Germany’s pragmatic foreign policy faces tough times because of Russia-Ukraine war

While junior partners Green and FDP support a more hawkish policy towards Russia, SPD seems to be rather poised

Prof. Kemal Inat

When Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, many aptly expected that the war would have far-reaching consequences for European and global politics. However, Germany was not expected to be exposed to the developments from the war. Kyiv’s refusal of the visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to show solidarity revealed the negative results of the German policy towards Ukraine and Russia. Both previous federal governments and the currently ruling coalition government are responsible for this state of affairs.

Intra-coalition government conflicts

The federal government led by Olaf Scholz of SPD has experienced severe problems on what would be the best possible stance on the war. There have been serious disagreements between the coalition’s junior partners Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens. Marie-Agnes Strack Zimmerman of the FDP, the chair of Bundestag’s Defense Sub-Committee, wrote a letter to Scholz and invited him to inform the committee of the government’s strategy regarding the ongoing war. Rather than a personal initiative, the letter can be seen as a sign showing that FDP either didn’t understand the government’s policy or didn’t approve it.

On the other hand, Anton Hofreiter the Green, the chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee, complained in a television program that the government’s prevention of the arms transfers to Ukraine could lead to a long war. In the face of these criticisms, Scholz argues that Germany can’t meet its NATO obligations if it sends more arms which are inadequate anyways, to Ukraine and resists demands from the coalition partners. Having said that, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock openly advocates for the heavy arms transfer to Ukraine.

Who is responsible for the Russian policy?

The war prompted a fault line within the nascent German coalition government. While the Green and FDP support a more hawkish policy towards Russia, SPD seems rather poised. The main reason behind this policy, which frustrates the coalition partners, is that German policy towards Russia was established on wrong assumptions and calculations from the very beginning.

To be fair, all parties which became part of the past coalition governments, not only SPD, are liable for this situation.

As such, Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian partner CSU, the Green that was a part of Gerhard Schroder’s coalition government, and FDP, the most favourite coalition partner choice of the CDU, either contributed to Germany’s problematic Russia policy or didn’t raise a serious objection against it.

Consequently, all played a role in the process during which Germany growingly became dependent on Russian energy. Baerbock’s recent remark that Germany will halt oil import by the end of the year and gas import by mid-2024 from Russia doesn’t sound credible. Because it is impossible to cut this dependency rate in such a short time, while the Greens, with which Baerbock is affiliated, oppose nuclear and coal to generate energy, many rightfully ask if Germany can halt energy imports from Russia.

Even though other parties played a role in forming Germany’s problematic Russia, the SPD was the target of the heaviest criticism. The essential reason behind this situation is that two important figures of the SPD maintain close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who acted as foreign minister for eight years during the SPD-CDU coalition governments, is a prominent architect of Germany’s soft stance toward Putin’s aggressive policies.

He is also one of the keen advocates of the Nordstream-2 gas pipeline that bypassed Ukraine.

Worth mentioning that Steinmeier was a foreign minister from 2013 to 2017, during which Russia illegally annexed Crimea and made an efforted to separate the Donbas region from Ukraine. If anything, he admitted his wrongdoings regarding Russia and remarked that being ardent in the construction of Nordstream-2 was an evident mistake.

German leaders who emboldened Putin

Another leading SPD figure who has been experiencing heavy criticism is former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. However, contrary to Steinmeier, he doesn’t think he made a mistake on Russia, still keeps close relations with Putin and continues to hold a senior advisor post in the Russian energy giant Rosneft. Understandably, his persistence in close ties with Putin causes growing reactions both against SPD and Germany in the face of Russian aggression. Particularly, Ukrainian leaders and the country’s ambassador to Germany sometimes even breach diplomatic norms and direct severe denunciations against Germany.

Accusing Germany of encouraging Putin by making wrong policy choices, Ukrainians assert that Germany still opposes heavier sanctions on Russia and prevents the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine instead of compensating for its own wrongdoings.

The pragmatistic policy has been followed for a long led Germany to make important gains in the course, and now faces a critical test.

The decision-makers who were applauded in the past for making “pro-Germany choices” are presently being accused of being without principles.

The case of Nordstream 2

Presently, the decision to construct Nordstream 2 is seen as an act that heartened Russian aggression and approved the disintegration of Ukraine. Nevertheless, it was hailed in the past as a pragmatic move which would make Germany an important player in the European gas market and protect the country from possible risks in Ukraine. Many western partners of Germany, particularly the US, Poland, and the Baltic States, on the other hand, had opposed it.

In the face of growing Russian aggression, criticisms against the Nordstream 2 mounted both within and beyond Germany. Yet, the CDU-SPD coalition remained committed to it under the pretext that the pipeline would serve German interests. It is noteworthy to recall that even Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and aggression toward Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region didn’t cause a change in German policy.

Nevertheless, the flock of five million Ukrainian refugees to the West and the risk that Putin’s aggressive policies could go beyond Ukraine and threaten European security forced Berlin to develop a harder stance against the Kremlin. Against this background, Nordstream 2 project was started to be seen as a choice that could harm Germany. Subsequently, the SPD-FDP- Greens coalition changed the course and halted the project, which was already completed. Even this, though, didn’t prevent Kyiv’s refusal to welcome Steinmeier.

The new atmosphere which emerged in the West as a result of the Russian aggression requires Western countries to act collectively and support a defensive block against Russia, which is in the making.

Germany, which kept its own interests above everything, is having a hard time adjusting according to these nascent realities.
Speaking in the context of international relations, the question of whether the US, the main actor of the new bloc against Russia, can be trusted creates further problems for Germany.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at Sakarya University

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Asia Live.

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