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Berlin’s strategic ignorance

Germany does not envisage Ukraine joining the European Union any time soon, let alone NATO. What then is it willing to offer as part of its announced co-operation? Where do they see Ukraine in the European security architecture and prosperity, asks Anna Kwiatkowska, an expert of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW)

June 15, 2022 - Anna Kwiatkowska - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Time is against Ukraine. The farther west you go from its border, the worse it is. Germany is already tired of the topic of war after three months. News from Ukrainian cities and villages is inevitably making way for other stories that have a direct impact on German citizens. This is the case with inflation which is at its highest level in 40 years, and prices continue to rise. Abandoning cheap Russian energy will cost a fortune and everyone has become aware that it will impact the household budgets of ordinary people, especially those on lower incomes. This is the world the average Schmidt will find himself in, together with the media and politicians. This is also why Lars Klingbeil, the head of the Social Democrats (SPD), declared a change of course following the SPD defeat in a local election in North Rhine-Westphalia. The main diagnosis prevalent in the party leading the government is that it has been “too busy with arms deliveries and has spoken too little about the growing cost of living crisis”.

This means the party is returning to the previous proven modus operandi from the successful election campaign of 2021 which focused on domestic social issues. Communication with the voters should be centred around minimum wage, compensation packages and the combatting of inflation. These are issues that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is more comfortable with than having to respond to the greatest crisis in Europe in decades, namely the Russian war.

The SPD – a party of peace

Both the passage of time and public opinion being refocused on the consequences of the economic crisis (post-pandemic and the war) are favourable for Scholz’s policy regarding the Russian war against Ukraine. This strategy, often stalling, idling and unclear, is not merely the result of incorrect and insufficient communication from the head of the German government as is frequently being explained. It is a fully conscious policy based on the realisation that in the end there will be “material fatigue” – the war will fade, the ensuing crisis will be painful and Russia will still be the EU’s largest neighbour with whom “you will have to deal somehow”.

The strategic goals of Scholz are peace and stabilisation in Europe. It is important to note that according to the German constitution it is the chancellor who is responsible for directing the foreign policy of the Federal Republic. In his eyes the war needs to end as soon as possible and Russia cannot be humiliated in the process. There are a few consequences of Germany pursuing this tactic.

Firstly, Germany and its chancellor are mostly part of the humanitarian mission in this war. This explains the large sums spent on that goal, and the continued announcements of efforts to find a peaceful solution or at least a cease fire. It is directed towards avoiding more casualties, to stop people dying. Peace is of the utmost importance, although the German chancellor stresses that no one will force the Ukrainians to sign anything.

Secondly, neither this government nor the German public opinion believe that the result of the war should be “a weakening of Russia so that it is not capable of acting the way it is currently doing in Ukraine”, as the Americans put it. This is why Scholz employs additional semantic tools finding new descriptions of the desired end of the conflict (“Ukraine must prevail”, “Putin cannot win”, etc,.) instead of declaring that Germany’s goal is for Ukraine to win and Russia to lose.

Thirdly, German society is presented with a false alternative by parts of the political class and elites: Ukraine is defeated or there will be an escalation of the war. Just a section of politicians (mostly representatives of the Greens, sometimes from the Free Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union) understands and explains that it is the military defeat of Ukraine that would mean escalation. Even if this would be somewhat delayed. Because Russia will not let go of its long-term goal of revising the security architecture in Europe.

And finally, the fourth point is that the German debate spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing Putin and his threat perception. This is done through the conviction that their reconstruction and possible concessions may lead to de-escalation. The Germans believe that the worst-case scenario is provoking (sic!) Putin to start a nuclear war and that this is a current risk. At least it would mean destabilisation and riots in the territories of the former Soviet Union. It means that Scholz uses a strategy of self-deterrence. The ones who are not deterred are insulted and characterised as irresponsible and childish: the chancellor said “boys and girls” when speaking about the head of the parliamentary commission in the Bundestag who was pushing for arms deliveries for Ukraine and faster decisions. He has also rejected and belittled the expertise of respected German researchers that questioned his opinion that there would be catastrophic effects after introducing an immediate embargo on Russian hydrocarbons.

A selective “new era”

Olaf Scholz’s decision to stall and/or hamper deliveries of arms to Ukraine stems directly from the definition of his strategic goals. The Germany he leads does not want to deliver weaponry to Ukraine in the capacity it could as one of its largest producers and exporters. Perhaps also not in the capacity it should as the moral (in reality moralising) power it claims to be. This can also be seen in the context of it being a leader of the EU, defending its values which they continue to write and speak about. The lack of any political will to take such decisions is being explained by existing practices, political culture, difficult procedures and formalities.

There are no such problems when it comes to introducing another aspect of the heralded “new era” (Zeitenwende) in German politics, namely the energy transformation. Robert Habeck, the vice chancellor from the Green Party, and his people have made an enormous effort with the German state spending enormous funds in order to extract themselves from the web of Russian energy dependency. It is the state (not the erstwhile glorified “market”) that has been building and supporting the construction of stationary LNG ports and bringing over floating terminals. The laws are being changed while Habeck travels the world signing new gas supply contracts. Germany is doing what it wants to do and where it has defined the need to adjust its current policy. Soon enough we will find out which other policies they have decided to correct with genuine changes.

One such a test is the intention to pool 100 billion euros together for a defence fund and raise the expenditure on the army to 2 per cent of GDP. There are ongoing debates in the parliament surrounding not only the financing, but also on how to include the defence fund into the constitution along with definitions of “defence” and “security”. This would define what the funds would actually be spent on. A further test for the declared shift in Berlin’s policy will be the uprooting of Germany’s economic dependency on China – trade between the two reached 245 billion euros in 2021. It is the greatest trade volume that Germany has with any of its partners with the import of some rare-earth elements reaching 100 per cent. In the medium-term perspective we will also find out if the changes will affect the declarations on the strengthening of the European pillar of NATO as part of the European autonomous strategy initiative as part of its foreign policy and security. Perhaps even unanimity in votes concerning such issues could be abandoned.

The key litmus test of the revision of German policy will be its ideas for how to support a post-war Ukraine, including its potential EU membership. Judging from the political declarations of support but without “shortcuts”, it is clear that Germany does not envisage Ukraine in the EU (let alone in NATO) anytime soon. What then could Germany offer Ukraine within the framework of the cooperation they have announced? This is what Friedrich Merz, the leader of the opposition and head of the Christian Democratic Union has been trying to establish through one of the questions posed to Chancellor Scholz during a debate in the Bundestag on May 19th, just ahead of the EU summit.

“Socialism – yes, distortion – no”

In order for a genuine revision of the previous policy Germany’s priority should focus on it becoming aware of the extent of its strategic ignorance and behaviour towards Russia. Involving those responsible for these political mistakes will be very difficult since the guilty party was not only the SPD, which receives most of the blame, but almost the entire German political class. Germany would have to confess and acknowledge that it has been fundamentally wrong about several aspects of its policies – defence, security, energy – towards Russia and in eastern policy in general. Such a revision of the German eastern policy, kind of Russlandpolitikbewältigung, would be so difficult that we may assume it will not happen.

After the initial shock of waking up in “a different world”, as Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared, and a short apology for previous mistakes, Germany is going on the offensive trying to wrest back the interpretation of events. There is a narrative appearing in the German discourse that its foreign and economic policy based on the import of cheap natural resources from Russia was in fact correct and played a key role in Germany reaching its dominant economic position. The only mistake and oversight – now corrected – was the excessive trust placed in Vladimir Putin and not ensuring other sources and supply lines.

This interpretation makes it clear that the decision to lay down both of the Nord Stream pipelines was correct and the only thing missing was the simultaneous construction of an LNG terminal. This would mean that once things have calmed down, the pipelines can still be operational, especially since an energy independent Germany will be immune to Russian blackmail.

The criticism that the country was ill-prepared for the aggressive policies of dictatorships such as Russia and China will be refuted by the argument that Germany has for many years been actively preparing the EU to reach “strategic autonomy”, to become a participant capable of global rivalry. The discussion will be moved from the dependency on Russia and China to the critical argument about the need for a change in the treaties such as the majoritarian vote on issues of foreign and security policy. Finally, notions will emerge arguing that the accusations levelled against Germany and its Russia policy from the US and especially from the countries of the Eastern flank were not as well thought through and rational as presented (at this moment in time). Then it will be possible to return to old familiar habits.

The dilemma faced in the long-term by German politicians can symbolically be reduced to the choice between Scholz’s road and Habeck’s. The first option would mean the continuation of the German policy so far, with a few corrections. The second is a brave yet risky option which would mean leaving behind the waiting game strategy and taking back the leadership role. This time a leader of change and not a defender of the status quo.

Scholz’s way implies more procrastination, sowohl als auch policies and stagnation. On the other hand, it would also mean the illusion of calm and stabilisation. Germany will make up for the loss of credibility, especially among the Ukrainians and their allies on the Eastern flank, associated with this policy by using the well-known and effective “check book policy” during the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Habeck’s way would in effect mean abandoning the comfortable balancing game and declaring that Germany is on Ukraine’s side, as well as it is on the side of human rights in China. It would force Germany into a confrontation with dictatorships it depends on economically and could lead to a painful process of leaving those dependencies behind. However, should Germany view this process as inevitable due to the crisis of globalisation then it will have no choice but to face the challenge of transforming its economic model anyway.

For that reason Germany would be well advised to not wait any longer but launch the transformation of the economic model on its own terms and without further damage to its reputation. The facts have changed and in Germany it is the Greens who were the first to understand that they had to change their minds.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

This article first appeared in Polish in Rzeczpospolita

Anna Kwiatkowska is a PhD in Social Science in the field of Political Science. She founded and heads the German department at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) where she has worked since 2005.

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