Germany, the Reluctant Ally With a Russia Problem

Germany is a complicated continuation of both West and East Germany. Residual aspects of both contribute to today’s uncertainty, but it is the remnants of East Germany that are most often overlooked.  

Chancellor Scholz at the European Council building, Brussels, February 17, 2022. AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, pool

President Putin’s extraordinary speech declaring his intention to roll back the losses of the Cold War and to move Russian forces farther into Ukraine has finally prompted Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to address the Nord Stream 2 pipeline issue. 

His awkward avoidance of the topic during recent  appearances with President Biden and with Mr. Putin — Mr. Scholz refusing to utter its name in response to direct questions about the pipeline — undercut his reassurances on Ukraine. Even now, the language of his decision is process-focused and not final — he would stop “certification” of the pipeline. 

Like the pipeline itself, the sense of possible soft betrayal Germany fostered among its allies has not been fully extinguished.  

Why is clarity on this issue so difficult for Germany? Common explanations include the obvious dependence on Russian natural gas and Germany’s laws that restrict its military posture to a defensive one. Germany’s confidence in the concept of Wandel durch Handel — “Change through Trade” — was intended to mitigate the risk of the strategic exposure to Russia, but it has failed to do so. 

These explanations paint a picture of Germany’s predicament being the outcome of mistakes or poor judgment, while the most troubling sources of Germany’s ambiguity are not mistakes at all: They are  the complications of a deliberate embrace of Russia, inspired by historical and emotional connections that are sometimes as strong as, or stronger, than its connections to the West.   

Polling among Germans shows the persistence of historical tensions between competing notions of national identity — a Germany bound to neither West nor East, struggling to align with both. These divisions are very much alive today among Germans, and they now create divisions between Germany and its Western allies. Today, not even half of Germans view the situation with Ukraine as Russia’s fault. Mr. Scholz’s equivocation on Nord Stream 2 was not meant to hide something so much as it reflected a sense of political vulnerability.  

America’s policy of influencing Germany’s posture toward Russia has suffered from a misunderstanding of modern Germany as a straightforward continuation of West Germany. The truth is that Germany is a complicated continuation of both West and East Germany. Residual aspects of both contribute to today’s uncertainty, but it is the remnants of East Germany that are most often overlooked.  

An East German identity in which Russia played a fundamental role is very much alive today. For decades, East Germans were taught that the Soviets saved both Russians and Germans from Hitler. This shared victimization created a pathway to absolution of their Nazi past and, combined with guilt over the millions of Russian deaths in the war, created a very strong bond to Russia that didn’t disappear with the fall of the Iron Curtain.   

In fact, Reunification reinforced the bond to Russia.  Far from having a feeling of being freed from the Soviet yoke, as other Eastern European states did, many East Germans felt that they lost their country and were robbed of their dignity in a reunification process they came to view as something akin to a hostile corporate takeover. For many today, the German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was known formally, is viewed with nostalgia for a life where they were not second-class Germans.  

Reunification also left many East German interests and networks alive and well, unapologetic in their alignment with Russia and audacious in their ambitions.  The CEO of Nord Stream 2 AG is none other than a friend of Mr. Putin and a former Stasi officer, Matthias Warnig. Residual East German political power brazenly pursues Russian interests at the state level, including the creation of a “foundation” by the government of the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to evade American sanctions on Nord Stream 2 by acting as an intermediate buyer for pipeline construction.  The largest donor to the foundation is Nord Stream 2 AG.   

None of this is news to Mr. Putin, for whom Germany is now an essential “get.” His bread and butter during his formative years as a KGB agent in Dresden was to manipulate these divisions, and it’s a mission he never abandoned. His advantage is strengthened by the admiration he enjoys to this day for his ability to speak perfect German. He knew how and when he could strike an immobilizing blow to Germany and undercut NATO unity.  

Mr. Putin’s own vision of re-empowering a humiliated Russia finds common cause with East Germans who grew up believing the West was evil and imperialist in its ambitions, and who hold their own resentments from Reunification. Combined with the continued strength of anti-American sentiments inherited from the West German left, Mr. Putin finds sympathetic ears for his disinformation and demands to reverse NATO enlargement.  

Germany’s desire to be connected to both East and West is now fundamentally at odds with its role in NATO, and Mr. Putin will continue to exploit this vulnerability. The current crisis has forced discussion and debate that had long been avoided within Germany about its relationship with Russia. Mr. Scholz and, more broadly, German political discourse are moving in the right direction. This debate is ultimately about the fundamentals of national identity, which means it will not be solved quickly or easily, and we can expect more bumps in the road ahead.

The New York Sun

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