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Germany’s Farcical Russia Policy Could Yet Turn Reasonable

Germany’s Farcical Russia Policy Could Yet Turn Reasonable

Wednesday, 9 February, 2022 - 06:30

Perhaps German policy toward Russia must first descend into farce before it can re-ascend to reason. Let’s start with the farce.

Gerhard Schroeder leaps to mind. He’s a former German chancellor and the most recent Social Democrat in that role before the incumbent, Olaf Scholz. In a podcast over the weekend, Schroeder decried all the “saber-rattling” happening right now in Eastern Europe. Of course he would, you say. But Schroeder was talking about the rattling that, in his view, Ukraine is directing at Russia.

Get it? He’s not just distorting reality but inverting it, hoping that enough gullible or cynical types, especially in his own party, repeat this drivel and make it a meme. Schroeder is thereby demonstrating the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also specializes in calling black white, up down, and aggression victimhood.

The two men have been best buds for decades. Schroeder helped launch Nord Stream, a pipeline that has been pumping gas directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea since 2011, bypassing Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. He chairs its shareholder committee, as well as the board of Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian oil giant.

It’s fair to call Putin his paymaster. In effect, Schroeder is the most famous lobbyist for the Kremlin in general and for Nord Stream 2 in particular. That’s a twin pipeline running right next to the first Nord Stream. If and when it starts pumping, it would double the Russian gas flowing through the Baltic to Germany, allowing Putin to cut off Ukraine, Poland and other transit countries.

Well, you say, Schroeder is being ridiculous, but he’s a private person nowadays, and no longer in government. True, but just look at what others in his party are up to, including some who do have power over policy, such as the defense minister, Christine Lambrecht.

Unlike the US, UK and other allies, Germany refuses to send weapons to Ukraine for its self-defense. Worse, it’s even blocking partners like Estonia from doing so. (As usual in Germany, the government blames the holdup on bureaucratic process, but that’s neither here nor there). Because this intransigence led to a predictable international outcry, Lambrecht decided to make it up to the Ukrainians: She’s sending them generous reinforcements — 5,000 helmets, to be exact.

“An absolute joke,” remarked Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv. “What will Germany send in support next? Pillows?”

So much for the farce. For Ukrainians and Germany’s allies in the European Union and NATO, of course, the joke is rather too macabre to savor. From the US to the Baltics, the country’s partners are wondering whether they can count on the Germans if push comes to shove.

Speaking for many in his country, Piotr Semka, a Polish connoisseur of Berlin’s politics, wonders whether Germany would even defend Poland, a member of the EU and NATO, if it were attacked by Russia. He mocks Germany’s highfalutin and hypocritical lip service to “European values.” Latvia’s defense minister, Artis Pabriks, calls German dithering “immoral.” Estonia’s prime minister, Kaja Kallas, urges Germany to remember who is predator, and who prey. Hint: It’s the opposite of Schroeder’s version.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. It’s that the mood toward Russia is turning even among Germans. Last month, 73 experts on Russia and security policy published a jeremiad against German policy toward Moscow, including a litany of Putin’s prior aggressions and Berlin’s record of enabling them with inaction, passivity and naivete. Germans with an international outlook are warning bluntly that Germany will alienate its allies if it doesn’t change course.

Even some Social Democrats are joining these ranks of realists. They include senior diplomats such as Michael Roth and former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. Admittedly, the Putin appeasers in the party are still the shrillest. This week, the SPD assembled a prominent sample of its Russia hawks and doves so they could talk it out and appear united. They still don’t. But the direction is promising.

Increasingly, downplaying or soft-pedaling Putin’s behavior is becoming untenable — even in Germany, even among Social Democrats. Some people will keep at it, especially on the populist fringes and the far right, as in other European countries — and even on the Tucker Carlson wing in the US. But the Social Democrats should realize that this is the company they’d be keeping.

Olaf Scholz has so far refrained from making his views excessively clear. That may be cowardice — or tactical guile. His coalition partners, the Greens and the Free Democrats, are ready to toughen the German line against Russia. Provided Scholz can keep his own party in line, he could, should — and probably will — make Germany a better ally. In fact, this may be his biggest test as German leader.


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