What a celebration it was in winter, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered his “Zeitenwende” speech. A transformation of German foreign policy was underway; the leader of a party addicted to détente suddenly pledged $100 billion for defence. But Scholz made his promise only three days after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war, and no one in Germany or anywhere else, for that matter, expected the conflict to drag on.
Now, six months after the Russian invasion, the Germans are nervous. Winter is coming. Inflation anxiety and recession talk are in the air. Expect the German chancellery to support bogus peace plans and the partition of Ukraine if Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly calls for peace.
If Berlin abandons the Ukrainian cause, we have a transatlantic nightmare. The Biden administration must help strengthen its backbone.
Germany is already dragging its feet on military aid to Kyiv. Since Scholz’s speech in February, the term “Scholzinghas become a common expression in Ukraine: it means to promise something repeatedly without keeping the promise.
Overview: Germany has always had a Eastern European blind spot. Since the 1970s, Berlin has often prioritized Russian interests over Central and Eastern European concerns. The former West Germany made itself dependent on Soviet gas, arguing that pumping money into Moscow’s coffers would somehow democratize the totalitarian state.
The Nord Stream pipelines were a continuation of this deeply flawed premise. “Trusting but verifying” has never been part of the German decision maker’s DNA. “Even in the darkest hours of the Cold War, Russia kept its contracts,” said then German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. said right after the invasion of Ukraine in 2014 – although Russia cut off gas to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. He also forgot that German Disneyland fantasies about Kremlin behavior affected other Eastern European partners and their energy needs as well .
German policy is hardwired to favor accommodation and appeasement. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who auctioned Putin at Nord Stream, Rosneft and Gazprom, is still welcome to the social democratic party. In June, Scholz’s foreign policy adviser, Jens Plötner, advocated for improved relations with Russia (and China too). Not the best ear for timing. But Plötner served as chief of staff to current President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, another social democrat, who was Schröder’s right-hand man for many years.
Oh, and Gabriel – another Schröder protege – now chairs the prestigious think tank Atlantik-Brücke, charged with promoting “German-American understanding”. There is a vibrant pro-Russian network in Berlin.
Enter Germany’s industry and energy conundrum. The Germans find themselves in a difficult situation: they are beginning to see the consequences of energy dependence on Russia. Nervous Germans, worried about a winter that could start as early as October, dimmed streetlights this summer and stopped lighting important monuments.
In Kyiv, October is expected to bring daytime highs in the 50s with overnight lows in the 40s. German cities are just a tick behind. Germany has signed a memorandum of understanding with five other European Union countries (all in central and eastern Europe) for intensive cooperation in case Russia precipitates complete blackouts this year. Of course, the Germans could go back to nuclear power. Sadly and bewilderingly, no German party currently supports such a move.
If the German economy – the largest in Europe – goes into freefall, the rest of Europe is toast. (EU inflation is at 8.9%.) Deutsche Bank warns that the country is on the brink of recession. The Handelsblatt, Germany’s leading financial newspaper, says the recession is not a question of “if” but of “for how long”. Jobs will be lost, businesses will be hammered, consumers will be hurt. Then come the wavering politicians.
If our goal is to help Ukraine recover its territorial integrity and sovereignty, to lose Germany is to lose Europe. And a transatlantic break will be a saving gift for Vladimir Putin.
Germany therefore dragged its feet on military assistance, and for that the Germans deserved our reprimands. But let’s keep an eye on the ball. Germany is a military dwarf but an economic giant with considerable diplomatic influence in Europe. Strengthen German resolve now or pay dearly when frightened and misguided German politicians plead for pragmatism and bad peace deals later.
Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, directs the Black Sea Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, and is a co-host of the AEI “Eastern Front” podcast.