Germany’s Dilemma in the Russia-Ukraine Crisis

Olaf Scholz (Creative Commons, Olaf Kosinsky)

Which of his Social-Democratic Predecessors will Chancellor Scholz Follow: Schröder or Schmidt?

In the Bundestag election of 26 September 2021 the Social Democratic Party won a surprise victory, allowing Olaf Scholz to form a coalition government with the Green and Liberal parties. After a few weeks in power, it became clear that the new government could not take on its major goal of renewing the country by heavily investing in “digital and green” projects. Instead, it was confronted with the double crisis of Covid-Omicron and Russia-Ukraine.

Gas – the only option for Germany?

Having decided to get rid of nuclear power and coal as sources of energy, Germany for the foreseeable future has become very much dependent on foreign gas supplies. Approximately 55 percent of its gas imports come from Russia. After having completed Nord Stream II, the second pipeline between Russia and Germany, the question of whether or not to start deliveries has become a hotly debated issue – even within the new “traffic light” (red-yellow-green) coalition: whereas the Social Democrats called Nord Stream II a “purely economic” issue, the Green party and to some degree also the Liberals were against opening up the pipeline. They managed to write down in the coalition agreement that the pipeline had to be in conformity with EU regulations, which stipulate that the owner of the pipeline and the provider of gas have to be different companies.

Putin and Schröder in 2005. Source: Russia Beyond

Nord Stream II is a project initiated by the Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his “personal friend”, the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Significantly, shortly after leaving the Chancellor’s office, Schröder became the head of the supervisory board of Gazprom, with the goal of building that pipeline. In the following years Schröder acted as lobbyist of this project, thereby earning privately several hundreds of thousands of Euros per year.

Gazprom is, of course, not a private enterprise. It has been put together by personal friends of President Putin, who had forced energy-rich Oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky out of business. Hiring ex-Chancellor Schröder was probably one of Putin’s most successful coups.

The former secret service agent had won formal and informal collaborators for the KGB during his Dresden years, and now he managed to hire a German ex-Chancellor as collaborator for the Kremlin! For Putin Gazprom always was a clear political project of various dimensions: It would provide his rule with significant income, it would make one of the most important West European countries dependent on Russian goodwill, and it would allow him to circumvent the old gas pipelines through Ukraine, thereby giving him additional levers of pressure against this neighbour.

Ostpolitik vindicated?

Ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Moscow in 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Helmut Schmidt was the second Social Democratic Chancellor after Willy Brandt. Schmidt on the one hand continued his predecessor’s “Ostpolitik”, seeking reconciliation and cooperation with the East European neighbors, but on the other hand he pursued Western, particularly NATO’s unity. After the Soviet Union had started deploying intermediate nuclear missiles, threatening Western Europe, Schmidt fought through NATO’s “double track decision”, even against initial U.S. President Carter’s hesitation: In case the Soviet Union did not dismantle its SS-20 missiles, NATO would respond by stationing U.S. Pershing intermediate nuclear missiles in Western Europe, thereby creating a balance of power and preventing the Soviet leadership from exerting pressure. After Moscow had refused to yield, NATO started to implement its decision in December 1983.

Only after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to end the arms race with the West, did both the USSR and NATO agree to abolish those missiles in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987. Western steadfastness has proved Helmut Schmidt’s decision to be right!

Which way to turn?

Chancellor Scholz is now confronted with the question: whom of his Social Democratic predecessors should he follow? Schröder’s “Russia first” policy has created a lot of resentment in Eastern Europe, with Polish and Baltic politicians calling “Nord Stream II” the “Schröder-Putin pact”, reminiscent  of the Hitler-Stalin conspiracy of 1939 to carve up Eastern Europe. Schröder’s bond of friendship with Putin clearly has a sentimental dimension: German shame and feelings of guilt after Hitler’s terrible war in the East. However, one should never forget that the people who suffered most from the Wehrmacht’s ferocious attack were first of all the Poles, White Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians and only then millions of Russians. Therefore, German responsibility cannot be focused solely on Russia – all the more since it is now under totalitarian rule. (See my article in West England Bylines on “Stal-Put-in”).

Ukraine, after the “orange revolution” of 2004, has pursued a Western oriented path, trying to follow Poland’s example of joining Western institutions. Clearly, Ukraine’s transition to Western values is not complete. Also, as the cradle of Russia (the Kiev Rus) and with a significant Russian-speaking population, Ukraine will never be able completely to cut ties with its Eastern neighbour. And it should not! However, the real problem today is the dichotomy between totalitarian rule in Putin’s Russia and the Western oriented policy in Kiev.

Any responsible Western politician who believes in democratic values should have no choice but follow the example of Helmut Schmidt: demonstrating NATO’s cohesion and determination to withstand pressure and intimidation from Moscow. One can only hope that Chancellor Scholz finds the right answer.

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