Olaf Scholz is a famously quiet and cautious communicator and, as concerns mounted in Washington and London about the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the new German chancellor remained silent.
This time his silence reflected the fact that his government was unprepared for its first major foreign policy test, with marked divisions between the SPD and the Greens on how to manage a rapidly deteriorating relationship with Russia.
When he did speak, Scholz caused dismay in several NATO capitals by defending the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline. He called it ‘a purely private economic project’ even though the company building the pipeline is a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned Gazprom.
The absence of crisis management from Berlin was a stark reminder of the gap left by Angela Merkel. Her knowledge of Russia and Ukraine, and her personal experience of dealing with Vladimir Putin, were key assets in 2014 in developing a unified western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its destabilization of south-eastern Ukraine.
Germany has coordinated with its allies
Scholz has prepared the ground carefully for his visits to Kyiv and Moscow, extensively coordinating with NATO allies, such as France and Poland – as part of the Weimar Triangle – and the three Baltic states. His inaugural visit to Washington helped align positions on US-EU efforts to develop an economic deterrent against further Russian intervention in Ukraine.
Scholz has also repeated Merkel’s language from 2014 to signal to Moscow that Germany and its partners are ‘united and determined’ to stand their ground. And he has spoken of Germany’s continuing double strategy of ‘clear announcements’ to Moscow of the price it would pay for further aggression accompanied by a readiness to use all possible channels of dialogue to preserve peace.
The continuation of Germany’s established policy will not surprise Moscow. But under the surface Germany’s discourse on Russia is evolving as the political class internalizes the fact that the current Russian leadership is openly threatening to use military force to impose its will on Ukraine and re-configure Europe’s security arrangements.
Despite deep concerns about Germany’s dependence on Russian gas – more than half of the gas it consumes comes from Russia – there is broad acceptance that Nord Stream 2 cannot go ahead if Russia invades Ukraine. But typically, Scholz has not yet said as much publicly, limiting himself to stating ‘all options are on the table.’
Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor as well as economic affairs and climate action minister, says the ‘geopolitical situation’ requires Germany to diversify its gas supplies and infrastructure for importing gas. For years, a strong pro-Russian gas lobby has dominated the thinking of the Economics Ministry and one consequence is the complete absence of facilities to import liquefied natural gas.
The German debate on Russia is shifting
A public debate has also started about weapons deliveries to Ukraine, even though this runs counter to deeply embedded pacifist tendencies in German society. Some MPs, former diplomats, and experts have begun to make the case for Germany to supply weapons to Ukraine so it can exercise its right to self-defence and deter military attack.
Christoph Heusgen, a former long-standing foreign policy adviser in the Federal Chancellery, says Berlin’s decision not to deliver arms to Ukraine to avoid endangering the Minsk peace process requires revision now Moscow has abandoned the path of negotiation.
Despite its mantra that there is no alternative to the Minsk Agreements, Berlin now admits these currently offer no prospect of resolving the war in Donbas because Russia is not prepared to implement them properly.
Other taboos are also being broken inside Germany. Heavyweight left-of-centre Die Zeit published the first results of its investigation into the SPD’s links with Russia and their place in Russia’s channels of influence in Germany. And even the SPD’s Sigmar Gabriel, an outspoken champion of Nord Stream 2 during his time as a government minister, has raised the question of Germany terminating energy imports from Russia if there is a drastic deterioration of the security situation.