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Why Germany finds it difficult to act as Russian tensions build

Germany’s new government is more critical of Russia than previous administrations, but history and trade weigh heavily in the balance.

By Alix Kroeger

On Saturday (22 January) the head of the German navy retired – rather earlier than he had expected. Vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach stepped down after a storm over his comments at a live-streamed event, at which he said the idea that Russia wanted to invade Ukraine was “nonsense” and all that President Vladimir Putin wanted was respect.  

That he made the comments in the first place, and was then forced to resign, neatly illustrates the bind in which Germany finds itself. It is Russia’s second largest trading partner: Russia is a major market for German exports, the dominant sector of the economy. But money is only the start of it. There is no escape from the weight of history, both the events of the Second World War and afterwards.  

Begin, then, with the war. After the Germans invaded in 1941, millions of Soviet soldiers died – and civilians too. “Germany is aware of its responsibility to Russia and the other post-Soviet states for the 27 million Soviet victims of the Second World War,” says the website of the German foreign ministry. The awareness of Nazi atrocities is deeply ingrained, but not always consistently applied, says Marcel Dirsus, of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel. Russians were not the only ones who suffered. 

[Dispatch: As Russia masses troops on the border, defiant Ukrainians join home guard]

“That same sense of having learned from history doesn’t extend to Ukrainians,” he told the New Statesman. And indeed Ukraine has even accused Berlin of “encouraging Putin” with its refusal to sell weapons systems to Kyiv. Meanwhile, Germany exported some €3.4bn of military equipment to Egypt in 2019-2020, despite Cairo’s questionable human rights record.  

All this represents a difficult test for Germany’s new government, which only took office in December. It is led by Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD), once the party of Willy Brandt, the former chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Brandt’s Ostpolitik, reaching out to the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, is still visible in the SPD today, although it is an approach that transcends party lines. The former Christian Democratic chancellor, Angela Merkel, took great pains to maintain the relationship with Russia. 

“Germany has a very particular relationship with Russia: it sees itself as a mediator between the West and Russia, and at the same time it sees itself as a fully fledged member of the West. It depends on the day of the week,” says Dirsus.  

That mediator role even gave rise to a special term, the “Putin Versteher“: a person who is literally a Putin understander, but more usually an apologist. The most notorious of these is Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor who chairs the boards of the Russian state oil firm Rosneft and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (of which more later).  

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But there aren’t as many Putin Verstehers as there used to be, believes Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Germans have become gradually more critical of Russia, she says, starting with the war in Georgia in 2008 and intensifying with the illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014.  

One particularly outspoken voice in the new German government is the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, of the Greens. In Moscow last week for talks with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, she said there was “no understandable reason” for the build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, which was “hard not to take as a threat”.  

Her firm position was a surprise to some: Lavrov has been foreign minister for 18 years, Baerbock for less than two months. “I was quite worried that the Russians would try to… humiliate her publicly. It was a very frosty meeting, but she was forthright. She hit all the right notes,” says Stelzenmüller. 

Scholz so far has taken a softer line: last month he called for keeping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline out of the Ukraine dispute, arguing that it was a “private sector project”. That’s certainly not how Ukrainians see it: the 1,230km pipeline will carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, by-passing Ukraine. The US has imposed sanctions; the EU has warned of further measures. Germany has so far held off, but the pressure is growing. At Nato on 18 January, Scholz told reporters: “It is clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed, should there be a military intervention in Ukraine.”  

[See also: How Europe is hooked on Russian gas]

As Europe’s largest economy, how Germany responds is inevitably reflected in EU policy. But member states are divided. Nato is taking the military lead but France has now called for a separate EU dialogue with Moscow. Some of the smaller EU countries, especially those that were once behind the Iron Curtain, are apprehensive that Europe will fail to act. “In Central Europe, some people feel the German position is too weak, and that causes the EU to have too weak a response. It’s unfair to put all [the responsibility] on Germany,” says Dirsus.

And here there is an echo of another, more recent conflict, where Europe was under pressure to play a leading role and failed. Stelzenmüller says the current tensions around Ukraine remind her of the build-up to the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, while Vladimir Putin is reminiscent of the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević, brooding on grievances and determined to seek revenge. “The hour of Europe has dawned,” declared Luxembourg’s former foreign minister in 1991. In the end, Europe agonised over arms embargoes and refugees; it took Nato intervention, led by the US, to bring the wars to a standstill.

But Germany has changed a great deal since the early 1990s, when the Berlin Wall had just come down and the country was only newly united. The very scale of the Russian presence on the border of Ukraine now may concentrate minds in Berlin and allied capitals. Russia’s demands are stark: it wants Nato to rule out any prospect of Ukrainian membership, as well as an end to military exercises and weapons shipments to eastern Europe. “The Russians are at their… strongest when they try to fudge things, because that’s when it’s easy to divide the Germans and the Europeans,” says Stelzenmüller. There is nothing equivocal about Russia’s actions now. That may leave Germany’s government with little choice but to act.  

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin preparing for war?]

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