the country is behind him. Consequently, it is useful to pose the following question: Why has the German response to the Ukraine crisis been so muted and non-confrontational?
Firstly, economic reasoning provides a key indication of why Germany refuses to engage in a proactive and aggressive reply to Russia. Primarily, the completed 1,200km, €9.5 billion Nord Stream 2 has been the often cited issue. This is because – as Markus Krebber, chief executive of energy company RWE argues – ‘for years [Germany and Russia] have had a close mutual dependence. [Germany] need[s] Russian natural gas…’. Indeed, Russia currently supplies 40% of Germany’s crude oil and 56% of its natural gas. Additionally, Germany is the leading EU exporter to Russia, with Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre highlighting that ‘Germany…will lose the most through sanctions, unlike the US and the UK, who will lose next to nothing.’
Internal political factors also help to explain Germany’s allegedly insufficient response. In contrast to the long-standing and firm Angela Merkel, new chancellor Scholz and the new government have very much been thrown in at the deep end. As Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs asserts, ‘The government has had no time to orient itself and get a firm footing. Just weeks in office and it’s confronted with this massive security crisis.’ The change of government has also been compounded by the divisions within the ‘traffic light’ coalition. Particularly the Greens, with Annalena Baerbock as Minister for Foreign Affairs, very much favour peace and human rights over economic arguments. However, it can be argued that Scholz’ leadership style is at the heart of Germany’s alleged inadequacy regarding the Ukraine crisis. This is because Merkel has shown in the past that it is possible to reconcile dialogue with a firm response. In 2014, Merkel led the West in the implementation of strict sanctions against Russia, while retaining diplomatic dialogue with Moscow. This comparison has been repeatedly expounded in the recent past with Christoph von Marshall writing in the Tagesspiegel in late January 2022, that ‘[Under Merkel], Berlin was the key focal point of the west’s Russia and Ukraine policy. Compared to that, Scholz looks like a failure.’ Therefore, domestic and leadership dynamics are intrinsic to understanding Germany’s current policy.
Deeper historical explanations should also not be neglected in accounting for Germany’s relative inaction. It is apparent that the 1933-1945 period which included the murder of millions of Soviet POWs and citizens, still continues to shape Germany. For instance, a 2020 poll gleaned that 51% of Germans believe that ‘war is never necessary.’ Such an understanding is also reflected on the political stage by Baerbock’s statement that the current German stance vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis was ‘rooted in…history.’ In a recent visit to Russia, Baerbock stated that ‘nothing can make up for the suffering and destruction that we Germans visited upon the peoples of the Soviet Union.’ Additionally, the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, in permitting German reunification and membership of NATO, provides a potent historical precedent to the value of dialogue.
However, Germany remains a strong NATO ally. As Baerbock asserted in a speech in the Bundestag on 27th January, ‘the territorial integrity of the Ukraine cannot be questioned’. In a sense, Willy Brandt – who remains a model to many Social Democrats – represents the current German position. While peace and dialogue were desired, Brandt remained committed to the EU and NATO. Today, a combination of economic self-interest and historic sentiments shape Germany’s foreign policy, but its resolve to combat Russian adventurism remains.