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Germany, Russia face minefield of misunderstanding

January 7, 2022

The thorny issue of how to face up to Vladimir Putin's Russia is one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

Olaf Scholz (left) Vladimir Putin (right)
Rumors suggest Scholz (left) is scheduled to meet soon with Russian leader Vladimir PutinImage: John Thys/Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

In the coalition agreement that forms the basis for Germany's three-party government of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP), there is one sentence that could spark any manner of friction and tension.

It reads: "We need a resolute and substantial foreign, security, development and human rights policy that is integrated and cohesive." Translated into everyday English, that means: "We stand united on geopolitics and nobody will break ranks."

Nord Stream 2: Just business?

However, seasoned political pundits in Berlin point out that, even before the new cabinet had been forged, it was common knowledge that there were substantial differences on foreign policy between Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens), above all concerning relations with Moscow.

During her campaign to become German chancellor, Baerbock made no secret of her opposition to the controversial Nord Stream 2 liquid gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany. The problem is, said Baerbock, the pipeline will only make Germany even more energy-dependent on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Scholz, meanwhile, has insisted that the pipeline is a "business project" — nothing more, nothing less. End of story.

So, in the end, it seems that Foreign Minister Baerbock will be expected to toe the coalition line and back a project that she fervently rejected when the Green Party was still in opposition. However, a potential clash between the chancellor and the foreign minister might well be avoided if Germany's Federal Network Agency, the body responsible for making the final call to start operating the pipeline, rules that it should not, for technical and legal reasons, be commissioned to go into operation. A decision is due in the first half of 2022.

Baerbock joins forces with Blinken

Nevertheless, the uncertainties and differences surrounding the pipeline could still have a major foreign policy impact if there is any further escalation in the simmering tensions in Ukraine.

The situation along the border between Russia and Ukraine was high on the agenda during Baerbock's first official visit to Washington this week, during which she met with her US counterpart, Antony Blinken. The two sides were at pains to present a united front, and Baerbock said the new government in Berlin had agreed that Germany will take effective measures together with its European partners, if "Russia should use energy as a weapon or should there be any further acts of aggression."

It was a firm warning to President Putin — and Chancellor Scholz is unlikely to offer a dissenting voice. After all, Baerbock's defiant stance is in accordance with the policy on Russia as mapped out in the coalition agreement. Here again, the precise wording is clear: "We demand an immediate end to efforts to destabilize Ukraine, to the violence in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which was illegal according to international law."

Scholz to take on relations with Russia?

There is no plausible reason why Putin would return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine after annexing it in 2014. If Germany doesn't want to weaken its position in its dealings with the Russian president, then it will have to develop and enforce a strategy that is closely coordinated between chancellery and Foreign Ministry.

However, Germany's influential mass circulation Bild newspaper isn't convinced that unity will prevail in government ranks. In a report, the traditionally well-connected paper suggested that Scholz sees relations with Moscow as something that should only be decided at the very highest level — and that means the chancellery.

There's also talk behind the scenes of what is being called a "qualified reset" in ties between Berlin and Moscow, and whispers of a January meeting between Scholz and Putin, although nothing has been confirmed. Few in Germany would be surprised to see the chancellor taking ties between Berlin and Moscow into his own remit. After all, that would be fully in accordance with the German constitution.

Article 65 of the constitution reads: "The Federal Chancellor shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy. Within these limits, each Federal Minister shall conduct the affairs of his department independently and on his own responsibility."

Scholz: EU needs new approach in Eastern Europe

'What we need is a new Ostpolitik'

In other words: Scholz calls the shots. Germany has long witnessed a trend toward the chancellor having the key say in foreign affairs, with the foreign minister effectively taking a back seat. In recent times, long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel made a significant contribution to this shifting influence. During her 16 years in office, Merkel reshaped both Germany and German diplomacy.

Broadly speaking, it seems Scholz is inclined to carry on where Merkel left off. But there should be no underestimating his ambition to make his own mark. In an interview with DW during the general election campaign in 2021, he was quoted as saying that: "What we need is a new Ostpolitik."

Scholz was referring to the policy of seeking reconciliation and rapprochement between East and West during the darkest days of the Cold War. It was in large measure a policy associated with former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his courage and enlightenment.

Brandt's Ostpolitik (literally: Eastern Policy) seems to have inspired Scholz, who appears to see it as a possible tool in troubled relations with present-day Russia. How realistic that approach might prove remains to be seen. It is, however, worth remembering that Brandt's interventions played a major role in developments that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990.

Scholz: 'We seek constructive dialogue'

"The people of the world must pull together. That means continuing the conversation — even with governments that are very different from ours," said Scholz in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF shortly after he had been sworn into office. In Brandt's time this was referred to as "Wandel durch Annäherung" (change through rapprochement). And, in an earlier interview, Scholz said he would work hard to convince "Russia and others to accept that European integration will remain a force to be reckoned with."

In the coalition agreement that was the foundation in 2021 for Germany's three-party coalition, the following words are to be found: "We recognize the importance of substantial and stable relations and will continue to pursue such partnerships. We seek constructive dialogue." This resolve might soon be tested.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.