Berlin Cable

Feb 10, 2022

From Washington to Moscow

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is stepping onto the world stage. And he is doing better than his critics suggest. His Social Democrats, meanwhile, are breaking with their Ostpolitik, which lately only meant “good relations” and “dialogue,” irrespective of how badly Russia behaved.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda attend a joint news conference, ahead of a Weimar Triangle meeting to discuss the ongoing Ukraine crisis, in Berlin, Germany February 8, 2022.
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Did he say “Nord Stream 2”? Why didn’t he say “Nord Stream 2”?

For a great number of observers and much of the media, this was the only question that seemed to have mattered when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Washington earlier this week. To the disappointment and dismay of many, he indeed did not utter those three words in public during his first courtesy call to Germany’s most important ally.

While Scholz spoke of the “closest of allies” and US president Joe Biden personally underlined the closeness of the two governments (“Germany is completely reliable—completely, totally, thoroughly reliable. I have no doubt about Germany at all,” Biden said), spelling out the possible future of the controversial gas pipeline once again loomed large as the litmus test of where Scholz, and his “traffic light” government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) really stand in the confrontation with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Scholz’ host, President Biden, was crystal clear on the point, though. “If Russia invades — if tanks or troops are crossing the border of Ukraine again—then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2.  We will bring an end to it,” Biden said, with the chancellor standing next to him. What Scholz then said, after some generalities, was mostly lost in the reporting. Demonstratively switching to English, the German chancellor stressed, “We will be united, we will act together, and we will take all the necessary steps. And all the necessary steps will be done [sic] by all of us together.”

That is to say: The transatlantic response to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine would be far bigger than simply not allowing Nord Stream 2 to go into operation (a decision by the German regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, is pending, and the European Commission also has a say). Rather, the United States together with NATO and EU member states would, inter alia, fundamentally revise their energy relationships with Russia.

Don’t Discuss in Public

To the Kremlin, which heavily relies on its oil and gas exports for the Russian economy—and Putin’s kleptocracy—to function, this would be a hard blow. And while doable, it would also hit Western economies with higher energy prices. This is something none of the allies like to discuss at length in public. Indeed, Biden dodged a question, by Reuters’ chief political correspondent in Germany, whether US imports of Russian oil would also be in the mix.

The consequences would be dramatic, and likely speed up the race for diversifying energy sources and carbon neutrality. Germany, which has no terminals to receive liquified natural gas (LNG)—the contingency option which the Biden administration has arranged with the Qatari government, which in return was designated a “major non-NATO ally”—has already started to act. Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, a member of the Greens who is also the vice chancellor, promised in parliament the week before last to push for the quick opening of the LNG terminals in Germany’s north-western cities of Brunsbuettel and Stade.

With the German government aiming for a CO2-emissions free future to dawn by 2045 anyway, such a move would bring forward a question that will likely play a role when Scholz visits Moscow next week: What kind of energy relationship does the Kremlin want with a Europe—and Germany in particular—that is going green, with hydrogen likely the only energy source Russia could offer?

In the White House and the Kremlin

Whether the threat of reversing energy relations or other "unprecedented" economic and financial sanctions will impress Putin is of course a different question. While Scholz made the rounds in Washington—including bonding with Biden over, as the US president put it, “the foundational commitment to the dignity of workers and the need to treat all people with respect,” that last word being a major slogan in Scholz’ campaign, which in turn was inspired by Biden; impressing both Democratic and Republican senators (and mentioning Nord Stream 2 behind closed doors) —French President Emmanuel Macron met for over five hours with his Russian counterpart in the Kremlin, with the two men sitting at opposite ends of a five-meter-long white table that is now doing the meme rounds on social media.

Afterwards, Putin blew hot and cold, wildly accusing NATO, inter alia, of wanting to draw Russian into a war over Crimea, but also saying, of Macron’s publicly unelaborated proposals, it was “entire likely” that they “could become part of the basis for our next joint steps.” While the French delegation later said, Putin had committed to not undertaking any new “military initiatives,” Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov later undercut the whole effort by insisting it was wrong to expect a solution of the crisis from such a meeting. “It’s impossible because France is a member of the EU and of NATO, where it is not the leader,” Peskov said, suggesting that in Putin’s view, only US-Russian talks really matter.

Will Scholz be in for a similar treatment when he goes to Moscow on February 15? In Berlin quite a few people are convinced that there are only two interlocuters who really matter to Putin—the US president and the German chancellor. A German-speaker who saw the Soviet empire fall from the vantage point of communist East Germany, as a KGB officer serving in Dresden, Putin taken Berlin seriously in the past, relying on parts of Scholz’ SPD, in thrall to various myth about its Ostpolitik of old, to come out in support of “good relations” and “dialogue,” no matter how criminally and despotic the Putin regime behaved on the world stage and at home, from bombing hospitals in Syria to trying to poison anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny with the banned chemical weapon Novichok.

The SPD and European Ostpolitik

However, just before Scholz travels to Moscow, the SPD has started to fundamentally rethink its approach to Moscow. After offering a cacophony of voices, new SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil managed to get his party behind the Scholz’ messages dealing with the Russia crisis—“dialogue and deterrence,” “severe consequences,” “everything is on the table”—then signaling that the age of uncritical stances was over. "We haven't found a convincing way to deal with authoritarian states," Klingbeil said in an interview last week, referring to Putin’s Russia in particular. "I wonder if the decades-old concept of trying to bring about change in a country through closer ties and economic relations is still relevant.”

Even more remarkably, the SPD has finally started to distance itself clearly from former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who, in addition to high-paid jobs for Nord Stream and Rosneft, was nominated last week for the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom. Days earlier, he had accused Ukraine (!) of “saber-rattling.” “Gerhard Schroeder has no role at all in the German government, he is not the chancellor. That’s me,” Scholz said this week, while Klingbeil denounced Schroeder’s Ukraine comment as “completely false” and his role in Russian state companies as “a mistake.”

So, changes in Germany’s Russia policy are clearly underway, and that includes getting serious about an idea that the SPD parliamentary group already developed in 2018 but that wasn’t put into practice under former Chancellor Angela Merkel—working toward a European Ostpolitik that takes the views and fears of Germany’s Eastern neighbors into account.

Scholz did just that when he convened the first Franco-German-Polish Weimar triangle meeting at top level in 11 years, hosting Macron, who was on his return journey from Moscow and Kyiv, and Polish President Andrej Duda, back from Beijing and the Olympics, in the chancellery on Tuesday. On Thursday, Scholz was to welcome the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—the Baltic NATO and EU members most worried about being next on Putin’s revanchist list.

Whether it is all enough to persuade Putin to refrain from launching another military attack on Ukraine is hard to predict, but the German government has done its best to keep avenues open for that to happen. Thanks to Scholz’ and Macron’s efforts, the Normandy format will be meeting again at the advisor level in Berlin on Thursday. Should Putin be persuaded to “off-ramp,” then this constellation with Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine, possibly with the US added, may be just the forum from which de-escalation and a return to the status quo might be managed.

This way, the Russian president might actually achieve one of his goals—getting Nord Stream 2 on stream. Whether it will be much used—or indeed of use for Putin's geostrategic aims—is a different question.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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