Germany’s unresolved relationship with Russia is first test for Scholz coalition

New German chancellor faces three Russian challenges as tensions rise over Ukraine

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, arrives at a European Union  leaders’ summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Bloomberg

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, arrives at a European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Bloomberg

 

Newly installed German chancellor Olaf Scholz headed to his first summit in Brussels bearing the Russian baggage of his two predecessors.

Barely a week in his new job, Scholz faces the triple challenges of a controversial gas pipeline, the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border and a murder sentence handed down this week in Berlin.

The chancellor’s pipeline problem is like a Matryoshka doll that needs to be opened out – at least two chancellors back – to Gerhard Schröder.

Shortly before leaving office in 2005, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) chancellor threw his weight behind the Nord Stream project to bring Russian gas directly to Germany.

Three months out of office, Schröder then joined the Gazprom-led project as chair of the shareholders’ committee.

Ukraine and Poland protest that the Nord Stream project will starve them of important transit fee income through existing pipelines passing through their territory – and leave them susceptible to energy games from their one-time Soviet Union master.

Despite this protest, Nord Stream began operations a decade ago and a second, 1,230km-long pipeline as part of the system was greenlighted in 2015 during the Merkel era.

This Nord Stream 2 pipeline prompted years of transatlantic tensions and sanctions in the Trump era, but in the summer, Angela Merkel struck a compromise with US president Joe Biden to allow the pipeline to operate. The gas supply is essential to fill an energy gap left as Germany closes down its last nuclear plants next year.

After some delays, Nord Stream 2 is awaiting an operating permit from Germany’s federal network agency. That decision is due in early January, then goes to the European Commission.

Now the Ukraine-Russia border standoff has prompted high-level diplomatic efforts from Washington suggesting Berlin turn the tables on Moscow and threaten to refuse the pipeline a licence to operate.

That would suit Scholz’s Green coalition partners, long-time outspoken critics of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and of the pipeline.

“If you ask me if Nord Stream 2 should be allowed to go online, I would say only if all European rules are adhered to,” said Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens and the new economics minister. “I wouldn’t see that as being the case right now.”

Crucial test

Berlin-based foreign policy analysts see Scholz at the heart of a crucial test of a coherent and credible EU foreign policy.

“It is not at all credible vis-a-vis Moscow when, on the one hand, one threatens sanctions and on the other would pursue such projects,” said Sarah Pagung of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

On Wednesday Scholz told Russia that any aggression against Ukraine would carry a “high price” – but that Germany was open to “constructive dialogue” with Moscow. That will find favour with his party voters, and is a nod to the strategies pursued by previous SPD chancellors of mutually beneficial dialogue and trade with Moscow.

But senior Greens see talk of dialogue as cynical obfuscation that ignores years of Russia computer hacking, killing of Putin opponents and Russia’s Crimea annexation.

On Wednesday German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock expelled two Russian diplomats after a murder conviction for the man behind a “state-contracted murder” by Russia in a Berlin park. The 2019 shooting of a former Chechen rebel, she said, “poses a serious violation of German law and sovereignty”.

Baerbock has promised a more robust “values-based” foreign policy and on Thursday she replaced one of her ministry’s senior state secretaries, seen as allied to the SPD.

With pressure building from EU and Nato allies, Germany’s unresolved relationship with Russia is the first test of Berlin’s new coalition.

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