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POLITICS

Germany under fire over mixed signals in Ukraine crisis

Germany's new government faced pressure Sunday to take a firmer stance against Russia, after a German navy chief's pro-Moscow remarks angered Kyiv and exasperation grows with Berlin's fence-sitting in the Ukraine crisis.

Annalena Baerbock and Antony Blinken
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her US counterpart Antony Blinken speak at a press conference in Berlin on January 20th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Kay Nietfeld

After a week of frantic diplomacy that included a visit to Berlin by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government found itself scrambling at the weekend to reassure Kyiv of its support in the face of a feared Russian invasion.

The spat was triggered by German navy chief Kay-Achim Schönbach’s musings that it was “nonsense” to think Russia was about to march on Ukraine and that President Vladimir Putin deserves respect.

READ ALSO: Germany warns Russia of ‘high cost’ of Ukraine aggression

Schönbach resigned late Saturday, but the damage was done.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba summoned the German ambassador and accused Berlin of “encouraging” Putin to attack Ukraine.

Scholz on Sunday warned again of “high costs” should Russia attack, in an interview with the Süddeutsche newspaper.

But with trademark caution, he also called for “wisdom” in considering sanctions and “the consequences they would have for us”.

Seeking to smoothe tensions, Blinken said he had “no doubts” that Germany shared Washington’s concerns and was maintaining a united front with NATO on Ukraine.

Test for Scholz

The Ukraine crisis is the first major test for Social Democrat Scholz, who took over from veteran leader Angela Merkel last month.

His coalition government of the centre-left SPD, the Greens and the pro-business FDP, has vowed “dialogue and toughness” with Russia.

But it has struggled to overcome internal divisions and craft a unified response on how to deal with an emboldened Moscow.

The Handelsblatt financial daily, noting that German politicians’ tendency to “understand Russia” remains alive and well, asked: “Where is the line between a willingness to engage in dialogue, and strategic naivete?”

READ ALSO: Germany to send field hospital to Ukraine as war fears grow

Arming Ukraine

A key bone of contention between Germany and Western allies is Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine.

The United States, Britain and Baltic states have already agreed to send weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

Germany is traditionally reluctant to get involved in military conflict, traumatised by its past as an instigator of two World Wars, and Scholz’s government claims arming Ukraine would only inflame tensions.

But Ukraine’s Kuleba said Germany’s ambiguous stance does not match “the current security situation”, and urged Berlin to “stop undermining unity” among Kyiv’s allies.

Even in Germany, some have called for a rethink.

Henning Otte, a lawmaker from the centre-right CDU opposition party, told the Bild daily last week that if Ukraine is asking for weapons to fend off a possible attack, “we must not reject this request”.

Nord Stream 2 leverage
 
Another sore point in the Ukraine crisis is the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which has split the new cabinet in Berlin.
 
The completed pipeline, currently awaiting German regulatory approval, is set to double Russian gas supplies to Germany.
 
The previous Merkel-led government always insisted the pipeline was a purely commercial project — irritating allies who fear the pipeline will give Russia too much leverage over European energy.
 
While Scholz has echoed Merkel’s line on the “private sector project”, his Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Greens, is a known opponent of Nord Stream 2.
 
Nord stream 2

Part of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer
 
But in a sign that Scholz’s position may be hardening, he reiterated last week that he stood by a German-US deal not to allow Moscow to use the pipeline as a weapon and that when it comes to sanctions, “everything” is on the table.
 
Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said she hoped Scholz’s words would bring “more coherence to the German debate and reassure partners abroad who had started to see Germany as the West’s weak link”.
 
‘Correct course’
 
Scholz’s SPD has a “nostalgic reflex” when it comes to Russia, Die Zeit weekly recently noted, harking back to ex-SPD chancellor Willy Brandt and his “Ostpolitik” policy of rapprochement with the east in the 1970s.
 
In an open letter in Die Zeit earlier this month, 73 Eastern Europe and security experts urged Berlin to end its “special treatment” of Russia and correct course.
 
Germany has been watching the Kremlin’s actions “critically but largely inactively for three decades”, they wrote. Now, “Germany must act”.
 
By Michelle Fitzpatrick

Member comments

  1. Germany and the EU are in the same position – frightened rabbits caught in the headlights. German foreign policy has to be consistent with EU foreign policy and EU foreign policy has to be agreed between 27 countries that don’t normally agree on anything ( hence qualified majority voting ). How do you agree a foreign policy when 5 of the member states are neutral, at least a further 5 are terrified of a Russian invasion and the rest don’t want to offend Russia and get their gas cut off ?

  2. Germany knows very well it has little or no leverage to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. The Kremlin controls the natural gas upon which Germany is heavily dependent for its energy needs. And Berlin will bend to prevent interruption of this critical commodity, especially in the dead of winter. Russia has all the cards and will play them to its advantage.

  3. Earl Clark-

    Germany needs to quit looking over its shoulder at the past and stand as one of the leaders of freedom.

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GERMANY AND RUSSIA

German ex-chancellor Schröder says he won’t join Gazprom board

Germany's former chancellor Gerhard Schröder has said he will not be joining the supervisory board of Gazprom, after a row over his ties to Russian energy giants.

German ex-chancellor Schröder says he won't join Gazprom board

“I gave up on the nomination to the supervisory board of Gazprom some time ago. I have also communicated this to the company,” he wrote in a post on online network Linkedin on Tuesday. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to huge public pressure in Germany for Schröder to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin and to sever his ties with Russia’s biggest energy companies.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who like Schröder is from the Social Democratic Party, has also repeatedly and publicly urged the former leader to give up his Russian jobs.

Fed up with Schröder’s attitude, the German parliament last Thursday decided to strip him of perks, including an office and paid staff accorded to him as a former chancellor.

READ ALSO: Germany strips Schröder of official perks over links to Russia

That same day, EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution for sanctions to be slapped on him if he refused to give up on lucrative board seats at Russian companies.

A day later, Russian energy group Rosneft said Schröder will be leaving its board.

Schröder, 78, had been due to join Gazprom’s supervisory board in June – a job that he has now finally said he will not accept.

Schröder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as unjustified, but said that dialogue must continue with Moscow.

Gazprom is behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which has been halted by Scholz in one of the West’s first responses to the war in Ukraine.

Schröder himself signed off on the first Nord Stream in his final weeks in office.

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