It is part of the tradition of German foreign policy that it maintains a more lenient approach to Russia than many other European countries.
The main reasons are economic, Russia is the target of billions of investments of German companies. In the opposite direction, Russian natural gas flows, which the Federal Republic needs as a replacement for decommissioned coal and nuclear power plants.
The increased demand for strategic raw material was to be helped by the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the second pipeline that connected Russia with Germany along the Baltic Sea floor. However, the project, backed by the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin through Gazprom, has met with opposition from the beginning, but also from other countries, including the United States, which see the pipeline as a tool for Russian influence in Europe.
The extent to which Nord Stream 2 also plays a geopolitical role, and how strongly it affects Germany, has become clear in recent weeks as fears of Russian military action against Ukraine have escalated. Under the threat of armed conflict, the new German government sent more united signals this week that it would give up supplies from the new pipeline as a last resort. The investment with the Kremlin in the background would thus be in vain.
Nord Stream 2 and expensive gas
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline is to transport 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe each year. The previously built Nord Stream submarine pipeline, which has been in operation since 2011, has the same capacity. Gas from the Nord Stream 2 project is also to be used by the Czech Republic, which will connect to it via the new Eugal gas pipeline.
In connection with rising gas prices, some countries have accused Russia of trying to force Germany and the European Union to approve permits to operate the new pipeline quickly by restricting supplies.
In November, the German Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) announced that it had temporarily suspended the approval process for Nord Stream 2. It requires the operator to first ensure the ownership separation of the transmission network from the supplier. Agency chief Jochen Homann later said that the pipeline would not obtain a permit to operate until July.
Opinions that Germany should not only monitor the economic viability of the project have so far been heard mainly from the coalition Greens, who have in the past been opposed to the Nord Stream. After Tuesday’s talks with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbockova expressed herself very confidently and said that Germany would in any case defend common values ”even at a high economic price”.
However, some politicians of the strongest coalition party, the Social Democracy (SPD), have until recently been much more accommodating to Russia. The disunity within the SPD then manifested itself in the restraint of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He has even used the same rhetoric in the past as the Kremlin, calling the pipeline a “private economic project” that should not interfere with international politics.
According to analyst Stefan Meister of the German Foreign Policy Association (DGAP), the “cacophony” of the Chancellor’s party weakens Germany’s diplomatic influence. “Instead of leading the European Union towards Russia and Ukraine, Germany is weakening the actions of Western states,” the political scientist said on Twitter, adding that such a move was in favor of the Kremlin.
Last summer, Berlin pledged that if Moscow used Nord Stream 2 as a means of political pressure, it would push for tougher anti-Russian sanctions. The promise was part of an agreement between former Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Joe Biden, which meant de facto US approval for the pipeline.
Der Spiegel recalled that the government’s SPD’s problematic relationship with the Nord Stream was also related to the fact that Gerhard Schröder had been lobbying for the pipeline for many years. The former head of the party and the Federal Chancellor from January 1998 to 2005 got himself ready from Vladimir Putin and became the head of the supervisory board of the Nord Stream joint-stock company, which covered the construction of the gas pipeline and is controlled by the Gazprom Group.
“Part of the problem is that Schröder is considered by many in his party and in Germany to be a normal former chancellor and statesman. At the same time, he is a 100 percent lobbyist paid by Russia, “lamented the head of the foreign editorial office, Der Spiegel, Mathieu von Rohr.
However, the current Chancellor Scholz broke a long fog on Tuesday and made the strongest statement yet. Asked whether Germany should give up Nord Stream 2 in the event of an attack on Ukraine, he said the government would discuss “all aspects” and Russia should pay a “high price”.
It is significant that these words were heard after Tuesday’s meeting of Scholz with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Some Western allies, led by the United States, are apparently pushing the German government to take a tougher stance on Russia. However, it is clear from the Berlin negotiations that the willingness to act more decisively towards Moscow is still lacking.
This is particularly annoying for the United States, which is striving for the most unified position with European allies. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Berlin on Thursday to negotiate with a German, French and British partner. This visit, too, is clearly intended to help the Germans show more courage towards Russia.
According to the news website Politico.eu, the Germans’ reticence is due to their withdrawal from the USA. It also has a tradition and has manifested itself in the past, for example in protests against the Vietnam War or against nuclear weapons. At the same time, however, the Americans had influential allies in Germany, such as former Chancellor Helmut Kohl or former Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who now lack them.
Friedrich Merz, the current interim leader of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), is cautious. For example, he has recently publicly opposed a proposal for Germany to push for the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT banking system, which would greatly complicate financial transfers for Russian companies.
The third governing party of the FDP, whose presidents during the Kohl era filled the post of foreign minister and secured a pro-American course, is similarly reticent. In the Scholz government, however, they left this position to the Greens and support “diplomatic” tools in their approach to Russia. Alexander Lambsdorff, a foreign expert on the party, this week defended his coalition colleagues’ opposition to German companies starting to export weapons to Ukraine.