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 Germany is a liberal democracy whose newly-elected government will soon be ditching outdated abortion legislation and strengthening the rights of non-standard families.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