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The new German guilt The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to ask whether decades of its foreign policy were based on a delusion

Source: Meduza
BP refinery in Gelsenkirchen, Germany
BP refinery in Gelsenkirchen, Germany
Martin Meissner / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Over the past several weeks, German politicians and journalists have debated the question of German guilt and responsibility for the war — including for the catastrophes in Bucha and Mariupol. The most difficult questions have been addressed to Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has spent years cultivating a special relationship between Russia and Germany. Indeed, it’s hard to explain now why Germany, which supported sanctions against Russia in 2014 for the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas, didn't divest from Russian energy years ago — in fact, its dependence has only grown in recent years. As a result, Berlin, fearful of wrecking its own country's industry, feels unable to give up Russian petroleum even now — hence Ukrainian allegations that Germany is funding Russia's war.

On Monday, April 4, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (under the German constitution, the president, not the chancellor, is the head of state) made an admission of historic proportions. “My holding on to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was clearly a mistake. We were clinging to bridges that Russia no longer believed in and that our partners warned us about,” he said, adding that Germany had failed to build “a common European house that includes Russia.” This was a tacit acknowledgement that Germany's three-decades-old Russia policy had collapsed.

Steinmeier’s statement was not totally unexpected: the president needed to respond somehow to allegations made by Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk. Not long before, the Ukrainian diplomat had accused President Steinmeier of continuing to regard good relations with Russia as “something sacred and fundamental” despite the war, of being closely connected to the Kremlin through informal ties, and of continuing to deny Ukraine agency. On March 27, Melnyk rejected Steinmeier’s invitation to attend the government-sponsored concert “Solidarity with Ukraine,” which included performances by pianist Evgeny Kissin and baritone Rodion Pogosov, two Russian musicians who have both been living outside of Russia for years.

Moreover, Steinmeier — who served as Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs in previous Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet for many years — didn't make acknowledging mistakes the dominant theme of his speech: he sharply opposed the idea that he personally (or even Germany as a whole) should share responsibility for the war. According to the president, responsibility lies solely with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We shouldn’t take [this responsibility] upon ourselves. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reconsider certain areas where mistakes were made on our part,” he said.

Back in 2008, it was Steinmeier who became a fervent advocate of the “Partnership for Modernization” policy, which was built on the old German idea that economic transformations lead to political ones. A 2016 photograph of Sergei Lavrov giving Steinmeier a friendly pat on the shoulder during the Munich Security Conference has become a meme in recent days — Steinmeier himself was even forced to point out that the men's tense expressions suggest the gesture was far from friendly.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who's been practically silent about current events since leaving office — unexpectedly came out in defense of Germany's previous approach to Eastern Europe. On Monday, Merkel relayed via her press service that she still stands by Germany’s 2008 decision to oppose Ukraine and Georgia's admissions into NATO.

Through meaningful support of Ukraine, Germany could feasibly atone for the mistakes that even its president has acknowledged. But a complete reversal of years of policy isn't coming easy for Berlin — apart from its truly impressive efforts to accomodate Ukrainian refugees (according to official estimates, there are more than 300,000 of them in the country). The decision to send German weapons to Ukraine, while truly a revolutionary move for Germany, so far appears to be more of a symbolic gesture than a real attempt to turn the tide of war. According to German media reports, the GDR-era Strela man-portable antiaircraft missile systems Germany has supplied to Ukraine are not suitable for use. And the German defense minister’s insinuation that Germany is simply not making public the actual scope of its military aid to Ukraine or the variety of weapons it's sending was met with perplexity from the Ukrainian side.

The notion of “German guilt,” which signified German society's collective responsibility for the outbreak of World War II, and which became a part of the postwar German identity, has found new resonance in the era of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks about mistakes made on a ZDF television broadcast, April 5, 2022.
Michael Kappeler / dpa / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Germany condemned Russia's actions in 2014 — then spent eight years becoming more dependent on Russian gas

Merkel’s and Steinmeier’s statements were triggered not only by the Ukrainian ambassador’s cutting statements, but also by questions being posed with increasing urgency in German domestic discussions, including in the pages of newspapers, about the extent of German responsibility for what's happening today in Ukraine.

The longer the war goes on, the more dubious Germany’s 2014–2021 Russia policy appears. After the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbas, it would have been logical, critics today argue, to expect а gradual reduction in dependence on Russian energy. This was even cited as a goal on several occasions (especially after Russia raised gas prices in response to the first sanctions in 2014). In reality, though, Germany continued to deepen its dependence on Russian gas all the way until February 24, 2022.

Whereas in 2012 Germany purchased about 34 billion cubic meters of Russian gas, by 2021, this figure had risen to 56 billion (which accounted for approximately 55 percent of all gas imports into the country). The annual capacity of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, completed in 2021, is theoretically about the same (incredibly, the decision to build it was made in 2015, after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas). If the pipeline had begun operating, this dependance might have been near total.

“Germany disregarded all the warnings made by experts on Eastern Europe in 2014–2016, built a ‘second pipeline,’ continued to develop trade and conduct business as usual, while everything about Putin was clear: he had already started a war, he had destabilized the entire region. Essentially, Merkel’s government jeopardized the energy security of not only her own country, but of all of Europe — and now we're suffering the consequences. Because now it's impossible to implement the very sanctions that would be most painful to Russia, the ones that could bring a quick end to the war,” political scientist Sergei Medvedev, head of the Berlin-based NGO “Decembrists,” told Meduza.

Klaus Geiger, head of international politics at the newspaper Die Welt, went further, writing that “the German authorities share the blame for the massacres in Bucha and Mariupol.” The same edition of Die Welt published an open letter written by Ukrainian intellectuals, which also placed blame for the war on Germany — not on account of what has been termed “Putin-Verstehers” (“Putin-understanders,” a pejorative neologism for politicians who express empathy for Putin’s position), but for the current refusal to embargo energy supplies from Russia. Nothing can replace Russian gas in the near future, and an embargo would cripple German industry and would be a bigger blow to Germany “than to Putin,” members of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s cabinet have said.

Germany’s pacifist approach to global politics, developed in the wake of World War II, now seems especially vulnerable (and somewhat reckless). Berlin, who with considerable effort convinced Israel to accept reparations for Hitler’s crimes against Jews in the early fifties, has been accustomed to solving all problems through negotiations and money, but found itself at a complete loss after February 24, when these means did not work.

“The German position of mediating between Russia and its neighboring countries has suffered a complete moral collapse,” Berlin-based political scientist Alexey Yusupov told Meduza. “This ‘mediator’ position says diplomacy is the main method, compensation is the main tool, that generally ‘there’s enough for everyone,’ and therefore the best solution to any problem is to partake in common economic growth. The war has shown that this is an illusion. Germany was blind — they interpreted what’s happening in Russia incorrectly, and now, naturally, they're in a state of shock. Germany feels and bears responsibility for its inability to understand where this is going.”

Demonstrators wearing masks that resemble Chancellor Scholz, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, and Economy and Climate Protection Minister Robert Habeck during a protest for a “green transition” and the end of dependence on Russian oil and gas. Berlin, April 6, 2022.
Lisi Niesner / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Germany tried — and failed — to weaken Russia's military while binding its economy to Europe's

The decision to maintain economic cooperation with Russia while ending other kinds of cooperation (in particular, defense cooperation, which was terminated due to sanctions) made a certain kind of sense. While it’s difficult to imagine today, the Russian army actively implemented Western technologies before 2014. 

“The sanctions imposed since 2014 have significantly reduced the the Russian army's combat capability. If it weren’t for these sanctions, today we would see a more combat-ready and modern Russian army, which might have achieved great success in the war. Imagine if Russia currently had modern 'Mistral' drones purchased from France, [modern] means of communication and navigation, night vision devices, and electronics for artillery and aviation. None of these things were imported into Russia [but could have been],” Berlin-based political scientist Dmitri Stratievski told Meduza.

The idea was that Germany and Russia's increased economic (and presumedly mutual) dependence would be made up for by the Russian army's weakened combat capability; this was, for instance, the official position of Germany's previous foreign affairs minister under Merkel, social democrat Heiko Maas. He feared that “burning bridges [between Russia and the West]” would lead to the rapprochement of Russia and China. And until recently, new Chancellor Olaf Scholz believed that Nord Stream 2 would force Russia to behave more carefully on the foreign stage so as not to lose billions in investments (according to various estimates, the pipeline's construction cost 9–11 billion euros) and revenue. It simply didn’t occur to German politicians — accustomed to strict scrutiny from political opponents, the public, and the press — that it’s possible to invest in a huge infrastructure project for years only to discard it like a new toy that hasn’t even been opened (to count on Nord Stream 2 operating during war would be incredibly naïve).

However, if Putin surprised (even shocked) Germany by unleashing war and thereby trashing a highly lucrative joint project, then the opposite may also be said: all signs indicate the Kremlin did not expect the harsh sanctions they've been hit with from the European Union. This may be a result of the EU and Germany's position in 2014. While Berlin excoriated Russia for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity in words, in reality (to the disappointment of the Ukrainians), the German government took a more ambiguous view of the situation and was not ready to deal a truly serious blow to Russia.

“The West unanimously condemned the annexation [of Crimea]. But to understand the workings of German politics, it’s necessary to note that the annexation happened almost without bloodshed. There was no massive bloodbath that would move society, that would put pressure on politicians. When it comes to the Donbas, I think a cruel joke was played here by the fact that many German politicians — they haven’t spoken about this openly, but it may be traced through various details—regarded the events in the Donbas as a civil war. ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘it’s clear that Russia is giving technological assistance, but you can see there are Ukrainians on both sides,’” explains Dmitri Stratievski, contrasting the current situation with 2014.

Russia has been considered a rational — albeit peculiar — player, whose behavior was explainable, and who recognized the benefits of European markets, if not of European values.

“It seems that even these conflicts [in Crimea and the Donbas] cannot rattle the German picture of a world where, one way or another, a rational system of relations will prevail, one based on economic growth and the distribution of benefits. It seems that even if [relations] now deteriorate, in the end Russia will come to its senses and return to the principles and ideals upon which — from the German point of view — communication between civilized states is built. Germany was able to 'stomach' Crimea and Donbas because of the illusion that while one step back might be necessary, two steps forward would follow,” says Alexey Yusupov, a Berlin-based political scientist.

Demonstrators in Brussels demand the imposition of an oil and gas embargo against Russia, April 6, 2022.
Jonas Roosens / Belga / ZUMA Press / Scanpix / LETA

One of the most difficult questions German authorities now face is whether their moderate reaction to Russia's actions in Crimea and the Donbas precipitated the invasion of Ukraine. Did Putin perceive German leniency as weakness? Did he take it as an assurance of his impunity? In Dmitri Stratievski's view, any encouragement Russia felt to act aggressively did not come from Germany’s side.

“There’s the aggressor, there’s the victim of aggression, and there are those who somehow or other don’t notice this aggression or deem its credibility to be low. The third [category] describes the Germans. Of course, the entirety of the ‘Russland-policy’ has be shown to be completely bankrupt. And this concerns Germany's policies not only towards Russia, but also towards Ukraine and all of Central and Eastern Europe. But I would not say that Germany facilitated aggression. Even if Germany had acted more harshly, it’s unlikely this would have had an impact on Putin, who clearly makes decisions in isolation from the geopolitical situation. What’s more, we should admit that Putin has always seen the United States to be his counterpart, and has consistently denied German and European agency.”

Sergei Medvedev disagrees. “Germany is just used to acting like this: we have pacifist politics, we aren’t responsible for anything, we are in NATO, we are in the European Union and decide everything collectively in Brussels, but we receive maximum benefits from trade with authoritarian regimes," he said.

Medvedev pointed out that Germany has not yet stopped importing goods made, presumably under forced labor, by Uyghurs in China. And the largest importers of German weapons include countries with poor human rights records like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

“I hope that now, in this terrible situation, Germany will understand that we cannot afford cheap gas and oil, because [by buying from Russia,] we are prospering at the expense of the states Russia has destabilized,” Medvedev says. “This process should have begun in 2014, but it's only getting started now — and thank God it is. The main thing is for it to continue even after Putin’s defeat in Ukraine — otherwise they might do it again."

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Story by Dmitry Vachedin

Translated by Meghan Vicks