Ukraine has changed German policy

Petr Pietraš

Petr Pietraš

Konzultant a analytik

Following the Second World War, the standard German explanation as to events was, that nobody knew anything and that they all just did as they were told. Today, German politicians never fail to emphasize that the past must not be forgotten and that evil must be prevented from the outset.

In a speech in 2005, Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Two years later, he shocked the audience at the annual Munich Security Conference, when he accused the United States of trying to dominate the world, the European Union of imposing its will on other countries, and condemned the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders.

Following the conclusion of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia occupied and annexed Crimea, which belongs to Ukraine. A monument to Vladimir I, the legendary ruler of Kievan Rus, was unveiled near the Kremlin in 2016. In July 2020, an article signed by Putin was published, whose main thesis was to justify the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Poland’s complicity in the outbreak of World War II. A year later, another article was published that dealt with the historical unity of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians in one great nation.

In retrospect, it would seem that the warning signs were enough to make Western, and especially German, political elites realize, that Putin was embodying the process of Russia’s isolation from the European Union and the sharpening confrontation with the transatlantic community.

Instead of rethinking their previous attitudes towards Moscow, the Central European states, and Germany in particular, have instead intensified their energy dependence on Russia. Germany imports 64% of its energy consumption from Russia, 55% of its natural gas supplies come from Russia. Moreover, Germany’s dependence on Russian supplies was set to increase after the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was launched. For Berlin, this project, which began construction after the annexation of Crimea, was so important, that it was described as purely commercial and without political context.  Berlin was willing to risk a clash with the United States, which had imposed sanctions on the pipeline.

Alongside the growing energy dependence, a growing number of former top German and EU politicians have found refuge in Moscow and the boardrooms of major Russian companies, after their active political careers have ended. Former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl smoothly moved to the oil company Rosneft. Similarly, former Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel landed at Lukoil, and another retired Austrian Chancellor, Christian Kern, found employment at Russian Railways. Former Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho joined Sberbank or former French Prime Minister François Fillon joined the petrochemical group Sibur. The uncrowned king of Western European political veterans in Russia is Putin’s personal friend Gerhard Schröder. The former German chancellor, whoin the past described Putin as a pure democrat, sits on the boards of Rosneft, Gazprom and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

There is a strong pro-Russian lobby right in Germany, in which former high-ranking representatives from politics are involved. For example, Matthias Platzek, former prime minister of Brandenburg and former head of the Social Democrats, is chairman of the German-Russian Forum. Erwin Sellering, former prime minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, heads the German-Russian Partnership Association and was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2017.  Putin is no stranger to the German political elite, including former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has had many opportunities to speak with him personally in the past. However, despite personal contacts and meetings at various levels, German politicians have not been able to unmask Putin’s intent and prevent evil from its inception. On the contrary, it was Merkel who, even after the annexation of Crimea, relentlessly called for dialogue and rejected violence.

The initial response of German policy to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been telling. Berlin refused to send arms to Ukraine and instead offered 5,000 helmets. Germany initially blocked Russia’s disconnection from the SWIFT banking system, arguing that it was a blanket measure that would affect the whole of Russian society and would not hit the real culprits. There were comments in the media that Ukraine was definitely doomed, and the main evening news discussed the disastrous state of the German army.

Following the unrest in Belarus in 2020 and Kazakhstan earlier this year, which Moscow provided aid to, Russia’s influence in these countries has strengthened. The last recalcitrant country on the road to the restoration of the Russian empire was Ukraine, and Moscow tested the West’s potential response, for example, in the hijacking of an Irish plane flying from Greece to Lithuania with Belarusian blogger Raman Pratasevich on board. Belarus forced the plane to land on its territory and Pratasevich was arrested. Without Moscow’s approval and cover, Lukashenko’s act of state piracy was completely unthinkable. The European Union’s subsequent weak and inconsistent response signaled to Russia, which is willing to sacrifice its economic relations with the West, that it need not fear harsh sanctions. Putin’s reordering of Eastern Europe and revitalization of the post-Soviet space had no overt obstacle.

In light of the above, all the more surprising was the change that took place in Germany on the fourth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which became a historic day for German politics because of domestic and external pressure. Over a hundred thousand people demonstrated on the streets of Berlin that day in support of Ukraine. President Zelensky, whose fearless stance held a mirror up to Western policy, regularly reported from Kiev. There was growing frustration in the EU partner countries with Berlin’s cautious tactics, its blockade of taking strong measures in support of Ukraine and its unwillingness to take a clear position on Russia.

Under this pressure, the federal government has reconsidered its position.  February 27, 2022 is a turning point for post-war Germany, in that Germany has said goodbye to the concept of Ostpolitik. The policy of dialogue with authoritarian states came to an end, along with a number of sacred principles of Social Democracy and the Greens. Decades of foreign and security policy principles became history overnight and Germany changed its long-term political parameters.

One result was the decision that the Bundeswehr will be given a one-off EUR 100 billion to restore the necessary combat capability. Defense spending is increased to be over two per cent of the budget in the long term, and Ukraine will be provided with weapons and aid despite being at war.

This is a dramatic change of paradigm, when we recall the principles that the parties in the current coalition have to give up, such as the SPD’s social democratic sympathies with Moscow and its opposition to increasing the defense budget, and the Greens breaking the ban on arms exports to war zones and having to accept the eventual postponement of the final closure of nuclear power stations. Last but not least, the FDP Free Democrats, who pride themselves on solid financing, yet have agreed to further debt increases.

Let us return once again to the aforementioned speech by Vladimir Putin in Munich, in which he concluded by noting that Russia sees very accurately how the world has changed and can make a good assessment of its possibilities and potential.

Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the attack on Ukraine represented the beginning of a new era. We can only hope that the resolution of the German Bundestag is only the first step from naivety to a realistic analysis of our own options and the geopolitical situation. On this path, it is necessary to rethink energy policy, defense and trade relations with authoritarian states, which will require the West to remain united in the long term, as it did during the Cold War, and not to sacrifice its strategy to short-term interests.

Those banking institutions that handle payments for Russian gas supplies are exempt from the disconnection of Russia from the SWIFT system. Thus, Russia continues to receive around one billion in Western currency per day, and the West continues to finance Russia’s imperial expansion. In addition, there is a million-strong Russian minority in the three Baltic republics which, if given Russian passports, as in Ossetia or the Donbas, would pose a security risk.

But Ukraine also sets a precedent in a wider context. If Russia takes it over, while both the European Union and the United States stand by, Taiwan is next. China wants to achieve unification by 2049, the centenary of its founding, and Taiwan is the last independent territory from Beijing. A possible conquest of Ukraine, coupled with a lukewarm response from the international community, would dramatically undermine its continued free existence.


Translated from the Czech original.

published: 14. 3. 2022