Berlin Cable

Jan 19, 2022

A United Front on Russia Policy

The German government had seemed split on how to respond to another possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, including what role Nord Stream 2 should play. However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have now made sure there’s clarity.

Greens party co-leader Annalena Baerbock and SPD top candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz walk as they attend a meeting for exploratory talks for a possible new government coalition in Berlin, Germany, October 15, 2021.
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At last, he said it himself, albeit in his usual, low-key way.

Everything would need to be discussed” should Russia attack Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed on Tuesday afternoon, standing next to visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the chancellery. In other words, there is nothing that would be excluded from possible political, economic, and financial sanctions directed at Moscow in case of another military aggression—including, the chancellor implied in reply to a journalist’s question, Nord Stream 2.

The Baltic Sea gas pipeline runs in parallel to Nord Stream 1, the already existing pipeline that directly connects Russia and Germany, circumventing “traditional” routes of Russian gas supplies via Ukraine (which earns crucial transit fees this way) and Poland. It was always clear that Moscow aimed at cutting unruly Ukraine out of the gas supply picture, or at least at being able to do so. Nord Stream 2 is completed but has not become operational yet. And it has divided Germany and its US as well as Eastern European allies more deeply than any other project or policy in the recent past.

Scholz had fueled these flames on December 17 last year when he referred to Nord Stream 2, in Brussels, as “a private, commercial project.” He has not repeated this long-discredited phrase since, but it had nonetheless given rise to speculation that Scholz wanted to cling to Berlin’s special relationship with Moscow—further fueled when international media picked up on a spurious claim by German tabloid BILD that Scholz “had personally taken charge” of Russia policy—and accusations of heading a divided government. While Scholz’ center-left Social Democrats (SPD) have long tended toward maintaining good relations with Russia, his coalition partners have different approaches. The Greens are long-term critics of Nord Stream 2, while the pro-business Free Democrats, or FDP, are also no great fans of the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, with party leader, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, making a point of regularly tweeting about the fate of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

United We Stand

On Tuesday, Scholz, explicitly, also referred to the Washington Declaration and the Joint US-German Statement in support of Ukraine of July 2021 signed by his predecessor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden, the German-American consensus on Nord Stream 2, which essentially links the pipeline to good Russian behavior—the exact opposite of what Putin has been trying to do since November with his all-out onslaught on Europe’s security structure, demanding a US- and NATO-recognized sphere of influence. “We stand by all aspects of that agreement,” Scholz emphasized, adding that it had been closely coordinated between Merkel, himself in his previous role as vice chancellor and finance minister in her government, and then Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a fellow Social Democrat.

Earlier the same day, another SPD figure, former party leader and foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, had been even more forthright. “Of course, Nord Stream 2 cannot come on stream if Russia attacks Ukraine. Russia would thus destroy the conditions under which Germany agreed to the project,” he told Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. The evening before, SPD foreign affairs spokesman Nils Schmid stressed in DER SPIEGEL that “the West should stay united in terms of threatening sanctions and not take individual elements off the table already and withdraw them completely.”

The SPD’s Russia Problem

Those voices and Scholz’ statement are significant as they follow several examples of German politicians, mostly from Scholz’ SPD, making remarks about the most serious security crisis Europe has seen since the early 1960s, creating the impression that Germany was an unreliable partner or even out to sabotage transatlantic efforts to build a credible deterrence.

There was Kevin Kühnert, the SPD’s newly elected secretary general who suggested that it was time to simply accept Nord Stream 2. Baerbock and the Greens should not “talk something into happening,” he added with questionable logic, only to be able to bury an unloved project. Like Kühnert, SPD Defense Minister Christiane Lambrecht spoke of “not mixing up” Nord Stream 2 and Russia’s threatened military aggression; earlier she had spoken of “taking aim at Putin,” but what she had in mind apparently was blocking Putin and his ilk “from taking shopping trips on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” SPD parliamentary leader Ralf Mützenich, meanwhile, was already thinking ahead of a European future (“some decades away”) beyond NATO which would include Russia (but not the US).

It wasn’t just the SPD, though. Not to be outdone, the Christian Democrats’ (CDU) designated leader, Friedrich Merz, opined over the weekend that excluding Russia from SWIFT, the Belgian-based system facilitating international payments, would amount to detonating “an atomic bomb in the capital markets” and should be quickly taken off the list of possible anti-Russian sanctions.

While Merz’ intervention spoke of an opposition CDU/CSU still in disarray, the SPD statements are indicative of the party’s long-standing “Russia problem,” exacerbated by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who  took on a controversial role as chairman of the supervisory board of the Nord Stream 1 company (something he had agreed with Putin before being voted out of office in 2005); he also acts in the same role for Russia’s oil giant Rosneft.

“Schröder Social Democrats,” of which there are still quite a few, are usually distrustful of the United States and its motives, but endlessly understanding of “Russian perspectives,” essentially buying into the Kremlin’s narrative of encirclement. They are often inspired by a fundamental misreading Willy Brandt’s famous Neue Ostpolitik, confusing rapprochement with appeasement.

However, the “Schröder Social Democrats,” who managed to stop previous Foreign Minister Heiko Maas from pursuing a more forthright course vis-à-vis Moscow, are in retreat. Michael Roth, the newly elected SPD chair of the German Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, is certainly not one of them. And they no longer have much influence over the Federal Foreign Office now headed by Annalena Baerbock of the Greens.

Baerbock Shines in Moscow

A few hours before Scholz made his remarks, Baerbock, visiting her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the first time, spoke impressively clearly, too. Focused and composed, Baerbock explained that Germany considers the security order in Europe as “existential” and is willing to defend it “even if this has a high, also economic price.” Asked about Nord Stream 2, she pointed to the coalition agreement, according to which European law applies; it demands, inter alia, unbundling—a requirement Nord Stream 2 has not yet met (the process of certification has thus been paused). And using “energy as a weapon” (another reference to the Washington Declaration) would have consequences, too, Baerbock added.

What’s more, Baerbock, who also clearly spoke on human rights and Navalny, as well as dryly commenting that is was difficult to see more than 100,000 troops amassed at Ukraine’s border not as a threat, seemed to have succeeded in getting the “Normandy format” going again, which Moscow previously had declared obsolete. Now talks between Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany are to be intensified, and possibly the United States involved as well. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected in Berlin on Thursday for talks with his German, French, and British counterparts, before a meeting with Lavrov in Geneva on Friday.

What the past few days have shown is that, contrary to numerous reports, there is no Scholz-Baerbock split, no chancellery vs. foreign office dynamic, and no wobbly Berlin trying to do deals with Moscow behind allies’ backs. Rather, there is a united government which is slowly, but surely overcoming Germany’s once deeply wishy-washy Russia policy. Its major emphasis on fossil fuels, which suited Putin’s kleptocracy as well as their European cronies, is dated anyway.

In Kyiv, which Baerbock visited before travelling on to Moscow, she talked much about  helping Ukraine becoming a hydrogen producer; and interestingly, in her first telephone conversation with Lavrov back in December, she also discussed hydrogen. While “greening” Nord Stream 2 is problematic, the Scholz government seems not only firm on the “severe” consequences of another Russian aggression, it is trying to create some incentives, too.

The ball is in Vladimir Putin’s court. But for the Kremlin to be betting on a divided German government would be a miscalculation.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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