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Germany’s Role and Putin’s Escalation Dominance in Ukraine

Profile Stefan Meister

BY STEFAN MEISTER 

Back in 2014, when the second Minsk agreement on Donbas was being finalized, I told Germany’s decision-makers that we needed a plan B because this one was not going to work. Putin would not stop, I said, and this agreement was not going to lead to peace and stability in Ukraine. The reaction was, we have only plan A, and it has to work.

That refusal to take reality into account, a refusal to think beyond the current state of crisis, is a typical pattern in German politics of the past decades. It leads directly to Putin’s war against Ukraine.

Germany’s Russia policy over the past twenty years was one of appeasement and staying within an economic comfort zone. The German Energiewende (energy transformation) that is phasing out, simultaneously, nuclear and coal as energy sources has been built on Russian pipeline gas as a bridge. Moscow knew this well. The thinking in Moscow was, no matter what we do, Germany—for all kinds of opportunistic reasons—will always have our back. That Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder has held senior positions at Gazprom, Nord Stream, and Rosneft is a symbol of this policy and a basis for Moscow to believe that Berlin would always play along on issues critical for the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has proved to be a painful wake-up call for German decision-makers. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, German decision-makers have realized that Germany’s and Europe’s security is at stake. Fresh from an electoral victory, the new coalition of Social Democrats, the Greens, and Liberals has had to catch up on defense, energy, and foreign policy, all areas neglected by the country’s previous governments.

Just three days into the war, Chancellor Scholz in an extraordinary speech in the Bundestag announced the creation of a special fund of 100 billion euros for the modernization of the German army, an annual defense budget of more than 2 percent of GDP, and an effective end to Germany’s decades-old policy of appeasement. Germany is now supporting Ukraine with weapons and has agreed to join Europe’s SWIFT sanctions against Russia. Robert Habeck, the German vice-chancellor and economics minister, is working hard on diversifying Germany’s sources of oil and gas away from Russia and substituting huge amounts of liquefied natural gas from authoritarian states like Qatar. These were all German taboos in the past. Germany’s foreign affairs minister, Annalena Baerbock, has been unequivocal in calling Putin an aggressor, a major shift in German political language.

What Germany’s decision-makers have realized is that there is no longer a comfort zone. They have not prepared their country for the end of globalization and the beginning of a transactional world in which spoiler powers like Putin’s Russia have an advantage. Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has been one of the main beneficiaries of the open global markets; it has built its welfare on massive exports of goods and imports of cheap Russian oil and gas. The rules-based international order was an ideal framework for development and peace in Germany and wider Europe. But all this worked only with a U.S. security guarantee and an assumption that Russia and China, with time, would become “like us,” thanks to Germany’s change-through-trade philosophy.

This has now been proved wrong. Vladimir Putin is creating a new European security order with tanks, and China’s president Xi Jinping is not willing to distance himself and China’s prospects from the Russian president sufficiently to support Western sanctions. Germany is very vulnerable owing to its energy dependency on Russia and economic dependency on China, two authoritarian states that are increasingly cooperating with each other.

The shock caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine ran deep through German society. Chancellor Scholz understood that not only is change needed, but there is also a window of opportunity for ending some German taboos. His Zeitenwende (turn-around) speech was prepared, much like a special operation, by a very small circle of people, with those involved knowing there would be resistance in the governing coalition. And this resistance is growing not only among the German elite but also in the business community because Germany’s business model and way of life are under threat.

But Berlin is reacting to what Putin is doing and behaving more as a brakeman than as a leader of Europe on Russia and Ukraine. There is no support for the full cessation of exports of Russian gas and oil to Europe. Bank exceptions to the SWIFT sanctions have to be negotiated because of German intervention, and Germany has been and remains skeptical about promising Ukraine the prospect of an EU membership. What Germany still lacks is a mental, cultural, and strategic Zeitenwende toward Russia. Germany needs not just a change in its foreign policy but a fundamental shift in the way politics is done and discussed in our country. Russia’s president Putin still has escalation dominance, and no talks with Chancellor Scholz or French president Emmanuel Macron will stop him from killing more people in Ukraine.

Germany’s current Zeitenwende is not based on a strategic analysis it has conducted but is the result of external pressure. There is no return to a prewar comfort zone where Germany always muddled through various crises and refused to accept the reality of Putin’s system. A full recognition of reality, something that is not yet in place, also means action in terms of creating institutions that are able to respond quickly and a new political class able to drive Germany and Europe into a new era.

A shift that is needed for Germany and Europe concerns our way of life, our security, and the future of Europe and liberal democracies. In mid-March, Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock framed it well in a speech on developing a new national security strategy: Germany needs an integrated and comprehensive security approach in the areas of defense, diplomacy, and infrastructure. So far there has been no focus, no specific plan. There is only the old tendency to make every interest group a little happier by spending a little more money.

To advance from the current bureaucratic foreign policy to a fully strategic approach, Germany needs new people, new inclinations of mind, and an ability to think outside the box. President Putin has no limits. He is ruthless and on a historic mission to destroy Ukraine and the post-Cold War security regime. German decision-makers are still unable to see beyond the current reality. They are stuck in crisis management mode.

What will happen when this war ends? Will Germany still be interested in striking a deal with Putin to keep the gas flowing? As the Minsk agreements have shown, there is no room for a bad ceasefire agreement for Ukraine. Appeasement is not going to work with the Russian leadership. The current negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are simply a tactical move by the Kremlin to win time and regroup its forces. For a while, Putin might accept that he controls only the whole of Donbas and a land bridge to Crimea. That will not prevent him from later starting another war to take the rest of Ukraine and Moldova or to attack the Baltic states. Are Germany, Europe, and the United States ready for this?

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Profile Stefan Meister

Stefan Meister

Head of Program, International Order and Democracy, DGAP
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more