Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Germany’s bridges to Russia split open Europe

James Ferguson illustration of Tony Barber column ‘Germany’s bridges to Russia split open Europe’
© James Ferguson

No western country’s relationship with Russia is more burdened with history than Germany’s. In June will fall the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, prelude to titanic battles and wartime atrocities that still affect Germany’s self-image and weigh heavily on official attitudes to Russia.

None of this serves as an excuse, however, for some ill-judged remarks that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president, made last week on German-Russian relations. In a newspaper interview, he defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, intended to deliver Russian gas to Germany across the Baltic Sea, as one of the few bridges between Russia and Europe in an otherwise deteriorating diplomatic and security climate.

Steinmeier went on to say that “for us Germans, there is another dimension” — the more than 20m Soviet people killed in the second world war. “That doesn’t justify any wrongdoing in Russian policy today, but we must not lose sight of the bigger picture,” he said.

The trouble with Steinmeier’s defence of Nord Stream 2 as repayment of a moral debt to Russia is that the president made no mention of other countries laid waste between 1939 and 1945 at Nazi hands. Russia became the legal successor state to the Soviet Union in the UN Security Council after the end of communism in 1991. But Russians are not the sole successor nation in terms of moral debts, as Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin was quick to point out.

Indeed, the list of European countries that could claim to be owed a German moral debt is distressingly long and extends far beyond the borders of the defunct USSR. Without question the former West Germany, and the reunified German state after 1990, have made amends for Nazi crimes with admirable perseverance and a high sense of responsibility. But Steinmeier’s remarks underline how Russia, for many German politicians and business executives, remains a special case.

Germany’s Nord Stream 2 partnership with Russia arouses apprehension in parts of central and eastern Europe where historical memories last for centuries. Poland was wiped off Europe’s map for 123 years because of three partitions between 1772 and 1795 organised chiefly by Prussia and Russia. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 was the prelude to another two-pronged attack on Poland.

Nord Stream 2, a project so close to completion that it may be too late to stop, carries no threat of territorial annexations or military aggression. But to the countries that lie between Germany and Russia, it looks like another arrangement made over their heads and with a scandalous lack of attention paid by Berlin to their concerns.

The implications for the EU may be profound. The professed ambition of the 27-nation bloc is to act like a strategically mature power with a coherent, united foreign and security policy. However, for the Baltic states, Poland and others, the lesson of Nord Stream 2 is not to entrust their freedom to some nebulous concept of EU security when Germany single-mindedly pursues bilateral deals with Russia.

For central and eastern Europeans, the crucial protector of their independence is not the EU but the US. In this way, defence and security can be added to the rule of law, media pluralism and migration as one more area where disputes divide some of the EU’s western European member states from some in central and eastern Europe.

The striking feature of Germany’s engagement with Russia is its broad cross-party support. Chancellor Angela Merkel has kept EU sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and armed intervention in south-eastern Ukraine, but she is supportive of Nord Stream 2. The approach of Armin Laschet, the new leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic party, seems less nuanced. When Russian president Vladimir Putin was busy seizing Crimea, Laschet criticised what he called “anti-Putin populism” in Germany.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister, defends Berlin’s dealings with Moscow on the grounds that western countries must take care not to push Russia into closer economic and military co-operation with China. As for the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany and the leftist Die Linke parties, they disagree with the CDU and SPD on most things, but not on reaching out to Russia.

Yet what is the Kremlin giving Germany in return? The Bundestag was the target of a cyber attack in 2015 that the German authorities blamed on Russia. Four years later, an exiled Chechen rebel leader was murdered in Berlin on what prosecutors say were the Russian government’s orders.

In short, the argument that a close economic and energy relationship with Russia brings dividends in European security appears shaky, at least in the Putin era. The question German politicians should ask themselves is not how big their country’s moral debt to Russia is, but whether Nord Stream 2 and other bridges to Russia are achieving any worthwhile results. 

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