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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during an extraordinary session of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, on Feb. 27, 2022, in BerlinOdd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
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Ukraine’s Brave Stand Against Putin Upends Germany’s Pro-Russia Policy

But it will take more than a war to undo decades of emotional and economic investment in the Russian state

by
Jeremy Stern
March 01, 2022
Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during an extraordinary session of the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, on Feb. 27, 2022, in BerlinOdd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most consequential results of the failure of Vladimir Putin’s armies to disintegrate Ukraine, as large sections of the global diplomatic class seem to have wearily expected, may be taking place right now in Germany—a country that less than 10 days ago barred transfers of weapons to Ukraine and nixed calls to kick Putin off SWIFT. Confronted by public evidence of Ukrainian heroism and Russian failure, a sense of delirious regret seems to have gripped Berlin, as Germany’s new Social Democratic government set about shredding every basic assumption that has steered German foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was only two weeks ago, in fact, on Feb. 15—when a Russian invasion force of nearly 200,000 stood on three Ukrainian borders—that Scholz assured Putin that Ukraine would not accede to NATO in the foreseeable future, three current and former German government officials confirmed to Tablet. Until Berlin froze Nord Stream 2 on Feb. 22, it had spent the previous seven years inflexibly defending the Gazprom-operated pipeline—whose sole purpose was to excise Ukraine from the European gas market by doubling direct imports from Russia into Germany. Now, both of those commitments have disappeared into thin air, to be replaced by a spasm of German resolve.

Indeed, the announcements by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz would have seemed like science fiction at any point since the end of the Cold War: A €100 billion investment in new weapons, including the acquisition of U.S. F-35 warplanes and Israeli drones, plus a massive ongoing increase in the country’s overall defense spending target, up to 2% of GDP. Accompanying these sudden commitments to a robust and capable German military were announcements of the creation of a strategic gas reserve, financing for liquefied natural gas terminals, and speculation about bringing nuclear reactors back online to diversify from Russian gas imports. In making these commitments, Germany was upending decades of voluntary dependence on the Kremlin even at the price of the country’s seemingly sacrosanct commitment to its less than successful, anti-nuclear “green” energy policy.

Nor are the changes in Berlin confined to the inner circles of the country’s current government. Reliably pro-Russian German media has spent the last six days running stories of betrayal by Vladimir Putin and wondering about the possible strategic blindness and failure of the otherwise untouchable Angela Merkel. Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s foreign policy adviser of 12 years, admitted to their shared naivety, while Merkel’s last defense minister blamed herself for failing to face down the Putin sympathizers in the government.

In an about-face with more immediate consequences, the Scholz coalition has agreed to ban Russia from SWIFT, the payments system that finances international trade, as well as to send anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. For the first time since 1945, Russian soldiers may be killed with German arms.

There is no doubt that the recent revolution in German policy is real, and that the shock and determination behind it are sincere. Paradoxically, this kind of dizzying, overnight shift in attitude and fortunes characterizes much of Germany’s history, which has often been the product of external shocks. Yet there are reasons to wonder how deep it will run and how long German politics can allow it to hold.

The combination of deep shame, romantic fascination, and perceived familiarity that colors how many Germans feel about Russia and the Kremlin itself is not a simple problem that a war in Ukraine is likely to solve; it has been an essential part of German identity for decades, and might not be easily dislodged by the invasion of a country where many Germans, even those genuinely sickened by his means, have long believed that Putin has “understandable” claims. To this day, no major German leader has disavowed the promise of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier that Germany will never participate in a war against Russia, implying a special German exemption from NATO’s Article 5 commitment of mutual assistance—a somewhat bizarre statement of where the country’s ultimate loyalties lie.

The central mantra of German foreign policy for the last 30 years has been that “there can be no security in Europe without Russia or against it,” a consciously vaporous cliché on behalf of which Germans have been willing to tolerate astonishing levels of Russian violence and German complicity in Russian corruption—which has involved, for example, the wholesale purchase of the former leadership of the Social Democratic Party, from Gerhard Schroeder (Germany’s chancellor from 1998-2005) on down. The open ownership of large sections of German ex-officialdom by a foreign power has been tolerated and even lauded by the rest of Germany’s political class on the basis of a conviction that its special relationship with Russia holds the peace of Europe together.

Germans have spent two decades forging a strategic partnership with Putin that aided his belief in his ability to break it apart. In the wake of Scholz’s speech to a special session of the Bundestag on Sunday, in which he spoke movingly of “a change in the history of our continent,” there is a sense that a new Europe has been born on the back of a previously unthinkable degree of German solidarity and mettle. But this welcome glint of hope in the shattered glass of Ukraine may well prove illusory.

A good bit of Germany’s unusually close relationship with Putin’s Russia for the last 22 years can be explained by simple corruption, mercantilism, and myopia. Yet these qualities are hardly unique to Germany: For every German CEO or public official who has happily traded his integrity and duties to his own country in exchange for money and access in Russia, there is at least one American who has done the same or worse in China, as German officials often correctly point out.

An element of Germany’s approach to Russia that is just as important but less well understood, however, is psychological: Even in the Putin era, Germans have continued to regard the Russian state with intense guilt and extreme gratitude, both of which seem oddly misplaced, or displaced. While Germans might have plenty of good reasons to still feel guilty about the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the shape that guilt takes has been more consonant with the needs of contemporary Russian nationalism than with historical reality: The Nazis inflicted their most extreme violence on ordinary Ukrainians and Belorussians—especially on Jews. Yet Soviet historians, as the scholar John Lough has pointed out, paradoxically allowed for no distinction between these nationalities and Russians, who were all “citizens” of the USSR, even though their separate “nationalities” were all duly recorded on the infamous fifth line of their Soviet passports.

According to official Soviet memory, the Nazis’ true victim, the war’s true victor, and the only deserving recipient of German apology, was the USSR—whose successor state is Russia. Other than Ukraine’s brief and troubled attempt at independence between 1917-1921, Germans never considered it or other former Soviet territories in Eastern Europe like Belarus or Moldova as anything other than “Russian” anyway. Since the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin has had an easy time convincing Germans to conflate the entire USSR with modern Russia, and to direct its guilt about the Nazi period to Moscow at the expense of Kyiv.

For many years, the Russian government has been able to translate its near-monopoly on German war guilt into a more general willingness to see everything its way, which helps explain why Germans seem to remember important periods in recent history a bit differently than some of their neighbors and allies. Ostpolitik, West Germany’s policy of détente with Soviet-bloc countries that began in the 1960s, became something of a national religion in Germany after 1990, remembered exclusively as bringing peace to Europe and the Cold War to an end—rather than as having potentially extended the life of the USSR and its grip over Central and Eastern Europe. Germans also tend to remember reunification as a historically generous and selfless decision taken by Mikhail Gorbachev—who they believe had it in his power to keep Germany divided by force—rather than as a concession by Gorbachev to a reality in which a bankrupt and decaying Moscow no longer had the ability to militarily or economically enforce its dying empire.

By the time the USSR fell apart, Germans were as convinced as Americans that history had ended, and that even Russia would be swept up by liberalism, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Their sense that the end-game was known to all the players in advance made it easy for the Kremlin to exploit their self-understanding as the only people in NATO (and eventually the European Union) who truly understand Russia—resulting in the German neologism Russlandversteher, “Russia understander,” and its close cousin, Putinversteher, neither of which were considered terribly pejorative until very suddenly last week.

The Putinversteher, of course, were the last to actually see Putin’s Russia for what he had made it. As Putin bombed Chechnya, invaded Georgia, spoke of Russian “rights” in Eastern Europe, and reconverted Russian society into a quasi-feudal arrangement between a kleptocratic state and a citizenry with diminishing rights and legal protections, German diplomatic engagement with Moscow and exports to Russia both reached post-Cold War peaks. Germany’s conviction that its lucrative trade with Russia was also conveniently liberalizing it and facilitating its friendly integration into Europe recalled Germany’s skewed memory of Ostpolitik.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are seen ahead of their meeting over Ukraine at the Kremlin on Feb. 15, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz are seen ahead of their meeting over Ukraine at the Kremlin on Feb. 15, 2022Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s increasingly apparent disdain for the rights of Eastern European states didn’t rattle Berlin as much as it might have in part because—like the Russian leader—Germans themselves appreciated the spaces between Russia and Germany less as a newly emancipated zone of independence than as a historically natural buffer zone in which Germany could manifest its economic supremacy. As long as Putin seemed to tolerate the conversion of former Warsaw Pact countries and Soviet territories into markets and pools of cheap labor supply for German industry—itself reinforcing Germany’s status as the dominant power in the European Union—the Putinversteher were willing to regard hints of a Russian “sphere of influence” not as menacing and eerily fascist but as “understandable.” In effect, Putin became the security contractor who would protect German factories in parts of Eastern Europe.

When Putin annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Merkel was genuinely shaken and revolted; any European official involved in U.S.-EU talks over how to respond to Putin’s landgrab will testify to the fact that it was Merkel who led the ensuing robust sanctions regime—not Barack Obama, who lobbied heavily to water it down before shunting the matter entirely onto Germany and France. But according to one former British diplomat who was close to those talks, Merkel was also so desperate for a ceasefire that she quietly appeared to compromise with Putin on a diminution in Ukrainian sovereignty. In any case, the sanctions regime itself was designed to give the appearance that the West had appropriately punished Putin, rather than to actually hurt the Russian dictator and thereby influence his future decision-making.

By 2015, when discussions for a second Baltic Sea pipeline that would remove the dependence of German industry and consumers on Ukrainian transit routes became serious, there were no psychological obstacles left in the German system: Trading with Germany was liberalizing Russia; even if his methods were outdated, Putin’s understanding of Ukrainian independence was reasonable; eliminating Ukraine’s strategic importance to Europe would be no great loss to Berlin, etc. Merkel could argue for years with a straight face that Nord Stream 2 was a purely “commercial project” divorced from politics—even though the majority shareholder was Gazprom, a Russian state company—because “Russia” and Putin’s regime were seen as one and the same, and as part of the larger German economic order in the East.

In the years leading up to the current crisis, Putin repeatedly poked the German system under Merkel and found nothing but goo. A massive Russian hacking attack on the Bundestag in 2017 incurred no reaction. In the summer of 2019, an assassin connected to the Russian security services executed a Georgian citizen wanted by the Kremlin in broad daylight in Berlin, with no evident repercussions. At the same time, Merkel successfully lobbied for a restoration of Russian voting rights in the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, despite no change in the developments that had led to its suspension in the first place: Putin’s occupation and destabilization of Ukraine.

Trusting American policy in Ukraine may not be any smarter or more strategic than trusting Vladimir Putin. For Germany, it may be less so.

The performance of Olaf Scholz over the weekend has been widely interpreted as a welcome and significant break from the Merkel-Schroeder consensus, and maybe it will be. But for those hoping for Germans to awake from their decadeslong geopolitical slumbers, it is important to remember that Scholz is motivated not only by the peace of Europe and the future of democracy but by German domestic politics of the most immediate and least-elevated kind.

Before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 22, Scholz’s approval ratings had plummeted by more points in a shorter amount of time than any other postwar German chancellor. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) had overtaken the Social Democrats (Scholz’s) in polls for the first time since the December elections, and elevated Friedrich Merz, an arch conservative and master of parliamentary maneuvering, to leader of the opposition. If Merz is able to break up Scholz’s coalition with the Greens and Free Democrats, there would be no new elections—only a swapping in of Merz and his party for Scholz and his.

Prior to the events of last week, Merz had cleverly dropped the Christian Democrats’ support for Nord Stream 2 and floated the possibility of expelling Russia from SWIFT, seeking to exploit Scholz’s vulnerability as the head of Germany’s most pro-Russian political party. By announcing such a dramatic U-turn in Germany’s defense, energy, and Russia policies, Scholz not only demonstrated support for an embattled Ukraine: He effectively neutralized his most significant domestic opponent in an hour of extreme political crisis.

Scholz’s decision to freeze Nord Stream 2 in particular had an element of political savvy behind it. It was no doubt an important and highly symbolic move, but Scholz knew that if he didn’t put the pipeline on hold himself, the United States would have done it for him—by sanctioning Nord Stream 2 AG, the operating company chaired by Gerhard Schroeder, Scholz’s mentor, and the personification of German corruption in Russia. By putting the pipeline to rest, at least for now, Scholz ensured that German investors and politicians involved in the project would not get caught in the crosshairs of the U.S. Senate—and that control over the potential reopening of the project would most likely remain in German hands.

It’s no great crime for a politician to hide the advancement of certain political priorities in the exclusive guise of moral obligation, but even if Berlin’s awakening is genuine, it’s unclear how quickly the revolution in its defense and energy policies can be converted into reality. The German military has been a hollow shell for generations; even with higher spending, it will take decades to turn it into a real-world fighting force, which will be as nothing compared with the multigenerational effort it will take to convince the German public to accept an active role for the Bundeswehr in European security. As for energy, the nuclear reactors taken offline by Merkel’s phaseout cannot be switched back on even in a matter of months; energy supplied by modular reactors and increases in LNG imports would not make up for a potential loss in supply of Russian gas, should Putin decide to shut off the spigot.

How would Scholz weigh the importance of German support for Ukraine against the prospect of German pensioners freezing to death in winter? How long could his coalition with the Green Party survive under a full-scale return to nuclear and coal-fired energy? What happens when German industry furiously demands action to reverse the precipitous climb of energy prices hammering its ability to compete with Chinese firms? All of these are questions for another day, clearly—now that Scholz has fended off the threat from Merz.

Furthermore, what incentives will Scholz have to lean so far out in front of his skis when the United States is clearly unwilling to do the same, and seems incapable of steady policy commitments to its allies? The Biden administration’s “historic” and “crippling” sanctions against Russia include carveouts for energy and agricultural commodities, which account for the bulk of the Russian economy, because the White House is terrified of an inflationary spiral that would sink the Democrats’ already-grim prospects in the midterm elections. Washington is only now sending Ukraine the air defense systems and other defensive weapons for which Kyiv has been pleading for months—and which the Biden administration repeatedly refused to send. Behind closed doors, what do German officials make of well-documented reports that as vice president, Biden’s family personally profited from an energy tariff corruption scheme that he personally guaranteed in concert with the then-president of Ukraine, who voters threw out of office in favor of Volodymyr Zelensky—a popular democratic decision that now looks to be of Churchillian proportions? Trusting American policy in Ukraine may not be any smarter or more strategic than trusting Vladimir Putin. For Germany, it may be less so.

The tragedy in Ukraine may have seemingly shocked Germans out of their 30-year slumber in an instant, but Germany remains a country governed by officials and supported by voters who have never in living memory had to pay any significant costs for their national interests, or incurred risks or made sacrifices for the security of their neighborhood: That was America’s job, and then, in part, Russia’s job. What made Angela Merkel one of the most popular chancellors in German history was not that she solved difficult problems, but that she had a genius for fudging them and then punting them as far into the future as possible. Despite Scholz’s historic speech over the weekend, there is no sign yet that German voters won’t expect the same from him.

Jeremy Stern is news editor of Tablet magazine.