Moscow move into Ukraine shatters German illusions on Russia

Last pro-Russian elements in SDP’s leftist wing have had a rude awakening

Gerhard Schroeder: last month, as news emerged he will soon join the board of Gazprom, the former German chancellor warned Ukraine to stop its “sabre-rattling” against Russia. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With this week’s push into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin shattered Germany’s remaining illusions about its bilateral relationship with Russia.

For the past 30 years, a united Germany operated under the assumption that there could only be security and peace in Europe with Russia.

“Now German foreign policy has to engage with the question it so long avoided,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily conceded. “How do you organise security and peace in Europe in opposition to Russia?”

Even the Bild tabloid is on the case, asking its readers this week: “Were we too nice to the Kremlin?”


A clear-eyed answer came on Wednesday from Dr Christoph Heusgen, former chancellor Angela Merkel’s long-time foreign policy chief: “We were too credulous vis-a-vis Russia. We always underestimated Putin’s brutality and scrupulousness.”

German-Russian ties are built on centuries of close historical, cultural and trade relations, as well as more modern psychological motivations: guilt over millions of Russian war dead, and the need of many Germans to find proxy countries and cultures elsewhere – wild Ireland, untamed Russia – to feed their romantic souls. Nazi-era exploitation has left such endeavours a taboo at home.

The modern relationship, with its roots in Willy Brandt’s 1970s Ostpolitik, embraced the idea that close contact and trade could, in time, turn Russia into a functioning democracy – while allowing German firms turn a handy profit in the meantime.

This policy was so successful that by 1999, when the federal government returned to Berlin, the hottest political parties were at the monumental Russian embassy, dubbed “Stalin’s Wedding Cake”.

The Kremlin was so intent on wooing chancellor Gerhard Schröder that even Germany’s domestic intelligence caught wind of it. The plan took off in earnest with Russian president Vladimir Putin, a persistent suitor, who was a regular visitor to Schröder’s Hanover home – once with a Cossack choir in tow.

Then there were the favours. Twice Russia set aside laws banning foreign adoption for Schröder and his wife. After he lost the 2005 election, but before he left office, Schröder pushed through the original Nord Stream pipeline and, months later, joined the project’s supervisory board. Last month, as news emerged he will soon join the board of Gazprom, Schröder warned Ukraine to stop its “sabre-rattling” against Russia.

The Merkel era introduced a chancellor who spoke Russian and, from her life in East Germany, understood Putin’s mindset. But, for critics at least, there was no real change.

Back in 2008, for instance, though Russia never withdrew its troops from Georgia in line with the August peace agreement, Berlin still went ahead with its “modernisation partnership” with Moscow.

State-linked murder

Germany’s shock of 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, soon passed but has returned with a vengeance because of everything that has happened in the intervening years: Russian hackers breaking into the Bundestag computer network; the state-linked murder of a Chechen dissident in broad daylight in a Berlin park; poisoning of Russian dissidents, including Alexei Navalny.

Since the Social Democratic Party took office last December, the last pro-Russian holdouts in its leftist wing have had a major rude awakening. This Russian troop build-up silenced the “fear of encirclement” talk, or claims that the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline – controlled by a Russian state energy giant – is a “purely commercial endeavour”.

On Tuesday chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the pipeline’s permit process, but other pipelines remain operational; half of Germany’s gas needs are met by Russia.

And with heating bills already at record levels, a poll on Wednesday suggested just 26 per cent of Germans are prepared to accept a personal financial cost for sanctions against Russia.

“Putin knows – and is exploiting – that the west cannot offer anything more than sanctions, but no one here is prepared to freeze for Ukraine,” said Albrecht von Lucke, editor of the Blätter political journal.

Despite claims of naiveté, he argues that Berlin’s wish for close, constructive ties with Russia was always informed by a large dose of realism.

“Russia, with its scale and its security interests, looms large for us in Germany, it’s not as easy as being on an island like Ireland,” he said. “But now Putin’s decided to go into the history books. He has no more illusions that people have any illusions left about him.”