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Towards an alliance between Kyiv and Berlin?

Counterintuitive deliberations on a possible future partnership between Ukraine and Germany.

August 16, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and Commentary

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on his first official visit to Germany. 18th of June 2019. Photo: Presidential Administration of Ukraine (cc) wikimedia.org

The political party-spectrum of various EU and NATO member states are transmuting with frightening speed. Peripheral phenomena such as ethnic nationalism, demagogic populism and plain irrationalism are taking hold in American and European high politics, public life and mass media. The various new illiberal, authoritarian and crypto-racist forces are often Russia doves. Some are outrightly pro-Putinist. The pro-democratic pathos of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution and Kyiv’s enthusiasm for EU as well as NATO accession is alien to the west’s newborn nativists.

German politics’ counter-cyclical evolution

To surprising degree, Germany has resisted this all-western trend. In part, it has even developed in the opposite direction. A right-wing populist party, with ideas similar to those of other new nationalist politicians in western countries, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has emerged in the FRG too, to be sure. The AfD has recently entered the federal as well as all regional parliaments in Germany, and become an important factor in East German regional affairs. The populist party is also resembling the AfD’s nationalist brethren in other EU states as it plays the role of the most outspokenly pro-Russian political force in the FRG’s party spectrum.

Yet, the AfD remains isolated and stigmatised within German federal-level politics. There seems to be an upper ceiling for the AfD’s national electoral support — significantly below 20 per cent, and there is little chance for the right-wing populists to ever enter a federal coalition government. In some ways, the AfD’s recent entry into the Bundestag and presence in German mass media has been even good for Ukraine. That is because the AfD’s undisguised support for the Putin regime — including the public endorsement of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and open cooperation of some AfD activists with the Kremlin — is contributing to a delegitimisation of similar approaches among Germany’s left-wing politicians and intellectuals.

To be sure, many latently anti-American German socialists and social democrats are still Kremlin doves. Yet, the pacifist Putinversteher (Putin-understanders) have found it more difficult to publicly justify various pro-Moscow positions in leftist terms, in light of the AfD’s enthusiastic embrace of Russian discourses and policies. Within the Social Democratic Party and even partly within the Left Party, as well as their associated think tanks, the Friedrich Ebert and Rosa Luxemburg foundations, a more reserved approach towards the current Russian regime is gaining some prominence.

In Germany’s center-right spectrum, future prospects for pro-Ukrainian trends may also look better than some imagine. Many Ukrainian political observers are worried by Angela Merkel’s forthcoming departure from German politics. Merkel has been heavily engaged with Kyiv during the last years and has earned herself many friends in Ukraine. There is a danger that here departure will lower the salience of Ukraine in German foreign affairs, and that provincial politicians with little international relations experience could come to dominate the FRG’s new government. Yet, some of the possible alternatives to Merkel in the Chancellery and leadership of the German center-right may not be bad for Ukraine.

In her first foreign policy statements, the recently elected new head of the Christian Democratic Union, current Minister of Defense and a possible successor to Merkel as Chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, for instance, has largely been critical of Russia. Another rising star of Germany’s center right, the European People’s Party top German candidate in this year’s European parliamentary elections, Manfred Weber, even openly opposes the Nord Stream 2 project (more on this below). Germany’s new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is also a committed Atlanticist and has distinguished herself, in the German context, with relatively hawkish remarks about Putin’s Russia.

Moreover, if Kramp-Karrenbauer were to become Chancellor, one of her close advisors, current Deputy General Manager of the CDU and recent Ministry of Defense appointees, Nico Lange, might enter Germany’s next government. Lange was the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Kyiv office from 2006 to 2012, and knows Ukraine well. He speaks some Ukrainian and is personally acquainted with many Ukrainian politicians, diplomats, intellectuals and activists. Lange’s possible further advance in Germany’s executive would mean that, for the first time, a major European power would have an accomplished expert on today’s Ukraine in its leadership. This is distinct from the US or Canadian governments, whose various former or current Ukrainian diaspora members have had little first-hand experience with Ukraine’s complex post-Soviet political affairs.

A recent personnel change in Germany’s liberal center-right party may also be to the advantage of Ukraine. In April 2019, the Free Democratic Party elected the 38-year old East German lawyer, Linda Teuteberg, as its General Secretary. To be sure, many East German politicians — especially on the left and right ends of the FRG’s party spectrum — tend to be dovish on Russia and disinterested in Ukraine. Yet, a minority of East German parliamentarians, intellectuals, journalists and experts are, on the contrary, especially hawkish with regard to post-Soviet authoritarianism — probably out of their first-hand experience with its Soviet-era roots. This includes, for example, the former Member of European Parliament, Werner Schulz, or the current head of the Tbilisi office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Stefan Meister.

Teuteberg seems to belong to the latter rather than the former camp. She has, like Angela Merkel, a special East German understanding of post-Soviet affairs. Because of her legal background, she seems to have little patience for Putin’s violations of international law in Ukraine, among others.

The rise of the German Green Party

For Kyiv, the most relevant recent positive trend in German politics during the last couple of years has been the rise in popular support for the most vocally pro-Ukrainian German political party, the Union 90/The Greens. Once a minor force in Berlin, the left-liberal Green party is now regularly polling ahead of the Social Democrats, and is second only to Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The Green party also plays an important role in West German regional politics and has recently started to make serious inroads into East German state parliaments.

The Greens are now poised to significantly enlarge their Bundestag faction in the next federal elections currently scheduled for 2021. Given recent changes in German voter preferences, the Greens may take more than 20 per cent of the vote and about a fourth of the seats in the Bundestag, if not more. If trends continue, the new factional constellation in Germany’s next parliament will mean the Greens could enter the next federal government. In a best-case scenario for them, even the next Chancellor could come from the Greens — whether in a coalition with the center-right or in an alliance with the Social Democrats and The Left.

Due to their high concern for minority and women’s rights, the Greens have an especially critical view of Putin’s imperialism, authoritarianism, machismo, clericalism and traditionalism (something oddly tolerated by many leftists around the world). For somewhat similar reasons though, neither the German federal nor the EU parliamentary Greens have found significant political allies in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, including in Ukraine. The often conservative, nationalist and anti-leftist ideologies of pro-democratic forces in the successor republics of the Soviet Union have made their rapprochement with left-liberal West European parties, including the various Green groups, a difficult task.

Nevertheless, the German Greens have had a 30-year relationship with Ukraine, reaching back to the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Over the last decade, the so-called “realo” wing of the Greens (i.e. the realists as distinguished from the radically pacifist fundamentalists) and the party-linked Heinrich Böll Foundation have taken an increasingly open pro-Ukrainian position, especially in connection with the Euromaidan uprising. Among some German Greens, the Revolution of Dignity’s emancipatory impetus is seen as partly similar to the impulses of the 1968 West German student protests that gave birth to the Green movement, and to the 1989 to 1990 East German anti-communist uprising. Out of the latter revolution, today’s alliance of the West German Green party with the late GDR’s opposition alliance “Union 1990” (Bündnis 90) emerged in 1993.

Until recently, one of the highest ranking Green politicians with a special interest in Ukraine, the former head of the European Parliament’s (EP) Green faction, Rebecca Harms, was awarded the Anniversary Medal “25 Years of Ukrainian Independence”, by then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2016. Harms left the European Parliament in 2019, yet remains active in Ukrainian affairs. Like Harms, two other veteran German Green politicians, Marieluise Beck and Ralf Fuecks, have recently left federal politics. Yet, in 2017, Beck and Fuecks founded, a pro-Atlantic and anti-authoritarian think-tank in Berlin, the LibMod: Zentrum Liberale Moderne (Center for Liberal Modernity). With its popular events and special reports, not the least on East European affairs, LibMod is already getting attention among German politicians and intellectuals. Since 2018, it has run a special Ukraine project which includes the website Ukraine verstehen (Understanding Ukraine) that publishes brief German-language analyses of current Ukrainian affairs on a weekly basis.

Moreover, a vocal group of younger pro-Ukrainian politicians and activists are continuing the earlier line taken by Harms, Beck and Fuecks in the German and European parliaments, as well as in the Heinrich Böll Foundation. In the Bundestag, among others, Omid Nouripour and Manuel Sarazzin pay special attention to Ukraine. In the European Parliament, the recently elected German Green MEPs, Viola von Cramon and Sergey Lagodinsky, have a special interest and sympathy for post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Given this and other positive developments, Berlin’s approach towards Kyiv will, over the next few years, gradually improve. For these and other reasons, Ukraine’s Germany policy should be rethought.

The Nord Stream 2 diversion

Such an optimistic perspective on Germany’s internal evolution and external repositioning would strike many observers in Ukraine today as incomplete, to say the least. Some would regard a recommendation for Kyiv to intensify relations with Berlin as currently inapt, if not ridiculous. This is because the German government, in the view of many Ukrainian observers, has recently taken a seemingly anti-Ukrainian turn in certain matters. This regards, above all, yet not only, one of Kyiv’s most important foreign economic matters — Ukraine’s continuing role as the major transit country for the transportation of Siberian natural gas to the EU.

So far, Germany has acted as the main lobbyist in the EU for the building of a second direct underwater gas pipeline from North-Western Russia to North-Eastern Germany, on the bed of the Baltic Sea — the infamous Nord Stream 2 conduit. Germany’s policy on this matter is seen as extremely negative and even treacherous in Kyiv. Along with Berlin’s support for the readmission of the previously expelled Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2019, Nord Stream 2 has become a major irritant in German-Ukrainian relations. For the following three reasons, the eventual effect of this regrettable development for the prospects of closer cooperation between Germany and Ukraine should not be overestimated, however.

First, it is not certain that the pipeline will indeed become operational in terms that the Kremlin wishes, nor is it clear yet what geopolitcal role a fully functioning Nord Stream 2 can play for Moscow. In view of growing skepticism towards this project in the entire west, the project’s completion may be postponed and circumscribed – or even altogether prevented. Although continental West European business support for the project remains high, there is considerable skepticism towards Nord Stream 2 among political and intellectual leaders in the US, EU, Eastern Europe, and even, to some degree, in Germany. The pipeline’s full operation — at least, in the way that Moscow imagines it — is not yet a done deal.

Second, even if the pipeline starts operating some time between 2020 and 2022, it will remain a highly politicised project. Before the first Nord Stream pipeline was completed in 2012, the political implications of the new pipeline between Russia and Germany had only been debated among a narrow circle of experts. As a result of low initial attention and continuing lack of comprehensive analysis, the building and operation of the initial Nord Stream conduit has not yet become a matter of full geopolitical assessment.

West European and especially German politicians, experts and diplomats have still yet to publicly acknowledge the connection between the creation of the first Baltic Sea underwater gas pipeline and the resulting reduction of economic interdependence between Russia and Ukraine. The operation of the original Nord Stream pipeline may have not been a sufficient condition for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and covert military intervention in the Donets Basin. Yet, its completion in 2012 eased the Kremlin’s decision to use unrestrained hard power against Kyiv less than two years later.

A future multi-disciplinary geoeconomic analysis by political and military scientists as well as economists may help to establish whether the completion of the first Nord Stream was a necessary precondition for the start of Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine in 2014. If research were to show this affirmatively, it will put much of recent German policies towards Russia, and especially Germany’s social democratic post-Cold War Neue Ostpolitik (new Eastern policy), under fundamental question. To many Central and East Europeans, Germany’s two Nord Stream deals with Russia appear as partially similar to the infamous 1938 Munich Agreement and 1939 Molotov-Ribbentropp pact. In these two fateful geopolitical deals, Europe’s most powerful states sacrificed the sovereignty and lives of weaker Slavic and Baltic nations for the sake of their own — and as it briefly afterwards turned out, gravely misunderstood — self-interests.

The Nord Stream 2 project is different from the first in that it has already become highly politicised before its installation. After West Siberian gas starts flowing through the second pipeline to Upper Pomerania, the public debate and critique of the project will probably continue. This will especially be the case if the start of the operation of Nord Stream 2 is accompanied or followed by an escalation in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Against the background of Nord Stream 2’s already today high controversiality, Germany and the EU may have no other choice but to cut Russian energy delivery via the Baltic Sea in the case of new Russian attacks on Ukraine. The risks for Gazprom in such scenario are, perhaps, already being or will be considered in Moscow. These considerations may exert a moderating influence on the Kremlin.

A somewhat similar story is also true for some economic questions related to the operation of Nord Stream 2. Will EU gas imports via the Ukrainian gas transportation system continue? And how substantial will Ukraine’s income loss from lost transfer fees be? The issue of weakening not only Ukraine’s geopolitical situation but also its financial and economic position, as a result of Nord Stream 2 gas delivery is already today debated among European experts, unlike during the period before completion of the first Nord Stream pipeline. Whatever the exact budgetary and social repercussions are for Ukraine, these aftereffects will become an issue for all Europeans. Given the ongoing heated debate about the role of Nord Stream 2 for Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, even non-military effects of the pipeline’s operation will become politicised, if not moralised. The EU and especially Germany will remain under pressure to — at least partly — compensate Ukraine for negative economic effects of Nord Stream 2.

Lastly, the two Nord Stream pipelines are not everything in German-Ukrainian relations. Moreover, they are the result of the combination of two historical factors unrelated to today’s German policy preferences. In the early 2000s, Kyiv rejected Berlin’s attempt to create a Ukrainian-German-Russian consortium to preserve and jointly modernize the Ukrainian gas transportation system. Had this project not been aborted by “patriotic” Ukrainian politicians or been further developed by Ukraine on its own, there would probably be no Nord Stream pipelines today. Second, both Nord Stream projects are closely linked to Gerhard Schröder, who had already promoted the first underwater pipeline while still acting as Federal Chancellor in 2005. Schröder is no longer active in politics, and is today stigmatised among the German public.

The two Nord Stream projects are the result of missed opportunities by Ukraine and grave mistakes by Germany. They are legacies from a different period rather than symptoms of deeper defects in Ukrainian-German relations, which have also been characterised by many positive developments over the last 30 years, if not before. While the two Nord Stream pipelines may continue to complicate relations between Kyiv and Berlin for years to come, they do not have to principally spoil them. In its blunt corruptness, Schröder’s behavior was altogether an exception (though not the only one) rather than typical within the German political class. He is now even unpopular in parts of his own party, the SPD, as well as in the larger German left-wing milieu. The sad story and outcomes of the two Nord Stream projects should not prevent closer Ukrainian-German relations in the future if such an opportunity arises.

Reorganising Germany’s Ostpolitik

Current relations between Kyiv and Berlin are heavily spoiled by Nord Stream 2 and other German policies seen as pro-Russian and/or naïve in Eastern and Central Europe. Nevertheless, longer term trends in the west as a whole, and within Germany in particular, point to closer relations rather than further estrangement between the two countries. As long as the full inclusion of Ukraine into NATO or the EU and the adoption of mere accession plans remain distant, bilateral relationships to certain western countries retain their importance for Kyiv.

An imminent re-constellation of Bundestag factions, the likely formation of a new government that includes the Greens, and the gradual growth of knowledge about Ukraine in the German elite may sooner or later have practical repercussions for Germany’s eastern policies. Although such a prospect currently looks remote to many Ukrainians, Kyiv’s think tanks, political parties and responsible diplomats should already now start deliberating about how to react to Berlin’s possible pro-Ukrainian turn in the not so distant future.

Andreas Umland is a Nonresident Fellow of the Institute of International Relations at Prague, Principal Researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Jena, as well as General Editor of the ibidem Press book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” and “Ukrainian Voices.”

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