Berlin Cable

Jun 30, 2022

Signs of the Times

Slowly, Germany’s political class has caught up with the present. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and  his Green Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck are starting to prepare Germany for a future that the country did not reckon with.

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck speaks during the annual meeting of Federation of German Industries (BDI), in Berlin, Germany June 21, 2022.
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Reading a world situation in historical analogies can be tricky. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, thought at first that it was 1975 all over again when his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin amassed troops along Ukraine’s borders and demanded a total roll-back of the post-Cold War order in Europe, preferably with the United States packing its bags and leaving behind its role as a “European power” (Richard Holbrooke).

But no, another reaffirmation of Europe’s borders and the principle of self-determination was not on Putin’s mind.

Once Russia had started its brutal, neo-imperialist war of annihilation and colonization, Macron then seemed to think it was 1918 again. The most important thing, France’s recently reelected president seemed to signal time and again, was not to “humiliate” Russia; that was the big mistake France and its allies allegedly committed after World War I in their dealings with defeated Germany.

Wrong again. While Russian troops failed miserably in their blitzkrieg strategy thanks to Ukraine’s brave and skillful defense of its capital, Kyiv, they are now advancing, albeit slowly, in eastern Ukraine. They are also trying to consolidate their hold over newly conquered southern parts of the country, employing a brutal and murderous policy of Russification reminiscent of the darkest days of Nazi occupation policies of the early 1940s.

No Kaiser Wilhelm

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went one further and, in his head, turned the historical clock back to 1914. He would be “no Kaiser Wilhelm,” Scholz assured journalists who covered his Africa trip at the end of May in off-the-record briefings. In the chancellor’s mind, the biggest danger was of big powers “sleepwalking” into a global conflict by miscalculating their response to Putin’s criminal war. This convinced few, either, and the historian Christopher Clark, whose 2012 book The Sleepwalkers about the origins of World War I sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, has now debunked the comparison, too.

Scholz may not have let go of the idea completely, but there are signs that Germany’s policymakers are finally starting to arrive in 2022—a time when a dangerously aggressive and revisionist Russia run by a kleptocratic regime is moving borders by military force and will not stop if not vigorously confronted. It has also dawned on many that Putin means what he says when he declared liberal democracy dead and the West, including Germany, the enemy. And more and more people are also realizing that supporting Ukraine and taking on Putin will mean risking a recession and economic hardship. It will also mean that more investments are required to strengthen Germany, Ukraine, and the EU as a whole.

The massive reduction by 60 percent last week of Russian gas supplies to Germany via Nord Stream 1, the Baltic Sea pipeline, may actually have turned the tide in many German minds. As Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck said in a remarkable speech to the Federation of German Industries (BDI) on June 22, “it is an attack on us.”

“Putin has started the war because, in my view, he cannot bear the individual freedom of human beings. And because Ukraine, in its striving for freedom, has become a threat to his dictatorial regime,” Habeck said. “That is why Putin mustn’t conclude the war successfully. Because this would mean that dictators would be able to successfully attack, and attack again, our freedom.” In order to try to avoid this and an economic crisis, which he would not rule out either, Germany’s Green vice chancellor ordered the return of some coal-fired power stations to the grid.

Of “Marder” and Future Relations

Not quite everyone is on the same page yet. Jens Plötner, Scholz’ foreign and security policy advisor in the chancellery who used to run President Frank Walter Steinmeier’s office when the latter was Germany’s foreign minister, made Twitter waves last week when he suggested, during a talk hosted by the German Council on Foreign Relations, that instead of filling newspaper pages with discussions about whether or not Berlin should send 20 “Marder” tanks to Ukraine, the media would be better off thinking about what kind of shape “our future relationship with Russia” could take.

Plötner meant to use this as an example to show that Germany’s debates were insufficiently strategic. But, of course, suggesting to journalists that they are focusing on the wrong thing has rarely produced the desired result—the more so in Plötner’s case since this line of argument seemed to feed into the wider narrative of a hesitant Scholz government reluctant to let go of over two decades of Putin-friendly policies. The chancellor had to step in the next day, telling parliament that any collaboration with Putin’s Russia was “inconceivable.”

Meanwhile, rather than sketching out a picture of proactive policy, Wolfgang Schmidt, minister without portfolio and head of the chancellery, in a speech to the annual meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on June 19 stressed Germany’s caveats when it came to its Ukraine policy: not to act without allies; not to send military material that would weaken the Bundeswehr and its ability to defend Germany and its allies; not to pursue sanctions that “would hurt us more than Russia”; not to become party to the war.

However, Schmidt also made very clear that the overall aim was to make sure “that right would prevail over might”—in other words, that it was paramount that the rules-based international order was successfully defended against Putin’s attack. “Germany is in a learning phase,” Schmidt said when talking about Berlin taking up more of a leadership role, before quoting former US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell who once said, “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

By that measure, the Scholz government’s foreign and European policy has been wildly successful so far.

A Changing Tone

But still, the tone—and the thinking—in Berlin sems to be changing slowly. There are some factors that might allow one to come to the cautious conclusion that Germany’s “learning phase” under Scholz and Co. is starting to bear some fruit. Heavy weapons of German provenance are starting to appear at Ukraine’s frontlines. And after initial hesitation, Germany has strongly supported granting Ukraine EU candidate status and is pushing for moving faster with incorporating the six countries of the Western Balkans (which find themselves in very different positions vis-à-vis a possible EU membership, but all left the European Council meeting last week empty-handed) into the EU.

As host of the G7 summit at Schloss Elmau, Scholz managed to keep the partners firmly united on Ukraine, sending a strong message of “unity and determination” to Putin. Saying that military, financial, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine would continue “as long as it is necessary”, Scholz came close to a “whatever it takes” moment while saying also that the G7 countries expected the war to go on for a long while. The chancellor also announced that he and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would organize a “Marshall plan conference” for Ukraine, to plan and coordinate an international reconstruction effort.

Days earlier, the change in tone had already been tangible in a foreign policy speech given last week by Lars Klingbeil, the newly elected co-leader of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), which IPQ documented in the form of an op-ed. “Germany must aspire to be a leading power,” Klingbeil said and added a warning, “This new role as a leading power will require Germany to make tough financial and political decisions. We need to change structures and renegotiate budgets. We need a completely different debate about security policy in Germany.”

Like others in Scholz’ government, including Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, the 44-year-old Klingbeil represents a new generation of politicians who have been taking power recently and finding their feet. While they may want to avoid a “G7 versus BRICS+” world, one that pits the transatlantic allies and Japan against China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa (who held a summit on June 24) and others, they ultimately want a German foreign policy that is fully engaged as well as principled—in other words up-to-date.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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