A Germany Stuck in the Mud
It’s not just reliance on Russian energy that’s keeping Germany from a real change in its stance toward Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared in a speech to the Bundestag on February 27, was a “watershed” moment—a Zeitenwende—for German foreign and defense policy. Scholz’s announcement of a major increase in defense spending and his denunciation of Putin as a “warmonger” marked a change of tack from Germany’s long-standing policy of offering concessions to Russia while letting its own military strength wither. Yet two months on from Scholz’s promise of a shift, Berlin’s policy changes are much less substantial than the German chancellor claims. Germany is still hesitant to prioritize deterrence over dialogue—and strategic interests over economic considerations.
There’s no doubt that German policy has changed course since the Russian invasion began on February 24. Germany is transferring military equipment to Ukraine, though far less than Kyiv would like. It has imposed tough sanctions on the Russian banking system and limits on the export of advanced technologies and machine tools to Russia. It now promises to spend an additional €100 billion on defense over the coming years to meet NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP. Berlin has committed to buy new F-35s, which are nuclear-capable and critical to the continuation of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements.
The most striking part of Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, however, wasn’t the specific promises but his implicit mea culpa about Germany’s Russia policy over the past few decades.
Since the era of Ostpolitik in the 1960s and 1970s, Germany’s leaders have believed that economic integration with Russia would promote peace. Some Germans argued that interdependence would provide a strong economic incentive to Putin to play by the rules of European security. Others hoped that a “modernization partnership” with Russia would build a new Russian middle class that would be oriented toward Europe.
Still others found arguments about interdependence to be useful justifications for their business interests. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is paid by Russian state-owned firms to parrot lines about the importance of economic interdependence. Nord Stream 2 provided jobs in key constituencies of leading Social Democratic Party (SPD) politicians, such as Manuela Schwesig, the prime minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. She returned the favor, setting up a “foundation” funded by Gazprom whose sole purpose was to defend the pipeline.
Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech suggested that interdependence would be replaced by deterrence. “Being naive also means not talking simply for the sake of talking,” he declared, repudiating a long-standing error of Germany diplomacy. “True dialogue requires a willingness to engage—on both sides.” The fact that Scholz leads the SPD—the party of Ostpolitik—made his promise of a sea change in German policy more notable.
In the two months that have passed since this supposed watershed, however, German thinking has changed far less than Scholz’s rhetoric suggested it would. On the energy front, Scholz promised to cut imports of Russian energy—but only far in the future. The idea of punishing Russia by stopping purchases of Russian oil by the end of 2022 and gas by mid-2024 is a non-serious response to a war that may well be won or lost in a matter of months or weeks.
The chancellor argues that an immediate energy embargo would be unsustainable, because it would threaten popular support in the medium term, and because such a move would hurt Germany more than Russia. German President and fellow Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier argues that the question of an energy embargo “is not about reducing the heating at home by two degrees.… It is about whether entire sectors, such as the chemicals industry, are lost.… [These are] key for our economy and millions of jobs.”
It’s true that imposing an energy embargo is no simple task. But rather than tackling the issue, Scholz has instead attacked economists who have credibly estimated that the cost is manageable. Compare this to the stance of Italy’s Mario Draghi, whose country is just as reliant on Russian gas as Germany, but who has come forward with new creative proposals like capping the price Europe pays for Russian gas imports to reduce financial flows to Moscow. Draghi has argued, correctly, that a long stalemate or a Russian victory in Ukraine would be more costly than any energy embargo. Scholz can’t seem to see beyond next month’s gas bill.
The credibility of Scholz’s argument is not enhanced when he—along with his ambassador to the United States, Emily Haber—continues to claim disingenuously that Russia doesn’t depend on its energy export revenue. Scholz has falsely stated that Russia “can’t use” the euros Germany is sending it. The reality is that oil and gas sales are the only thing keeping Russia afloat.
Why is Berlin stuck in a reactive mode, focused on shooting down its allies’ ideas to increase the pressure on Putin rather than putting forward any of its own? The cost of unwinding Berlin’s decades-long strategy of energy interdependence with Russia is part of the problem. But the deeper issue is that Germany fears Russia’s reaction to a tougher policy. Ambassador Haber argues that “the effect of an import ban on Putin’s war would not be clear,” implying Russia might become more aggressive. A similar fear is visible when it comes to arming Ukraine. Germany has moved past its much-mocked policy of sending nothing but helmets. Yet the heavy weapons Ukraine needs remain off limits.
But what exactly does Berlin fear? Russia is already assaulting a country that borders four EU member states. Neither sending heavy weapons nor an energy embargo would make Germany or NATO a party to the conflict—and anyway, many of Berlin’s NATO allies are taking these steps already. If Russia decides to use chemical or nuclear weapons against Ukraine, it will have no difficulty inventing an excuse. Germany’s fear of escalation leaves many of the country’s friends wondering whether Scholz’s policy preference is not for a Ukrainian victory but rather for a stalemate that gives Putin ample room to save face.
Berlin’s foreign policy thinking—and its preference for appeasing Russia with face-saving solutions rather than pushing back against it—has not fundamentally changed, despite Scholz’s declaration of a Zeitenwende. The best illustration of this is that Scholz’s own party can’t admit its past policy errors toward Russia. Steinmeier, who twice served as foreign minister and as chief of staff for Chancellor Schröder, has played as big a role as anyone in shaping Germany’s Russia policy over the past two decades. Yet he’s only offered a half-baked admission of his errors to the media, and only then after being attacked by the Ukrainian ambassador for them. Instead of admitting that pet policies like Nord Stream 2 were wrong from the start, he tried to deflect responsibility. Steinmeier insists that he wasn’t alone in misjudging Putin. However, Germany’s allies have been warning for over a decade that Berlin’s Russia policy was fundamentally naive.
When Ukraine declined to host Steinmeier in a visit to Kyiv, Scholz labeled the decision “irritating.” But Germany’s government can’t seem to grasp that its allies—to say nothing of Ukrainians—are irritated with it. The problem isn’t the “free riding” claimed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, but that, even after two months of war, German leaders can’t grasp why their response to the Russian threat is inadequate. Scholz keeps pointing out that Germany has provided substantial financial support to Ukraine in recent years. This is true, but this line of defense underscores the problem in German thinking. What Ukraine most urgently needs isn’t money, but guns for its military and pressure on Russia to help Kyiv win the war.
Scholz is probably sincere in his belief that he’s transformed German defense policy. His approach to Russia, however, continues to be guided by economic considerations and fear, and focused on conciliating rather than confronting the Kremlin.
Joseph de Weck is a fellow in the European Security Initiative of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of Emmanuel Macron: Der revolutionäre Präsident (2021).
Chris Miller is assistant professor of international history at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, and a Jeane Kirkpatrick Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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