OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

As Germany is slammed for failing to take a firm stance against Russia in the Ukraine crisis, Brian Melican examines the two countries' complicated history, and how "ostalgia" and fishy deals have led to the Nord Stream II pipeline getting this far.

Sergei Lavrov (r), Russian Foreign Minister, and Annalena Baerbock, German Foreign Minister, attend a joint press conference after their talks in Moscow on January 18th.
Sergei Lavrov (r), Russian Foreign Minister, and Annalena Baerbock, German Foreign Minister, attend a joint press conference after their talks in Moscow on January 18th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Pool Reuters/AP | Maxim Shemetov

On the face of it, the facts of the matter are simple. Germany is a liberal democracy whose newly-elected government will soon be ditching outdated abortion legislation and strengthening the rights of non-standard families. It is part of a political union of (at least on paper) like-minded European democracies and of a military alliance also composed of free societies (subtract Turkey).

The single biggest threat to Germany’s political stability and military security, meanwhile, is Russia, an adversarial and authoritarian regime whose ruler Vladimir Putin, among other distasteful characteristics, sees women as little more than babymakers best off in wedlock to a “real man” – one who might, say, be a soldier in the army of 100,000 he has amassed on the border to the Ukraine. That there might be any doubt as to where Germany stands in the current showdown between Russia and the West is, in view of these facts, odd to say the least.

READ ALSO: Germany under fire over ‘mixed signals’ in Ukraine crisis

But there is a lot of doubt – both within Germany among those of us who think that we really should no longer be “seeking dialogue” with Russia at a time like this, and among our allies who, while not so bothered about us talking to Moscow, are very much concerned that we are only a flick of a switch away from making ourselves wholly dependent on Russian gas.

Yes, the new Nord Stream II pipeline, a direct supply excluding both the Ukraine and our immediate NATO and EU neighbours, has been built in spite of serious EU and NATO concerns and is – now of all times – almost complete. Given that Germany’s two key stated foreign-policy aims have long been 1) promoting European integration and 2) upholding the transatlantic alliance, that things have got this far is nothing short of the biggest failure of German diplomacy since the Federal Republic was founded in 1949.

READ ALSO: German regulator suspends Nord Stream II approval process

A sign for the Nord Stream II pipeline in Lubmin, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer


So how did we get here? 

Essentially, there are two key problems in play, both specifically German – and both exploited masterfully by a Russian regime which, whatever else you say about it, certainly runs a very tight foreign-policy ship.

Firstly, there is excessive sentimentality. For wholly understandable historic reasons, Germany views its relationship to Russia in emotional terms. We – quite rightly – feel a lot of guilt about what Nazi Germany did to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945. We also – once again, with good justification – feel pride at the way in which, under Willy Brandt and then later Helmut Kohl, we managed to make amends with a nation we had previously tried to exterminate and even persuaded them to let us reunify while deepening ties with our western neighbours.

In addition to this, many in the former East Germany have fond memories of school exchanges and holidays to Russia back in what, for those who weren’t anti-regime, can appear to be happier, simpler times. 

This mix of guilt, pride, and “ostalgia” (nostalgia for East Germany) has blinded many Germans to the truth about aggressive Russian foreign policy over the last decade – including many top politicians, who buy Moscow’s line that, in order to feel safe, it needs a buffer zone of subjected peoples stretching to (or past) the Polish border, conveniently forgetting that the Ukraine, too, used to be part of the USSR to whom we owe such a debt. You can identify this type of lazy thinking by Kremlin-friendly soundbites such as “The only way to solve our differences is at the negotiating table” and “What we need is more dialogue”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in January 2020.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in January 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Whenever you call the effectiveness of more diplomatic hobnobbing into question, you’ll get Brandt’s Ostpolitik and Kohl’s wooing of Gorbachev thrown at you – and a blank refusal to see that there might be a small a difference between offering assurances to the Soviet Union a few short decades after the savagery unleashed on it by Germany in WWII and offering concessions to today’s Russia after its annexation of the Crimea.

Fishy business

The second major issue is economic and business interests, into which Russia is very adept at weaving the sentimentality outlined above. Through various dubious “forums”, German politicians and business leaders have been drip-fed a diet of caviar, high-proof vodka, and reminders that “even at the height of the Cold War, Moscow never defaulted on its gas deliveries to Europe”.

The aim couldn’t be clearer: Russia is already selling Germany most of its natural gas, and would like to sell it an even higher proportion. Seen from Moscow, becoming Berlin’s primary supplier is a win-win – for Russia, that is, which wins economically if Germany buys the gas and also wins geopolitically if, in the event of a conflict like the current one, it can threaten to turn off the tap. The excessive repetition of “reliability” is straight out of the Used-Car Salesman Handbook (1983 edition), but seems to have done the trick with half of the German elite nevertheless.

The other half may well be wily enough to see the ruse – and so are probably also wily enough to trouser a bribe when they see one. Take former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, that national disgrace who, like ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, has made a post-premiership career out of cosying up to unappetising regimes but, unlike his third-way political blueprint, is anything but discrete about it, actually taking up paid board positions for Russian gas giants Rosneft and Gazprom.

Archive photo from May 2018 shows Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting Gerhard Schröder, former German Chancellor, during a ceremony marking Putin's inauguration.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets ex German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in May 2018 during a ceremony marking Putin’s inauguration. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Alexei Druzhinin

Gazprom also happens to be – surprise! – the company behind the Nord Stream pipelines, the second of which Schröder approved in 2005, shortly before leaving office and taking his first rouble pay-check. The whole thing smells fishier than a school of Baltic herring, but Schröder has got away with it because his successor Angela Merkel (who grew up in the GDR and speaks fluent Russian) never had the heart to cancel the pipeline, or was perhaps simply taken in by the “reliable supplier” shtick, too. Either way, she made herself increasingly complicit in this act of geopolitical hara-kiri. 

READ ALSO: Germany set to finish controversial Russian pipeline despite US protest

‘Seeking dialogue’ with Russia

Don’t expect anything different from Olaf Scholz, either, a man so receptive to the needs of the business community that he is under investigation in Hamburg for having let a bank off of €50 million in tax following criminal activity. What is more, Scholz’ ageing SPD membership idolises Willy Brandt and Ostpolitik to an unhealthy extent, and so will expect him to “seek dialogue” with Moscow.

Manuela Schwesig, SPD premier of the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, will also be pushing him to get the pipeline finished: she needs to secure well-paid industry jobs in her otherwise rural, tourism-dependent federal state more than ever now that its last shipyards are sliding into insolvency. 

And so Scholz’ only pronouncement on the pipeline since becoming Chancellor has been that it is “a wholly private-sector affair” – i.e. that, even as Russia threatens Germany’s allies in the Baltic, he won’t be intervening to prevent a pipeline bypassing them through their own back yard from going on stream. Apart from that, he sent Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to Moscow to lay a wreath at the memorial to the victims of Nazi atrocities and, of course, to “seek dialogue”. I’m sure our allies were delighted that she stopped in Kiev on her way to “seek dialogue” there, too, and will remember that important gesture when Nord Steam II goes operational.

Member comments

  1. Germany straddles the line between protector of Europe through NATO which at one point Germany could have been left out of that alliance and economic partnership with Russia.

    Germany was also reluctant to get involved in NATO inspired regime changes that undermined the global world order, going back to the start of the Ukraine crisis it was an anti Russian coup that ignited the region.

    Germany has to play it safe, look out for nascent democracies and free speech around the globe all the while recognising states like Russia, China and Iran have a role to play in the world order.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).


What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October.