Olaf Scholz and the New “Ostpolitik”
History weighed on Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his SPD party when it came to dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But over a couple of weeks, Germany’s Social Democrats have changed their approach quite substantially.
Just hours after taking office on December 8, 2021, Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, clearly laid out his policy on Russia. Interviewed by the German TV station ARD, he was asked what his new government—a coalition of his center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP)—planned to do about tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Scholz mentioned three key points: first, talks continued to be important, second, the West must make clear that European borders cannot be changed by force. Third, if they were somehow changed by force, then that must bring about “clear consequences.”
Having made these remarks on Russia, Scholz went on to explain: “I want us again to remember two Social Democratic Chancellors: Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. Those two leaders, whose policies of Ostpolitik and détente laid the groundwork for democracy in many European countries, where once there had been communist dictatorships. They laid the groundwork for the Iron Curtain to be dismantled, and for our shared existence within the European Union.” In other words, as he took office, the first SPD chancellor since 2005 positioned himself as successor to Brandt, the SPD’s biggest post-war father figure. An outsize statue of the former chancellor dominates the atrium of SPD’s federal headquarters in Berlin, Willy Brandt House.
Scholz' remarks on the day had two functions. Within the party, the invocation of the new chancellor’s predecessors epitomized new pride within its ranks after its recent election win. But the specific mention of Brandt—a much-loved figure across the SPD—also served to consolidate party unity. Scholz’ carefully-chosen examples were also a reply to the Christian Democratic Union, the SPD’s former coalition partner, now in opposition. The conservative CDU has its own traditions, running counter to those of the SPD, and it likes to remind people of its long record of supplying iconic post-war leaders.
The other purpose of Scholz’ comments was far more general, aimed at audiences well outside his own political party. The three specific points on Russia were a clear formulation of the policy Scholz has followed on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and which he has continued to follow until now.
What Is Ostpolitik?
The actual foreign policy that Scholz’ three-point approach meant to embody was not very different from that of his predecessor Angela Merkel. Nonetheless, his specifically Social Democratic use of the term “Ostpolitik” triggered vehement reactions in Germany. Some questioned the use of the word itself in the present era. “The use of the term ‘Ostpolitik’ was very unfortunate,” said Gwendolyn Sasse, director of Berlin’s Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOIS). The term may provoke positive connotations among Social Democrats, she said, “but reaction [to it] in Central and Eastern Europe is highly negative.” The word “Ostpolitik” can stir up fears among Germany’s eastern neighbors that Berlin may go it alone on Russia, ignoring the wishes of countries like Poland. These historical concerns are genuine, although they have at times also been cultivated by Eastern European governments, keen to use to them for domestic political benefit.
The second critique of “Ostpolitik” as a term is that it was coined to refer to West German relations with the former Soviet Union, a country very different to today’s Russian Federation. Johann Wadephul, parliamentary spokesman for the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, their Bavarian allies, emphasized one key difference in particular. Unlike the Soviet Union, he said, Russia now harbors conscious ambitions to redraw international borders. He specifically pointed to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its military intervention in Georgia in 2008, as well as public suggestions made by President Vladimir Putin that the collapse of the USSR was the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe. "Anyone talking about ‘Ostpolitik’ today is really laboring under an illusion,” he said, alluding to decades of foreign policy disagreement between the SPD and the Christian Democrats.
Recent discussion on Ostpolitik has been made acrimonious by its overlap with at least two other debates. First and foremost, there is the political debate around the future of Nord Stream 2, the Baltic Sea gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany. In opposition, the Green party was among the sharpest critics of the pipeline. The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, whose coalition was largely responsible for pushing it through, have traditionally been more favorable.
Disputes around Nord Stream 2 were not put to rest by last year’s coalition deal between the SPD, Greens, and the FDP. The compromise on the pipeline within the agreement does not even mention the infrastructure project directly. Instead, it states that: “We want to diversify energy supply for both Germany and Europe. Energy policy projects within Germany are subject to European energy law.” That careful formulation allowed the Greens to hint to supporters that the pipeline would not ultimately receive legal approval. For Chancellor Scholz and the SPD, on the other hand, the coalition deal seemed to promise “depoliticization” of the pipeline debate. Scholz is a lawyer by training, and he pointed to the “fully worked-out procedure” that will decide if the pipeline goes into operation. Speaking to the German daily Die Welt in a December 8 interview, he added: “A lot of decisions have already been taken, otherwise this pipeline would never have been brought to completion.”
Scholz went still further at the European Union summit in Brussels on December 17: “In terms of Nord Stream 2, this is a private-sector project that has advanced to the point where a legally-approved pipeline is in existence. So, there is now the subsidiary question that has to be decided, namely the degree to which it complies with the ‘bundling criteria’ laid out in European energy law. The proper authorities in Germany will decide this, in a non-political way, after wide consultation.” Kevin Kühnert, general secretary of the SPD, took the same position in a Reuters interview on January 8. In remarks clearly aimed at his Green coalition partners, he observed: “At some point, there has to be a conclusion to this sort of question, in both political and legal terms. There are various permit applications, in other words legal issues, which are currently holding up the pipeline from going into operation.”
The Social Democrats had a double problem in the public debate on the pipeline. Scholz’ and Kühnert’s statements confirmed fears among opponents of the pipeline that the chancellor and his party would continue to support Nord Stream 2, even in the event of Russian aggression against Ukraine. From Scholz’ perspective, this was absurd, since Germany was committed to the opposite policy, laid down in the Joint Statement of the United States and Germany on Support for Urkaine of July 21, 2021, signed when Scholz was vice-chancellor in Merkel’s government. Nonetheless, the statements prompted many questions about the Chancellor’s position, leading Scholz to confirm on January 18 that Russian aggression would mean putting “everything” on the table, which would logically include Nord Stream 2.
Nevertheless, Scholz and other senior SPD figures, including party co-leader Lars Klingbeil, avoided making direct reference to the pipeline in debates about sanctions on Russia. Within the party, it was felt that directly addressing the pipeline would simply escalate a debate that many party figures saw as in any case overblown, given that Nord Stream 2 was not yet even in operation. Speaking publicly about the project would just play into the hands of longstanding opponents of the pipeline, going back well before the latest tensions. Moreover, some Social Democrats also feel that a perceived need for Western unity deflected attention from the United States’ own interests as a producer of liquid natural gas (LNG), and indeed as a consumer of Russian oil. Avoiding reference to Nord Stream 2 might also keep a temporary lid on anger from SPD supporters of the pipeline.
The renewed passions surrounding the word “Ostpolitik” were produced by the rapidly changing political context. The altered security situation cast a new light on geopolitical terms. Scholz first used the term on December 8: There were already substantial Russian troop deployments, but any possible military conflict still lay a long way off, at least according to the German security establishment. But fears then grew rapidly, as Russia’s mobilization expanded quickly, with an increasing number of units deployed to Belarus. References to Ostpolitik and détente now seemed unrealistic and unworldly, accusations also made about the government coalition’s ban on arms deliveries to Ukraine. This despite the fact that Berlin’s position was no different to the Merkel-led government’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The SPD and the Legacy of Ostpolitik
There is nothing new about the SPD becoming embroiled in controversies about the legacy of Ostpolitik, nor about Russian gas pipelines. These issues were problematic ones for all three previous SPD chancellors – Brandt, Schmidt, and Gerhard Schröder—as well as for a series of SPD foreign ministers in the party’s various coalitions with Merkel’s CDU.
Scholz’s comments on December 8 deliberately included Schmidt as well as Brandt, looking to invoke Schmidt’s famously tough-minded support of NATO’s double-track decision, i.e., the deployment of medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. For Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran former head of the Munich Security Conference, that firm stance on Russia was key: “Both Brandt and Schmidt knew very well that there was no chance of success in dealing with the USSR if you negotiated from a position of weakness.” During the election campaign, Scholz repeatedly stressed that, as finance minister, he had significantly increased German defense spending. In emphasizing this, he was well aware it was not a popular move within the party.
For some time now, SPD Russia policy largely meant extending a hand of understanding to Moscow. In 2005, Frank-Walter Steinmeier became the SPD foreign minister in Merkel’s first coalition, emphasizing Berlin’s willingness to cooperate with Russia. Steinmeier had previously been Schröder’s chief of staff, and is now in his second term as Germany’s federal president. Back in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev briefly succeeded Putin as president, Steinmeier offered Moscow a “modernization partnership.” Moreover, this was not just SPD policy; the German government as a whole had high hopes for change in Russia, which would possibly usher in new liberal economic reforms. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Merkel was very much opposed to the offer of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, as proposed by then US President George W. Bush. War between Russia and Georgia broke out soon afterward, significantly clouding relations between Moscow and the West.
In 2013, the SPD again entered into a coalition with Merkel’s CDU, and the new government’s Russia policy took up almost an entire page of the coalition agreement. Despite much criticism of Putin’s harder line on domestic policy after his return to the presidency in 2012, Berlin was still holding out the prospect for “open dialogue and broader cooperation with Russia.” Not long after, these plans had to be shelved when Moscow used the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests and the downfall of President Viktor Yanukovych as an excuse to annex Crimea and support pro-Russia separatists in the Donbass region.
To the surprise of many US observers, it was Merkel and Steinmeier who then pushed for economic sanctions against Russia, showing that Germany was well capable of putting principles ahead of economic interests. The tone from Berlin changed in 2018, however, when Heiko Maas became the next SPD foreign minister. By now, Germany’s policy line was heavily marked by disillusion with Putin’s domestic and foreign policy. Maas had initially spoken of a “new Ostpolitik,” and had strongly criticized Moscow, along with then SPD leader Andrea Nahles. This prompted a heated debate within the party, with traditionalists regretting the modern SPD’s distance from Ostpolitik, seen as part of its sacred legacy.
But Maas insisted that Germany was living in very different political context. Present-day Ostpolitik would have to include Germany’s close partners in Eastern Europe. In the 1970s and 1980s, German policy necessarily had to go via Moscow. Since EU enlargement, however, Germany’s main contacts and biggest trading partners in eastern Europe were to be found in Warsaw, Prague, and Bratislava. To calm things down within the SPD, Maas began referring to "European Ostpolitik,” a term also adopted by other leading party figures, including Klingbeil. Eventually Scholz also took up the term. An official statement of December 16, 2021 included the line: “Within a unified Europe, Ostpolitik must be European Ostpolitik.”
Realigning Russia Policy
Despite all of this, the SPD’s initial reaction to Russia-Ukraine developments in early 2022 was a defensive one. The Russian military build-up prompted many party veterans to make public statements, including Schröder, as well as former party leaders Matthias Platzeck and Sigmar Gabriel, with positions sometimes closer to the “old” Ostpolitik than the supposedly new European version. A book by Klaus von Dohnanyi, a former SPD mayor of Hamburg, claimed any further eastward expansion by NATO should be regarded as a threat to Europe's security. But the SPD’s biggest image problem was former Chancellor Schröder, who has enjoyed notably close links to the Russian gas industry since leaving office two decades ago. In early February, Schröder accused Ukraine of “saber rattling,” then promptly was offered a seat in Russian gas giant Gazprom's supervisory board. By contrast, Gabriel, a former foreign minister under Merkel and a former SPD leader, called for Germany to supply arms to help Ukraine defend itself. The overall impression was of one of disunity, a cacophony of competing voices.
Outwardly, the SPD denied it had a problem with Russia policy. But there was genuine alarm inside the party, with fears it could be portrayed as naïve and narrow-minded on Russia. Debates within the leadership committee and the parliamentary party prompted a decision to close ranks, including by invoking the historical figures cited by Scholz. Klingbeil, the new co-leader, is responsible for foreign policy within the party. After meeting with advisers, he called a high-level discussion for the end of January, which involved senior party figures, federal parliamentarians, and SPD state prime ministers. The intention was to draw a clear line between current leadership figures and former party bigwigs. As Klingbeil repeatedly emphasized, in this context, only the current leadership mattered.
Two further developments followed. Scholz had been working behind the scenes as the crisis intensified, but now began a new course of public diplomacy, taking him to Washington, Kyiv, and Moscow, as well as numerous meetings with European allies. His team wanted to change the impression that Annalena Baerbock, the new Green foreign minister, was the only government figure actively working on the crisis.
The second development was Klingbeil’s attempt to fundamentally reposition the SPD’s Russia policy. In a Reuters interview on February 3, he criticized the party’s foreign policy establishment, saying it had too few contacts in Russia, and in eastern European countries more generally. He also cast doubt on a long-standing tenet of German foreign policy: “There is an idea, which has been cultivated for decades, that if you want to bring about change within a country, you should seek more interdependency and more and more economic relationships. I am not sure this is the case anymore. If you look at Russia now, you have to say that the domestic political situation has massively deteriorated in recent years.” He made a similar point about China, adding that: “So far, we have not found a convincing way of dealing with authoritarian states in political terms.”
The SPD co-leader was trying to formulate a new task for himself and the party, namely the reorganization of its Russia policy. He emphasized that there were “an incredible number” of possible partnerships between Russia and the West, from twin-town programs to common action against climate change. But his conclusion was less hopeful: “Unfortunately, a positive agenda with Russia is a long way off right now.” It was up to Putin whether closer cooperation could take place, he observed: “If he de-escalates, cooperation will become possible again in the future.” Before this, however, some “basic questions” had to be addressed. This included a very fundamental one: “Are our old beliefs about foreign policy still correct?”
The following weeks saw further attempts to talk to Putin. On February 15, Scholz flew to Moscow for a long-awaited meeting—after the chancellor had visited Kyiv. But the hope that the Russian president would give in evaporated quickly: On Monday 21, Russia announced that it was recognizing the two break away-regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, undermining the Minsk agreement. The next day the chancellor reacted by putting Nord Stream 2 on hold, announcing that the German government would work on a new assessment of its energy security. “And that will take its time,” he added, hinting that he would not bet on Nord Stream 2 ever going into operation.
With Russia having launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that appeared even less likely. After Russia launched the attack the leader of the SPD parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, was among the most outspoken, saying, “The Russian president is a war criminal.” “President Putin and the Russian leadership will pay a heavy price for this,” Chancellor Scholz promised, making it clear, too, that he sees Putin as personally responsible. “This is Putin’s war.”
Days after Russia started its attack on Ukraine, SPD leaders asked Schröder to give up his seats on the boards of the Russian energy companies. And even Manuela Schwesig, prime minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline lands, found a new tone: The deputy leader of the SPD halted all contacts between her
regional goverment and Russia—and also asked Schröder to step down from his positions. In a speech to Bundestag, Chancellor Scholz not only agreed to German arms deliveries to Ukraine. In a sudden change he also announced that the coalition from now on would spend more than the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP on security and introduces a €100 billion facility to finance new military equipement. And he bid farewell to the old concept of engaging Russia in saying: "Yes, long-term security in Europe is not possible against Russia. For the foreseeable future, however, Putin is endangering this security. This must be clearly stated. We accept the challenge that time has presented us with—
soberly and resolutely.”
Andreas Rinke is Reuters’ chief correspondent in Berlin.