A reckoning on Germany’s Russia policy is long overdue

The writer directs the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution 

Ever since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February last year, German politicians on both sides of the aisle have been competing with each other to publicly disavow the mistakes made in Berlin’s Russia policy — in contrite speeches, rewritten party documents and train trips (many train trips) to Kyiv. In early March, the Social Democrats’ co-chair Lars Klingbeil even hauled his party’s parliamentary group leader and leading advocate of diplomacy with the Kremlin, Rolf Mützenich, to Ukraine’s capital, sending “an incredibly important signal”, according to Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko.

Yet Germany’s Russia policy is unpleasantly like a zombie: it keeps clawing its way back out of the grave. A devastatingly comprehensive new book by journalists Reinhard Bingener and Markus Wehner describes the networks connecting the SPD, the energy industry and Russia. The fat spider in the middle of it all: Gerhard Schröder, former chancellor, Russian lobbyist and personal friend of Putin.

After Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, a shocked Angela Merkel, then chancellor, orchestrated EU-wide sanctions. But Bingener and Wehner describe how SPD grandees from former chancellor Helmut Schmidt down agitated to get them lifted — especially economics minister and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. In a cringe-making anecdote, Gabriel reportedly thanked Putin obsequiously for receiving him at his private residence in 2015, “because you’re so busy these days, especially with the conflict in Syria”.

Another recent book by journalist and Russia expert Michael Thumann (full disclosure: we are friends and former colleagues) traces a long arc from the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo between the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union to today. It concludes scathingly: “The Rapallo Treaty and the Nord Stream projects were united by a common false assumption: that Russia and Germany are connected by higher interests that matter more than good relations with the states of central and eastern Europe and the west.”

The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was conceived at a 70th birthday party for Schröder in St Petersburg in the spring of 2014, only weeks after the seizure of Crimea; Putin was a guest of honour. “It was Putin’s project to weaken Ukraine . . . and to make Germany complicit,” Thumann writes. The economics ministry, he adds, stopped publishing data on gas imports in 2016; when he inquired, he was told that these were “business secrets”. In 2022, the year Russia invaded Ukraine, it was revealed that Russia’s share of German gas imports amounted to a staggering 55 per cent. The trap had snapped shut.

It would appear that the Social Democrats still have a lot of accounting to do. But what of the Christian Democrats and Merkel, who succeeded Schröder as chancellor and ruled Germany for 16 years, 12 of them in a grand coalition with the SPD?

Following the invasion of Ukraine, CDU leader Friedrich Merz spoke of “severe failings” in his party; he has not volunteered any further details since then. Merkel herself had been clear-eyed about Putin, but also defended the Nord Stream pipelines as an “exclusively private enterprise” until the end of her tenure. In a now-notorious appearance at a Berlin theatre after her retirement, she refused to accept that she had made any mistakes of her own.

That resounding silence is clearly infuriating to other conservatives. In a withering recent newspaper essay, Hans-Joachim Falenski, a former CDU foreign policy adviser, recounts repeated foiled attempts by the party’s legislative group to give teeth to Berlin’s relationship with the Kremlin — and lays the blame squarely on Merkel.

And there is more: the scandal over a Russian mole in the German external intelligence service’s cyber security department; the florid fraud and oversight failures revealed in the Wirecard financial services case (the company’s fugitive chief operating officer Jan Marsalek is suspected to have been a Russian spy); the ongoing revelations about a climate foundation that acted as a conduit for Gazprom money to help finish the construction of Nord Stream 2 (since suspended) ahead of the Russian invasion.

All this suggests two things. Germany’s vulnerability to economic corruption is systemic. And that is a security risk — not just to Europe, but to the western alliance. Germany needs a parliamentary commission of inquiry. It is time for a comprehensive reckoning.

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