A Noxious Mix: Germany, Gas and Russia
Germany’s strategic dependence on Russia is a mess of its own making.
Karl Marx was right: Being determines consciousness. His sidekick Friedrich Engels elaborated in 1883: Material imperatives like profit, possession, and production explain the “character of the state, the arts and even religion.” High-sounding ideals merely embellish hard-core interest.
It is worth re-reading Marx’s Critique of Political Economy when looking at that odd couple Germany and Russia in our own days. Over there is Vladimir Putin. On an expansionist roll, his troops are massing on Ukraine’s borders—ready to pounce. He has not even tried to conceal his larger ambitions. He wants to cow or partition Ukraine and acquire a certified sphere of influence running roughly from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea.
Over here is Germany, the mightiest player on the Continent, practicing the art of conciliation even as threats multiply. No, we won’t arm Ukraine, but we will deliver five thousand helmets. Nor do we want to inflict truly painful sanctions on Russia, which will damage our own economy to no end. And we certainly don’t want to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. That is a “privately managed commercial project,” avers Chancellor Olaf Scholz, hence not a matter of state interest.
This adds obfuscation to obliviousness, while Mr. Putin seeks to redraw Europe’s borders and restore the old Soviet empire de facto. The balance of power is tilting against the West, which will hardly still the Kremlin’s appetite. Yet Germany is playing Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?” What could possibly explain such puzzling indifference?
Of course Berlin worries, but in Marxian, not strategic terms. The message is in the numbers. In 2020 Germany got 55 percent of its gas from Russia—and 45 percent of its oil. A kilowatt hour for industry in Germany fetches eighteen euro cents (20 U.S.), 50 percent more than the 2021 EU average. German household charges are roughly three times as high as in most U.S. states. But that was before this icy winter descended on Europe.
In 1939, when Poland was facing the invasion of the Wehrmacht, an ill-famed line ran, “Who wants to die for Danzig?” Today, make that (in German), “Who wants to shiver for Kyiv?” Or let Germany’s industrial engine grind to a halt? At 23 percent of GDP, energy-intensive manufacturing is twice the U.S. share.
This is not just about goose bumps, but fifty years of shortsighted, indeed, blinkered policy toward the Soviet Union, then Russia. The tale comes in three parts. Part one goes back to 1970. Back then, West Germany concluded the first of its five cash-for-gas deals with the USSR: We’ll finance the pipelines, you push through the gas.
It looked like a splendid coup: energy security plus warming relations during the Cold War, where Germany was on the front line, facing four hundred thousand Soviet troops across the Elbe River. All the way to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Washington kept warning Bonn, This is a devil’s bargain. You are trading deutschmarks for dependence on Moscow’s benevolence. To no avail.
This story continued into the 21st century, but by then more and more gas from Russia came with ever increasing strategic price. Nord Stream 1 was built, and No. 2 is almost ready—with a total capacity of almost four trillion cubic feet per year. This time, both ducts don’t run through Eastern Europe, but around it—straight from Russia into Germany. Berlin’s calculus was obvious: We won’t be stuck with those pesky Ukrainians and Poles who might interrupt the flow. And never mind European solidarity. It was “Germany first,” to coin a phrase. Let Kyiv go without the transit fees, but thanks to Nord Stream, we will enjoy an abundance of cheap energy.
Now, part two—about the best-laid plans of mice and men. In the recent past, as Mr. Putin has been filling out his hegemonic designs, he is doing precisely what harmony and understanding forbid. Fiddling with the tap, he is deploying gas as a strategic weapon, and why fret about those credulous Germans? They had been hooked. Paying skyrocketing prices for gas now, they never did grasp that interdependence is always asymmetrical, and Putin obviously holds the longer lever. With an economy smaller than Italy’s, he has got more than $600 billion in reserves as post-Covid demand surges back amid a tight global gas market, promising rising receipts. His message to Berlin runs, Be nice or be cold or, worse, suffer a bloody economic hit. It is easy to win if you have the upper hand.
As to part three, Marx was actually not quite right when preaching that material forces always beat ideology and faith. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, is beholden to Russia not only because it trusted the Kremlin and wants to stay on Putin’s good side. It also wants to be on the right side of history—and a light unto the nations. So, it prays to the God of Nature. It must lead the world toward ecological salvation in the battle against the Satan of fossil fuels and nuclear electricity. To set a good example, Germany will close its last nuclear power plants this year, and coal-fired energy will have to go by 2038. Meanwhile, its lone liquified natural gas terminal is being held up for regulatory and environmental reasons.
Let the sun shine and the wind blow. Relatively clean gas from Russia will take care of the rest. The country’s religion of renewables has increased Germany’s dependence on Russia just when Putin can manipulate the market for strategic gain—no guns necessary.
Berlin’s addiction to Russian gas is a fifty-year-old strategic blunder that resembles the West’s failure to contain Nazi and Japanese imperialism in the 1930s. Carter and Reagan were right to warn the Bonn government not to bet on Moscow’s good faith, especially since energy security is not a commercial but a strategic good.
Saving the climate is a lofty quest, but national security comes before virtue. Going vegan does not fire up the furnaces. The magic word is “diversity,” in this case of sources and suppliers. So, bone-chilling dependence on Russian goodwill will continue to torture, and Pollyanna was wrong.
To paraphrase Churchill: Never before have so many intelligent people bought so little insurance against so many evident risks. As Joe Biden is straining to recruit a Western coalition against Russia, he will have to spend tons of political capital to persuade Berlin to look beyond the thermostats in the country’s living rooms in order to grasp the simple logic of Vladimir Putin: control resources, and you cow your opponents. Karl Marx must be smiling in his Proletarian Heaven.
Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: 20th-century work by Messir, own work (photograph), A.K. Bystrov (mosaic), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42240282
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe