Germany remains in denial over its Russia policy

Despite Berlin’s foreign policy pivot after the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many German politicians have not learned their lessons or atoned for their past mistakes.

Germany Russia Ukraine
The crew of a Leopard 2 main battle tank waiting for Chancellor Olaf Scholz during a visit at the Bundeswehr army training center in Ostenholz on October 17, 2022. Mr. Scholz has vowed to modernize Germany’s armed forces with a special 100 billion-euro budget following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Many allies think Germany is not helping Ukraine enough to defend itself
  • Olaf Scholz undermines his credibility with inconsistent actions and rhetoric
  • Berlin may still harbor hopes of returning to business as usual with Russia

Germany has made many positive changes to its foreign and security policies since Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a Zeitenwende almost a year ago, even if Berlin continues to lag in its support for Ukraine compared with other, often much less prosperous, allies. Mr. Scholz’s decision on January 25 to free 14 Leopard 2 tanks for transfer to Ukraine was a landmark and positive decision, if too little and very late.

For all these improvements, most of the politicians who for decades oversaw Germany’s policy toward Russia remain in denial about their past role in, if not responsibility for, the challenges that now confront Germany and broader Europe. A more forthright acknowledgment would go far to prove that the German political class has learned the right lessons from its mistakes and demonstrate that Zeitenwende represents a long-term strategic change in German foreign policy, including vis-a-vis communist China, rather than a tactical phase before returning to the “prewar peace order,” as Mr. Scholz recently put it, and business as usual.

Mr. Scholz’s glib, year-end characterization in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung of his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin as mere “differences of opinion” and former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continuing defense of her Russia and energy policies, most recently in Spiegel, are just the latest of many examples of continuing efforts by German leaders to explain away the Russia and energy policies for which they were responsible.

Landmark shift or a passing phase?

Since Chancellor Scholz’s landmark February 27, 2022, Zeitenwende speech to the Bundestag, his coalition government has made major positive changes to the naive Russia-friendly policies that Berlin pursued for decades under Ostpolitik, even if these changes are still too few and long overdue. Berlin’s financial and military contributions to Ukraine have been significant, have grown over time, and have helped Kyiv significantly in its valiant struggle against President Putin’s brutal attempts to wipe Ukraine off the map of Europe.

At the same time, senior German officials are aware that they are underperforming compared to other allies and that they are suffering reputational damage as a result of their pulling-teeth approach to supporting Ukraine with materiel. They continue to stress at every opportunity in Washington and elsewhere that Zeitenwende is indeed a landmark policy shift and not a slogan or a passing phase.

For the Zeitenwende policy to mean a real break with the past, German policymakers need to raise their game.

To address widespread perceptions that they are still not doing enough, German officials reiterate that Berlin is second in terms of its commitments to Ukraine, according to the most recent Kiel Institute for World Economy Ukraine Assistance Tracker, even if researchers there say it is difficult to quantify support provided. Ukraine and NATO allies appreciate these contributions and acknowledge German policy since February 24, 2022, has indeed been a watershed, even as they continue to press Berlin for more support to Kyiv.

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What does Zeitenwende actually mean?

The term Zeitenwende now rolls easily from the tongues of non-German speakers, but German watchers noticed immediately that Chancellor Scholz’s use of the term was not original. It was the title of a paper published almost 18 months earlier by the Munich Security Conference. The term itself remains somewhat vague in definition and means different things to different people, with advocates calling it a landmark 180-degree policy shift and skeptics considering it shorthand for a policy declaration in search of clear, unambiguous and long-term substance.

For the Zeitenwende policy to mean a real break from the past, German policymakers need to raise their game. Few friends of Germany think Berlin is doing enough, even after the Leopard decision; all advocate sending more military equipment and financial support to Kyiv. It is heartening to see some coalition politicians advocate strongly for doing more, even if they have often lost policy debates. They understand that this is a unique and pivotal moment in history when German leaders must get off the fence and commit to strongly opposing Russia’s complete upending of the post-1989 European security order they for decades considered immutable, not to mention a host of international agreements and international law.

German leaders, however, must more directly confront their own role in getting themselves into this mess in the first place. Here is a walk through the phases of German policy vis-a-vis the USSR/Russia over the last 60 years: Wandel durch Annaeherung – change through rapprochement; Wandel durch Verpflechtung – change through interdependence; Modernisierungspartnerschaft – modernization partnership and, most recently, the catch-all Wandel durch Handel – change through trade.

All of these foreign policy concepts underpinned the wishful thinking and flawed assessments of what Berlin had hoped for from President Putin during the last 15-plus years. Critics called this policy thinly disguised justifications for profits ueber alles, or profits above all, or what a pro-European Union Polish politician recently referred to as German policy shaped by “greed and cowardice.”

A few German leaders have been forthright about their role, publicly stressing how mistaken they had been. Social Democratic Party (SPD) chair Lars Klingbeil stands out for his clear and repeated acknowledgment of past mistakes, blind spots and misconceptions, as well as for attempting to explain that Zeitenwende indeed means major long-term changes in German foreign policy. He has delivered headline speeches and even published a piece in a major German foreign policy journal entitled “What German Social Democrats Got Wrong About Russia.”

In it, he urged his party to draw the right conclusions, to learn from its mistakes, and to ask self-critically what Germany could have done differently. He is one of the few SPD leaders who have declared this old German mantra as no longer valid: “there can be security and stability in Europe only with, not against, Russia.” Now he says that “as long as things in Russia do not change fundamentally, European security will have to be organized against Russia.”

The 21-page report his party’s International Policy Committee (KIP) just produced incorporates this idea and acknowledges that Germany made a mistake by paying too little attention to the Eastern and Central Europeans. For now, the paper remains a draft and the SPD will not vote on it until its national party conference at the end of the year. Mr. Klingbeil has, however, also declared flatly that Germany’s energy policy is not to blame for the country’s energy crisis.

Most other SPD leaders, however, including those who led the party during the eras of former Chancellors Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel, have been much less forthright. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the politician currently most associated with Wandel durch Handel, has used the term “mistakes,” but his language has shifted in recent months. In an address to the German nation in October, he spoke of a “bitter failure to prevent this terrible moment.” He used “failure” again with an American audience in New York in November, defending Berlin’s Russia policy as a noble attempt to achieve peace. In that speech, he also stressed Germany “must cast off old ways of thinking and old hopes” and “learn lessons,” but defined the latter as reducing “one-sided dependencies.”

Mr. Steinmeier has used this line of argument in other settings, observing to the Atlantik Bruecke association that “all our attempts did not prevent this war.” Yet other SPD leaders have used the phrase “mistaken assessment.” In passing these policies off as “failures,” rather than major errors in strategic judgment or worse, he glosses over critical questions of role, responsibility, appeasement, and compromised policy, while instead selling them as simply Berlin’s best efforts to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, former SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has dismissed concerns about Russian influence networks in Germany as “conspiracy theories” and SPD Bundestag caucus leader Rolf Muetzenich continues adamantly to defend past SPD policy and call for diplomatic initiatives with Russia where possible.

Since February 24, Chancellor Scholz has sided with “go-slow” constituencies in the SPD, resisting a reckoning with past policy and slow-rolling military support for Ukraine under the principle of “avoiding escalation” and preserving Germany’s options for the postwar period. He recently said Germany learned its lesson about gas dependence, but like Mr. Steinmeier referred to the lesson as diversifying supply chains. The chancellor recently called for Europe to return to the prewar peace order with Russia and missed an opportunity to make a decisive break with the past in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, where he instead focused on the need to avoid a new Cold War.

These utterances raise questions of whether he has learned the right lessons from German policy, not to mention Russia’s war against Ukraine. Mr. Scholz’s key foreign policy aide, Jens Ploetner, is known for dismissing the need to send armored vehicles to Ukraine because of his concern for Berlin’s future relationship with Russia.

Scholz LNG
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Manuela Schwesig, the minister-president of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, turn a barrier wheel on January 14, 2023, in front of a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal. LNG delivered by ship is one of Germany’s replacements for the Russian gas that has been cut off since the start of the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine. © Getty Images

Little accountability for past mistakes

None of those responsible for Wandel durch Handel have paid a political price for their mistakes, except perhaps for former Chancellor Schroeder, whose fall from grace was swift and steep. But even he survived an August attempt by party activists embarrassed by his corruption to expel him from the SPD, with Mr. Scholz commenting that the Bundestag was correct to strip him of his office space, but there should be no further punishment. The others – in all parties – remain active and continue to enjoy considerable stature. The president of the American Academy in Berlin bestowed the prestigious Kissinger Prize on Mr. Steinmeier in November for serving as a “beacon of compelling moral guidance.”

Green leaders have been more forthright than most, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urging Germany to launch an honest discussion to reach clear answers and to be “self-reflective” with other party leaders. Green member of the European Parliament Viola von Cramon recently told Focus that “due to Germany’s past Russia policy we are in a crisis in Europe, which is partly due to the ‘bought elites’ in German politics,” adding that Berlin should have listened to Eastern Europe much earlier. Green MEP Reinhard Buetikofer has long been vocal on the Russia problem in German foreign policy. However, party co-chair Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck found it necessary recently to admit he feels guilty that German weapons will kill many Russians, which indicates that for all the coalition’s progress moving away from past shibboleths, changes in thinking remain slow and uneven.

Justice Minister Marco Buschmann of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) has been particularly clear, declaring that Germany’s push for Nord Stream 2 contributed to Russia’s war on Ukraine and declaring it was Berlin’s “duty to confront this truth directly.” Bundestag Defense Committee Chair Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman (FDP) has been among the most visible advocates in Germany of a robust response to Mr. Putin’s aggression, commenting recently that Ms. Merkel’s policy was well-intentioned to prevent harm to the German nation, but “naive in retrospect” and “blue-eyed,” observing that “appeasement policy has failed.”

Merkel keeps defending her policies

Meanwhile, former Chancellor Merkel defends her record against all critics, even while suggesting she knew all along that President Putin was playing her. Since she broke her silence in June, she has rejected criticism of her Russia and energy policy, even as she claims she never believed in Wandel durch Handel in the first place. She says she has nothing to apologize for and that to join the critics simply because it is expected would be “cheap.” It would be “evidence of weakness” (Armutszeugnis) to say now that it was wrong “just to get some peace and quiet.”

Ms. Merkel has variously described Ukraine as a “huge tragedy,” said “we should have reacted more quickly to Russia’s aggressiveness,” strongly criticized President Putin, and called for increased spending on the Bundeswehr, but she has refused to distance herself from her policies or to take responsibility for their failures. She stays on message: she tried hard to prevent the conflict, regrets she failed, and does not blame herself. She did all that can be expected of a German chancellor: she played the cards she was dealt and did the best she could for the German national interest. Meanwhile, she recently spoke favorably about a Netflix film, “Munich – The Edge of War,” as it showed Neville Chamberlain could be portrayed more positively.  

Interestingly, Ms. Merkel tried not to shift responsibility to her former SPD coalition partner, which might seem like a relatively easy political step to take, given that the SPD invented and basically owns Ostpolitik. She probably does not because the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) totally bought into Wandel durch Handel as well. As she continues to reject any responsibility, she has raised eyebrows further.

Other CDU leaders like Saxony Premier Michael Kretschmer advocate repair of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline and lifting sanctions against Russia while Merkel’s former chief military adviser, now-retired General Erich Vad recently called Russia’s war against Ukraine a “domestic political confrontation” akin to a “civil war” and the Greens a “war party” as he argued against assisting Ukraine to defend itself and for negotiations to end the war.

German leaders may well continue to skate around their role in their current plight.

Their defense of past German Russia policy contrasts sharply with that of former CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who recently declared flatly, “I was wrong, we were all wrong,” adding “we didn’t want to see it” and regretting not to have listened to late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the Baltic states, “who were right.” CDU Bundestag members Norbert Roettgen and Roderich Kiesewetter have been openly critical of past German policy toward Russia and particularly vocal in support of Ukraine. CDU leader Friedrich Merz has staked out something of a middle ground, claiming he never believed in Wandel durch Handel and pronouncing it “failed.” He criticized President Putin and called for more assistance to Ukraine, but did not criticize Ms. Merkel.  

How German leaders approach their mistakes on Russia and energy policy has implications for Berlin’s policy toward China, which will be unveiled in the coming months. The European energy crisis has prompted increasing numbers of German thought leaders to question the wisdom of continuing the country’s great dependence on a dictatorship like China for critical resources, export markets and supply chains. Key parts of the government and political spectrum are listening. Coalition leaders have highlighted the challenge and Mr. Klingbeil, the SPD leader, has stressed the need to avoid mistakes with China that Berlin made with Russia. Will others listen, or will the trade-above-anything principle that has guided German foreign policy for so long remain the operative one?

To be clear, President Putin bears full responsibility for Russia’s war against Ukraine and the negative consequences. But those German leaders who oversaw Berlin’s Russia and energy policies that enabled him for years could do more to acknowledge their role. Germany has rightfully earned much respect for its honesty about, and special responsibility for, the past. It may be unrealistic to expect German politicians to take responsibility for major errors like these or for any to be held accountable, not least because of the cross-party consensus that their approach was not only correct but the highly debatable view that Ostpolitik was responsible for ending the Cold War.

Many of Germany’s allies and friends, along the eastern flank of NATO and elsewhere, would welcome more contrition after being told for so many years they were naifs and hopelessly wrong about Mr. Putin’s Russia, while Germany was the adult in the room and knew what it was doing while others did not. It would also increase Berlin’s credibility with allies that have noticed Chancellor Scholz’s recent public comments that hold out the prospect of resuming business with Russia.



Muddle through

German leaders may well continue to skate around their role in their current plight. Chancellor Scholz did tell foreign audiences in his most recent Foreign Affairs article that Germany must bury its illusions about the lessons of 1989, but his utterances since then raise questions about the extent to which he will pursue such a strategy. To continue fudging while keeping up the prospect of returning to business as usual is probably the easiest policy for a chancellor to take and avoids the awkward question of accountability. However, it also feeds critics who are angry at Germany’s responsibility for Europe’s current mess, even if they may not vocalize it, and believe the country would really rather return to business as usual as soon as possible.

Full reckoning

With Germany’s strong and positive historical track record on Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, or dealing with unpleasant chapters of its past, its leaders could face up fully to their significant role in the current crisis, including more forthright mea culpas and pledges to change their attitude toward Ostpolitik permanently. This seems less likely because it would implicate several generations of politicians in naivete and appeasement or worse, and dash comforting narratives that have sustained them for decades. If they were to do it, however, Berlin would gain in stature, not only with allies on the eastern flank of NATO, where Berlin’s stock has fallen significantly in recent years.

Expand Zeitenwende to China

Parts of the German government want the business sector to diversify considerably away from China, but the China Policy Paper due out later this year will show how much of a Zeitenwende Berlin’s policy toward Beijing will actually be. This may be the most difficult option given the massive equities the German business sector has with communist China, even as some German firms are taking steps to diversify toward other markets and some experts argue that German dependence is less than commonly thought. This would represent a radical departure from the foreign economic policy Berlin has pursued for decades and would entail major costs.

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