Germany’s navy chief, vice admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, resigned over the weekend. His crime? Saying something out loud that many German politicians intrinsically believe: that the Russian president Vladimir Putin deserves ‘respect’. Schönbach also made the mistake of suggesting Ukraine would ‘never’ regain the Crimean peninsula from Russia, and calling Western fears about Russia invading Ukraine ‘nonsense’.
As Germany’s government scrambled to limit the collateral damage of Schönbach’s words as they went viral on the internet, it was clear he had to go. But for Ukraine, his departure is not enough: Kiev’s ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk, told the Welt newspaper that the incident ‘left open the question whether we can still trust the Germans politically as we used to. This was hardly an exceptional case. You frequently hear similar statements here in Berlin – just more discreetly.’
Melnyk is right. There are many supporters of Berlin’s pro-Russian policy in the capital and elsewhere in German politics and industry. Many of their voices aren’t even quite as discreet as the Ukrainian ambassador describes.
Markus Söder, the minister president of Bavaria – who put his hat in the ring last year to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor – told the FAZ on Saturday that ‘Russia was no enemy of Europe’ and that ‘new sanctions would hurt us as much as them.’ He specifically criticised suggestions of cutting Moscow off from Swift, the global messaging system for banks, using the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 as political leverage or ‘even stopping Russian gas delivery altogether, all of which would hurt our country.’
Remarkably, Söder belongs to the conservative opposition bloc of the CDU/CSU. When it comes to Russia, he sings from the same hymn sheet as the left-leaning government coalition under the new German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Like his predecessor Angela Merkel, Scholz is trying to remain vague and ambiguous to avoid conflict with both Russia and the West. But in light of the current crisis, is this approach sustainable? While the White House has denied media reports that Scholz turned down a last-minute meeting with US president Joe Biden, it is a fact that the two men are only meeting in February, despite the mounting tensions in eastern Europe. But as the opposition remains happy to sit on the fence together with Scholz, Germany’s chancellor hardly needs to fear any thorough scrutiny of his Russia policy.
There’s nothing new about this relaxed approach to Russia in German politics. For many years, Angela Merkel broadly continued the policy of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder when it came to dealing with Putin, despite the fact that Merkel and Schröder lead rival political parties.
Just days before the 2005 election that would oust him from office, Schröder suddenly left the campaign trail. The reason? To hold a meeting with Putin, a friend and a man he has described as a ‘flawless democrat’. When Merkel beat him in the subsequent election, it wasn’t long before Schröder joined the board of directors of Nord Stream. Pro-Russian policy transcends the German political spectrum.
A counter-point to German-Russian business ties could have come from the Green party, which is part of the current governing coalition and whose co-leaders hold the influential posts of foreign minister and economic affairs. Both Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck have been critical of Berlin’s Russian policy in the past. Habeck even advocated weapons exports to Ukraine back in May last year after he witnessed the tension in Kiev for himself; and Baerbock has repeatedly criticised the Nord Stream 2 project for political and economic reasons. But neither can act now that they operate within a government system that has deliberately steered Germany’s energy policy in a direction of utter dependence on Russian gas.
Habeck and Baerbock have toned down their potentially more hawkish instincts on Russia in light of the political pressures they find themselves in. Habeck no longer advocates sending arms to Ukraine as his government has ruled this out. Instead he wants to ‘engage Russia economically’. Meanwhile Baerbock has offered ‘economic stabilisation’ of Ukraine as one of a number of ‘decisive measures’ to balance the overtures to Russia and the fallout over Schönbach’s words at the weekend.
Yet despite the feigned outrage about Schönbach’s remarks, make no mistake: his biggest error was saying the quiet part out loud. After all, Schönbach’s remarks were not a scandalous deviation from Germany’s political course. German politicians of all parties have spent years bowing to the economic and energy-political realities they have found themselves in since the Schröder era.
Banking on the fact that the Ukraine crisis won’t escalate, the German political class is once again keeping a low profile; issuing empty threats one day to pacify western allies, and offering reassurances the next to Russia, saying that no substantial support will be given to Ukraine. Schönbach was sacrificed on a hollow altar of diplomacy. Ultimately, when it comes to Russia and offering a decisive foreign policy, Germany’s new government has nothing new to offer.
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