Why German-Russian Ostpolitik may be dead, but shouldn’t be buried
One undeniable outcome of the Russian aggression in Ukraine so far is a widespread perception of a profound change in the German foreign and security policy.
In his historic speech in the Bundestag on February 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a series of measures that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks prior. It included an increase of the military budget up to 2 percent of Germany’s GDP (up from 1.5 percent in 2021), a special 100 billion euro-worth fund for the upgrade of the Bundeswehr (German army), and a drive to divert the German energy dependency on Russia, which provides up to 40 percent of Germany’s gas needs, by effectively freezing the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline.
Although these changes look impressive, only time will tell whether they represent a truly systemic, strategic shift in the German foreign and security policy rather than a one-off emergency response. First and foremost, they are a reaction to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and long-standing accusations by Western allies and some Germans that Berlin has been feckless in the face of Russian aggression.
These charges long predate the actual invasion in February, but have grown increasingly shrill in the run-up to it. Germany’s alleged “pacifist” position — particularly its stubborn refusal to kill Nordstream 2 for good and send lethal weapons to Ukraine’s defense — was invariably decried as evidence of naivete, cowardice, addiction to Russian gas, or corruption. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a board member of Rosneft, a Russian state-own oil giant, was singled out for particular scorn.
This, of course, is a gross oversimplification. To understand the German reluctance to be among the most gung-ho nations when it comes to confronting Russia, one must reckon the legacy of the Ostpolitik, a Cold War era policy of engagement with the then-Soviet Union, championed in the early 1970s by the social-democratic chancellor Willy Brandt and his visionary foreign minister Egon Bahr. This policy sought to positively transform the Soviet Union and other countries of the “Eastern Bloc” through trade and diplomatic dialogue. In spirit, Ostpolitik wasn’t so different from the détente pursued by U.S. President Richard Nixon at the time. And just like Nixon’s outreach to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, it was remarkably pragmatic: it was launched in 1969, a year after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
Contrary to a widespread misconception, however, economic interests were not Ostpolitik’s driving force. It was rather a historical feeling of guilt at the Nazi atrocities committed in the Soviet Union during WWII. This feeling translated into a uniquely German urge to understand Russia, its policies, motivations and even psychology. The memories of the Second World War and the ensuing conviction that never again should Germany and Russia be enemies were at the root of Ostpolitik. Trade was instrumental to fill this framework with substance, but it was never a primary motivation.
Over the years, however, particularly since mid-2000s, the German political class fell into certain complacency refusing to properly acknowledge the signs of Russia’s authoritarian turn and growing assertiveness in its foreign policy.
Democratic change in Russia through trade and pipelines evidently failed to materialize. But that failure wasn’t accompanied by a reconceptualizing of Ostpolitik. Strategic thinking, a hallmark of the Brandt-Bahr tandem, gave way to tactical adjustments to the evolving geopolitics in Europe. Although Schroeder’s successor Angela Merkel deserves credit for her crisis management skills and was able to earn Moscow’s grudging respect, Germany’s strategic vulnerabilities, such as the disastrous state of its army and excessive energy dependence on Russia, were largely neglected.
This, despite the fact that Germany was a preferred target of Moscow’s campaign to undermine the EU and its member states. Putin’s regime sought to exploit the refugee crisis in 2016 to boost far-right anti-immigration forces, such as the Alternative fur Deutschland party, which Germany’s intelligence placed under surveillance as a threat to the country’s democratic order. It was a shock to many Germans that, having endured colossal losses fighting Nazism, Russia would cultivate extremist parties in Europe.
The invasion of Ukraine provided a final reckoning for the old-style Ostpolitik. It is less clear what will take its place though. That Scholz’s apparent U-turn on defense is more a reaction to the changing environment than a product of some coherent strategic vision is underscored by the fact that the unprecedented splurge in spending is channeled through a one-off, top-up fund rather than an increase in the regular defense budget. Even so, he will have to convince skeptics within his own Social-Democratic Party who feel uneasy about such a drastic increase in the military budget.
Germany’s neighbors will also have to be engaged diligently. Although a peaceful, democratic Germany ruled by its centrist parties can in no way be described as a threat, in the long-term a militarily powerful Germany could evoke some unwelcome historical associations on the continent. There may be no way around that if Germany is to establish a more muscular presence in the European concert. This is likely what Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy, suggested when he said the EU’s four biggest countries — Germany, France, Italy, and Spain — join forces as a vanguard of a new and more effective common foreign and security policy.
In military-strategic terms, that would mean, first of all, marrying Germany’s newly found power with the French concept of EU strategic autonomy. French President Emmanuel Macron’s likely re-election in April 2022 will provide time and space for he and Scholz to work together in forging that alliance.
With all the necessary investment in the hard power, however, Berlin should be careful not to squander its soft power. In fact, in places like the Middle East, Germany’s appeal lies in the fact that it is not seen as a militaristic power — unlike France or Britain, with their long, violent colonial pasts in the region. The apparent demise of German pacifism should not be confused with German instincts, which have proven to be much sounder than those of its more warlike Anglo-Saxon allies in recent times — Berlin’s opposition to the disastrous invasion of Iraq being one prominent example. There is no need to discard the healthy German skepticism of the military solutions as measures of the first resort.
The rearmament of Germany is only part of a necessary response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. A broader overhaul of the country’s foreign and security policy is a work in progress. Although the old Ostpolitik has run its course, it still retains some valid lessons — namely, that diplomacy with adversaries is an essential tool of statecraft. After the war in Ukraine, Russia will still be Europe’s largest neighbor. Some bridges will have to be preserved in order to rebuild the relationship in the future.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group or the European Parliament.