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 Germany is a liberal democracy whose newly-elected government will soon be ditching outdated abortion legislation and strengthening the rights of non-standard families.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.

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What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.