Germany and Russia: A Dangerous Tango

By Tom Fort

As the war in Ukraine rapidly approaches its first anniversary, Russia is far from the gates of Kyiv and the pariah of the world, facing a Ukrainian nation pumped full of both heroic resilience and modern Western hardware. Far from splintering European unity, the conflict has brought the continent, and its allies across the Atlantic and around the world, ever closer. Poland is fast becoming a military powerhouse; the American defence industry is booming, and more and more countries are joining an ever-expanding alliance committed to sending tanks eastward. Berlin’s enthusiasm has been somewhat muted, especially when placed alongside Warsaw, London, and Washington. Engaged yet distant in the conflict, getting Germany to act has been like pulling teeth on many occasions, yet all the frustration this may create conceals the underlying apparatus which exists between the Reichstag and the Kremlin.

In 2008, Russian boots marched into Georgia, fragmenting the state and diminishing Tbilisi’s sovereignty over its own territory – which has significantly hampered any potential of joining NATO. By 2014, more Russian boots were in Crimea, securing the peninsula for the Russian Federation and crucially the warm water port of Sevastopol for the Black Sea fleet. Throughout all of this, Berlin continued to guzzle Russian gas and commit itself to a relationship with Moscow. These geopolitical events by no means triggered the meaningful, united, and collective response which the war in Ukraine has rightly now brought about, but in the case of Germany, their foreign policy mirrors a similar and frustrating reluctance to act as seen a decade ago.

This came about most apparently in January of this year, when Berlin refused to not only allow its own tanks to be sent to Ukraine, but to also forbid other countries such as Finland and Poland, which also possess German-made tanks, to commit their own. The country had previously also blocked a plea from Estonia to send its own German-made hardware, and bizarrely reiterated that the USA must commit its own tanks first, before Berlin can even think about budging. All of this, combined with Germany’s historically low spending on defence when compared to many other NATO partners, can be explained not only by forces of today, but through a broader historical context.  

Germany and Russia share a history which is not only long, but one which has been more cordial in recent decades when compared to the relationships between Europe’s other great powers and Moscow. A significant number of Germans retain a command of the Russian language, including former Chancellor Angela Merkel, and many German communities remain in Russia, including notably the Volga Germans. Ostalgie (a clever combination of the German words: ‘Ost’ meaning ‘East’ and ‘Nostalgie’ meaning ‘nostalgia’) has in many ways anchored large swathes German society to a Russian identity, and created a lingering affinity for communist East German and Soviet rule. According to a recent poll, only 31 per cent of Germans living in the former East Germany favour greater toughness against Russia, compared to 47 per cent across the now non-existent border in Germany’s western states. At the same time, 34 per cent of respondents in the East believed that the German government is doing ‘too much’ to support Ukraine, compared to only 18 per cent in the west.

Germany’s eastern neighbours, especially Poland, have been outspoken in their criticism of Berlin’s lack of action, and even the smallest rift within the Western alliance has the potential to seriously erode its credibility. But why might a people, who endured Communist rule for over forty years, retain such sympathy? As in many cases of contemporary geopolitics, the answer lies partly in the history of the 20th century. States such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia firstly endured brutal occupation under Nazi Germany, followed several years later by the ensuing advance of the Red Army and almost half a decade of subsequent rule from Moscow. Unlike in East Germany, whose political uprisings were of lesser consequence, the troops of the Warsaw Pact brutally suppressed uprisings elsewhere in the Communist world, carving mental scars which did not play out to the same extent in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In this way, the German state within Moscow’s orbit did not experience the extent of repression and cruelty enacted upon its less fortunate neighbours, who additionally endured not one, but two brutal occupations.

For many years, both during the Cold War and in the years following, Germany strove to put together a delicate structure known as Ostpolitik (a combination of the German words for ‘East’ and ‘Politics’), characterised by a growing rapprochement between East and West which began with West Germany’s recognition of the East German state. This has collapsed spectacularly, eroding Germany’s mistaken belief that it could alter Russia’s course. Whilst holding the position of Germany’s foreign secretary, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who led Germany’s social democrats, condemned American-led exercises of NATO on the alliance’s Eastern flank as ‘saber-rattling’ against Moscow. As Russian state TV threatens Britain and Germany with nuclear strikes, Mr Steinmeier has finally conceded his regret for his earlier stances, stances which played straight into the hands of the Putin regime. One wonders how he truly feels now about all this Russian saber-rattling going on.

But it is not just Mr Steinmeier, the legacy of Germany’s disastrous appeasement of the Russian Federation rests upon the shoulders of a long line of politicians, diplomats and institutions. Often seen as the leader of the Free World, it was Angela Merkel who passionately pushed through the Nord Stream project, which pumped Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, and took the decision to phase out the country’s nuclear power, both physically and symbolically anchoring Berlin to Moscow’s orbit. Gerhard Schröder, who led Germany’s social democrats just like Steinmeier, became chairman of both Nord Stream and the Russian state oil company Rosneft after retiring from politics. His departure from the latter position came only in May 2022, three months after Moscow began its deadly assault. By invading Ukraine, Russia has given Germany a huge slap in the face, undermining everything Berlin, naively or not, was trying to achieve. Rather than walking away from the school bully however, Germany seems to be treading lightly, hoping they won’t be hit again.

Some of Germany’s political hesitancy can of course be explained through more practical terms. Germany’s system of propositional representation has never delivered a government comprised of a single party in recent years. Whilst one may secure a majority of the seats, the governing of the continent’s largest economy depends upon co-operation between several ideologies. Germany today is led by the so-called ‘traffic light coalition’, comprising of Scholz’s social democrats, the German Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party. Whilst Scholz previously wouldn’t budge on tanks and has already ruled out the prospect of sending fighter jets before anyone has had chance to open their mouth, Annalena Baerbock, leading Germany’s Greens, has emerged as the country’s hawkish foreign secretary, committed to establishing a tribunal to prosecute Russia’s leadership.

Pacificism is often cited in German debates when it comes to the exporting of heavy weaponry, and the belief that the horrors of the past trap and paralyse the state, supposedly destined to never again engage in offensive military action. But if this were the case, German memory is rather ignorant at worst, and naïve at best. The discomfort at once again sending tanks to fight against Russia seems to not extend to Ukraine itself, whose land was devastated by the German army during the Second World War. Olaf Scholz may have announced a dramatic reversal of German’s foreign policy in 2022 when he unveiled a plan to increase the defence budget by €100 billion, but so far this change has bore little fruit, and never will if Berlin’s commitment also does not undergo a serious overhaul.

As the war drags on and Ukraine continues to bleed, Germany is beginning to look more and more like an unreliable, untrustworthy, and volatile link within the web of NATO which must continue to remain strong. By bizarrely insisting it must send weapons in lockstep with the US, Berlin could be aiming to paint itself not as the sole aggressor, holding out for a more accelerated re-normalisation of ties with Russia if or when the West chooses to do so in the future. As European demand for Russian gas dries up and the Russian economy falls into recession, what exactly is Berlin hoping to salvage? Germany is once again feared in Europe, although this time not for its militarism, but for its sheer incompetence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Der Spiegel (

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