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BERLIN — Russia’s war against Ukraine has thrust Germany’s establishment into the throes of a tortured process of introspection, self-doubt and recrimination.
After years of lecturing the West that a bit of Ostpolitik was all that was needed to keep Russia in check, Germany’s political, media and academic elites are now obsessing over a new question: How could we have been so wrong?
Rarely has a country’s confidence about itself and its place in the world been so thoroughly pulverized overnight.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who took over from Angela Merkel in December, responded to the repudiation of decades of German foreign policy by taking a page out of his predecessor’s book and announcing a dramatic 180-degree turn. Dubbed the Zeitenwende (historic shift), the plan included a pledge to spend an eye-popping €100 billion on defense in the short term.
Weeks later, however, panic in the German establishment over misjudging Vladimir Putin has given way to a more defiant attitude toward allies demanding Berlin step up and provide Ukraine with more than encouragement and a few Soviet-era rockets.
Such obdurance serves as a reminder that Germany didn’t sell its soul to Russia overnight; It was a process that took years, by the end of which the entire country was complicit.
What follows is a partial list of those most to blame for Germany’s misguided approach to Russia and its leader.
No German is more responsible for the crisis in Ukraine than Merkel. Her predecessor’s antics might have overshadowed that reality in the public’s perception, but the facts speak for themselves. As chancellor from 2005 until 2021, Merkel was the driving force behind NATO’s refusal to grant Ukraine membership. Even after Moscow’s invasion of Georgia, its brutal bombing of Syria, the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas, the downing of MH-17, the gangland-style murder of a Chechen rebel in central Berlin, and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Merkel insisted that Putin could be reasoned with.
She was so sure that engaging with Russia was the path to peace that she gave the green light to the controversial Nord Stream 2 project in 2015 despite Putin’s occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Since the latest war started, Merkel has effectively gone underground. Last month, she said through a spokeswoman that she stood by her 2008 decision to block Ukraine’s NATO entry. She was last seen vacationing in Tuscany.
A longtime confidant of disgraced former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (see below), Steinmeier was a proponent of Germany’s energy alliance with Russia via the Nord Stream pipelines from the outset. Like many Social Democrats, Steinmeier argued that the project would guarantee peace by creating mutual dependence between Russia and Germany. As foreign minister under Merkel, he continued to push that line in the face of Moscow’s ever-more aggressive actions.
He also played a key role in trying to force diplomatic solutions on Ukraine, most notably the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which would have cemented Russia’s influence in the country. Now Germany’s president, Steinmeier recently acknowledged he was wrong to support Nord Stream and had misjudged Putin. Even so, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to receive him in Kyiv, forcing the German to cancel a planned visit.
After losing the chancellery to Merkel in 2005, Schröder could have retired to Hannover for a quiet life with his family. In terms of policy, his chancellorship was arguably the most successful in a generation and he would have likely been revered as a sage elder statesman. Alas, like so many former politicians, he followed the money instead. Schröder’s decision just weeks after leaving office to serve as chairman of the Nord Stream pipeline project, which he had approved in his last days as chancellor, puts him in a class of his own on the chutzpah scale.
About the only positive thing one could say about Schröder is that he is eternally loyal. Unfortunately, the object of his loyalty is Putin. The pair’s bromance — unmatched in the global politics of recent decades — would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. One might have forgiven Schröder for the first Nord Stream pipeline. After all, many in the West were wrong about Putin. But instead of backing away, Schröder tightened the embrace, becoming the Russian strongman’s biggest defender in the West, a role he continues to play. Schröder made a quixotic attempt to broker a peace deal by flying to Moscow in March, a visit many saw as little more than an attempt to resurrect his own image. He recently told the New York Times that Russia’s war was a “mistake” but was defiant about his own actions. “I don’t do mea culpa,” he said.
While it’s true that Germany’s political leaders bear most of the responsibility for the country’s credulous policy towards Russia, it’s also true that they were pushed. And no one pushed harder than Kaeser. As chief executive of engineering giant Siemens from 2013 until 2021, Kaeser was tireless in courting business in Russia. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Kaeser famously refused to cancel a trip to Moscow for a sitdown with Putin in his private residence. Kaeser admonished his critics afterward, saying that he wouldn’t allow “temporary turbulence to have too much influence on our long-term plans.” Kaeser recently apologized for the remarks, saying that Putin had tricked him. “I was among those who believed in the principle of Wandel durch Handel,” he said, referring to the German strategy of trying to transform authoritarian countries by deepening trade ties.
As the driving force behind industrial gas giant Linde for the past two decades, Reitzle pushed the company ever deeper into Russia. Few, if any, German executives were as close to Putin’s government over the years as Reitzle, a former BMW executive who served first as Linde’s CEO and then its chairman, a position he gave up in March. Last year, he oversaw what appeared to be Linde’s biggest coup of all, a $6 billion deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom to build a massive gas processing hub near Russia’s border with Estonia. So far, the company is sticking with the project. While Reitzle has stayed mum on the situation in Ukraine, Linde recently said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned about the resulting humanitarian crisis.” Just not concerned enough to stop doing business with Putin.
Munich Security Conference
From the outside, the annual conference might look like little more than a good excuse for global elites to sample the pleasures of the Bavarian capital. But the gabfest is also a great place to do business and network, which is why many attendees hail from the business world. Both Horst Teltschik, who served as Helmut Kohl’s primary adviser before taking over the conference in 1999, and Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German diplomat turned consultant who took the reins in 2008, were at pains to court Russian officials and businessmen. The effect of the outreach was to legitimize Russia as a partner for German business, despite the sanctions the West had imposed on the country.
Linde’s Reitzle, a former chairman of the Munich Security Council’s advisory board, and Siemens’ Kaeser, the current chairman, endorsed that push. Under Ischinger, Herman Gref, the chief executive of Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, joined the board. This week the European Commission proposed measures to further isolate the bank from the international financial system. Another regular at the conference is Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister many consider to be a war criminal. Ischinger greeted Lavrov on stage in 2018 as “dear Sergey.” Teltschik, who advocates a “give and take” policy with Russia, described Putin in 2019 as “charming, outgoing and open.” Asked recently if he’d like to revise that appraisal, he said he stood by it because “that’s how he was at the time.”
Germany Inc’s main platform for tapping the Russian market is an organization known as the Ost-Ausschuss, or East Committee. Founded in the 1950s, the lobby group’s members include most of corporate Germany’s best-known blue-chip firms, from BMW to VW to chemical giant BASF. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the group has also been Moscow’s best friend in Berlin, as it agitated against tightening sanctions. It was largely successful on that front as well as with its push to get Nord Stream 2 approved in 2015. The Kremlin rewarded the group with unprecedented access. The highlight of the East Committee’s annual calendar was a sitdown with Putin. This year’s edition was canceled.
On Tuesday, the head of the Ost-Ausschuss, Oliver Hermes, announced he would step down to focus on helping his own company navigate the new geopolitical landscape. He condemned the war “in the strongest terms” but also maintained that “mutual economic dependencies … potentially contribute to de-escalation.”
A former premier of Germany’s Brandenburg state and leader of the Social Democrats, Platzeck has been the kinder, gentler face of Russian aggression in Berlin. Born and raised in communist East Germany, Platzeck (who confesses to an enduring love of Soviet cinema) tried to convince Germans that they had nothing to fear from Russia. A frequent guest on Germany’s talkshow circuit, Platzeck often argued that Russia was simply misunderstood and that the West should make overtures to Moscow to build trust. In his 2020 book, “We Need a New Ostpolitik,” Platzeck said the international community should recognize Crimea as part of Russian territory, a demand he first made shortly after the Russian invasion in 2014. He has since revised that stance.
A day after Russia’s latest invasion, Platzeck admitted he’d been wrong about Russia. “I kidded myself because for me what has just happened was unthinkable,” he said. A few days later he resigned as a chairman of the German-Russian Forum, a non-profit group he led to promote ties between the two countries.
A well-known reporter on German public television and anchor of a primetime news magazine called “Monitor,” Restle has peddled the dubious narrative that NATO’s eastward expansion is to blame for antagonizing Russia. Though critical of Putin and the war, which he recently began covering from Kyiv, Restle has pushed an editorial line at Germany’s dominant public broadcaster (the primary source of news for most Germans) that portrays the West as being as much of a culprit in its standoff with Russia as Putin.
“Much trust has been destroyed in recent years and Russia is by no means the only one to blame,” he told viewers in 2018 as he introduced a segment lambasting NATO for holding a military exercise on the alliance’s eastern flank. “Recent history shows that it was above all the West, drunk on its victory in the Cold War, that ignored Russian interests time and again, while seemingly learning nothing or refusing to.” Two days before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, he lamented “the West’s ignorance of Russia’s security interests, the U.S. lies in the Iraq war and NATO’s Kosovo mission” even as he said they could not be used as justification for Putin’s “shocking breach of international law.”
At first blush, Merz, the new leader of Germany’s conservatives, would appear to have nothing to do with the Russia morass. Yet at key moments in the debate over Russia policy in recent years, Merz, who won the leadership of the Christian Democrats (CDU) on his third try and after a busted general election, was reliably on the wrong side of history.
It took the poisoning of Navalny in 2020 to convince Merz, a corporate lawyer who spent years in the political wilderness after being bested by Merkel for the CDU leadership in the early 2000s, that Nord Stream 2 might not be a good idea. Even then, Merz, a longtime proponent of the project, only called for a moratorium on the pipeline’s construction. More recently, he objected to blocking Russia from the SWIFT payments system in the run-up to the February 24 invasion. Warning that the move could be the equivalent of igniting an “atomic bomb,” in terms of the potential impact on financial markets, Merz cautioned against shutting Russia out. He later reversed course and is now pushing for a harder line. He visited Kyiv this week.
For Germany’s pseudo-intellectual Bobo set, no figure is more influential than Habermas, a man many regard as the unofficial philosopher of the German state. A pragmatist and one-time adherent of the Frankfurt School, Habermas, 92, has served as an oracle for Germany’s mainstream left for decades. His latest pearl of wisdom: Germany was right to not send weapons to Ukraine.
In a recent op-ed for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the daily briefing for the country’s cosmopolitan elite, Habermas held a candle for Germany’s “introspective and reserved federal government.” Germany’s feckless approach to Ukraine in its hour of need is not the problem, it’s the answer, he argued, urging readers not to heed the “shrill moral indictments of German restraint.”
In the end, he reassured Germans that all will be well, so long as they don’t heed the wind of change. “This debate, which has produced numerous examples of the astonishing conversion of erstwhile peaceniks, supposedly heralds the historic shift in the German post-war mentality — a hard-won mentality that has repeatedly been denounced from the right — and thus the end of the broad pro-dialogue, peace-keeping focus of German policy,” he concluded.
Schwesig was destined for great things. A former minister for family affairs under Merkel, the Social Democrat became the premier of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2017. A cancer survivor from the East, Schwesig was seen by many in the SPD as the party’s future — until Nord Stream 2 got in the way. That the German end of the pipeline ends in her home state might be chalked up to bad luck if it weren’t for the fact that Schwesig is a true believer.
Schwesig rarely missed an opportunity in recent years to defend the project — and Russia — going as far as to set up a non-profit foundation with money from Gazprom to complete the project in the event it was hobbled by U.S. sanctions. Schwesig didn’t spend much time discussing Ukraine or the challenges it faced in dealing with Russian aggression. Yet she was very focused on the U.S., which she regularly accused of unfairly attacking her hard-working constituents by threatening to sanction firms involved in the project.
“You have the choice between Russian gas from the Baltic pipeline … or American fracking gas, which serves the interests of the U.S,” Schwesig told MPs during a heated session in 2020.
More recently, she changed her tune, saying that the foundation was a mistake and that Putin needed to be held accountable for attacking Ukraine. “We’re living in a new era,” she said this week.