A Year After Germany’s “Sea Change,” Policy Change Remains Elusive

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Nine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin began his war of conquest in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Moscow. He summed up his meetings by repeating a phrase made famous by Egon Bahr, West Germany’s emissary to Moscow in the 1970s: “Without Russia, a peace order in Europe is not possible.” This line was conceived when Bahr launched Germany’s plans for Ostpolitik under the direction of then-Chancellor Willy Brandt. Typically translated as “new eastern policy,” Ostpolitik prioritized political accommodation and featured slogans like “change through trade.” It sought to produce good will and collaboration, first with East Germany and the Soviet Union and later with the Russian Federation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this accommodation often came at the direct expense of Germany’s less-powerful neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Just days after Russia’s invasion, Scholz seemed to repudiate nearly five decades of Social Democratic Party policy. In a special session of the Bundestag, the chancellor declared a “Zeitenwende,” or “sea change.” This shift would reverse a half-century of restraint, he proclaimed, by overhauling a bereft Bundeswehr, sending Ukraine arms, and ending Germany’s energy dependence on Russia. It also implied a pivot toward the concerns of the emerging Eastern European democracies that had long struggled under Moscow’s thumb. Most recently, Scholz touted his belated decision to send tanks as the latest evidence of this revolution. With the Leopard 2 added to a bulging list of materiel authorized for Ukraine’s war effort, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that Germany had “stepped up.” In the space of a year, Berlin has abandoned its insistence on sending helmets alone, becoming the second-largest supplier of weapons and munitions to aid Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy’s defenses. During Scholz’s first visit to the White House since the invasion, which occurred last week, Biden commended Germany’s “profound support on Ukraine.”

Yet certain awkward realities persist. Despite the Chancellor Scholz’s rhetorical commitment to condemning Russia’s actions, Germany still sends less assistance to Ukraine on a per capita basis than countries lacking its economic might. This reality colors its vaunted status as the second-highest contributor to Ukraine’s war effort (if one counts its contributions through the European Union as well as independent contributions). The 100 billion euros Scholz vowed to spend on military modernization remains something of an illusion. Germany’s new defense minister, Boris Pistorius, claimed recently to have inherited an army in worse shape than it was before Scholz’s pledge. A few weeks earlier, Eva Högl, a military commissioner and political ally of Scholz, publicly insisted that “it would take 300 billion euros to make significant changes in the Bundeswehr.”

 

 

One year after his Zeitenwende speech, the chancellor has yet to deliver on the radical change he promised. Instead, he seems to be more intent on waiting when it comes to altering Germany’s strategic calculus. Given these circumstances, it appears Ostpolitik is being quietly repackaged for a new era, with regrettable consequences for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. 

A ‘Russia First’ Policy

Beginning in the 1970s, Brandt and his chief strategist, Bahr, both of the Social Democratic Party, sought to bring the people of the Eastern Bloc closer through overtures that began with the recognition of East German statehood. The policy they advanced, Ostpolitik, sparked controversy from the start. Brandt’s belief that “genuine coexistence is the only alternative to atomic war and universal suicide” led him to dismiss Western criticism of Soviet crackdowns as “ersatz heroism.” But debate over Ostpolitik’s first formulation remains a question largely confined to Europe’s Cold War past. Its true legacy now comes from what historian Timothy Garton Ash refers to as “the second thirty years” of the policy — the era from German reunification to Russia’s incursions in 2022. During this period, Ostpolitik evolved from a means to ease East-West tensions to an assemblage of disjointed initiatives promoted under a banner of constructive relations with the Russian Federation. It could now be resurrected once again, serving as a malleable framework for Berlin’s interests.

Speaking to former officials who were active during this period reveals why it is so difficult for Berlin to truly disentangle itself from Moscow and stop neglecting its former subjects in the ex-Soviet bloc. While these officials come from many political traditions, they all emphasize the deep historical roots of the Ostpolitik tradition. Some offer biting criticism. Others argue that history has vindicated the policy, even amid the ongoing conflict. These continued defenses, in particular, hint at why Ostpolitik may well survive the invasion of Ukraine.

Jürgen Chrobog, a former ambassador to the United States and onetime chief of staff to Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, emphasized the personal dimension of the policy. His former boss was “good friends with Eduard Shevardnadze,” Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs during reunification. The ambassador made headlines in Der Spiegel last year when the findings of American political scientist Joshua Shifrinson became national news. In a 1991 meeting among representatives of the German, British, French, and U.S. governments, Chrobog argued that, due to prior commitments made during reunification, these allies “could not therefore offer membership [in] NATO to Poland and the others.” He subsequently explained away early conclusions like these by claiming Germany’s aims became “about making it easy for Russia to accept the change taking place.”

These warm relations set the stage for entrenched economic ties. In 1990, long before Nord Stream 1 and 2 were conceived, Gazprom partnered with German companies to pioneer a new gas distribution system. BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, sought to free itself from its traditional supplier Ruhrgas by developing a new network with Gazprom. This in turn provided Russia’s state-owned energy behemoth with unencumbered entrée to the German market. 

 

 

Subsequent chancellors refashioned Ostpolitik to usher in a new age of European prosperity. Some, like Gerhard Schroder, have become infamous, while others have salvaged their reputations. In 2008, then-Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier celebrated the revival that occurred under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first term. He argued the policy’s historical track record provided irrefutable evidence it would bring Putin’s Russia closer to its democratic destiny, coaxing it to join Western security arrangements. This reinvention culminated with Steinmeier’s “Partnership for Modernization.” This initiative, adopted by the European Union as official policy in 2010, focused on providing Moscow with a platform to work hand-in-glove with wealthy Western European corporations on lucrative investment opportunities. Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stressed the need for cooperation on technology, whereas his E.U. counterparts emphasized political change. Talking past each other proved convenient for both sides.

“The policy of the last decade was essentially a ‘Russia First policy,’” chided Hansjürgen Heimsoeth, Germany’s former ambassador to Ukraine. As his government’s first Consul General to Donetsk, Heimsoeth saw both the granular as well as the grand steps taken to deal with Russia’s bellicose behavior. To his eye, Steinmeier’s revival of Ostpolitik “ended up as privileges for Moscow.” Combined with Merkel’s opposition to the 2008 NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine, these policies were received as “clear signals to Russia it could go ahead on the path it was on.” In many cases, he stated, “Germany was even willing to go along with the Kremlin’s pretension to speak for all Slavic peoples.” This permissive tack, of course, was not taken by Germany alone. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy similarly opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO. U.S. President Barack Obama allowed Russia’s proxies in Syria to cross his chemical weapons red line. However, Germany’s sympathy for Putin’s grievances became a reflex. In part, this habit arose from what Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger referred to as Germany’s “sense of historical obligation” to Russia. “We have felt it was necessary to seek positive relations and to negotiate because we were given the great gift of reunification,” he explained.

Yet long before reunification, the Social Democratic Party enforced détente with dogged discipline. In 1983, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s fealty to NATO’s plans to deploy new missiles in West Germany following the failure of arms control talks resulted in his repudiation by a special party congress. Scholz himself joined the party faithful at the time in public protests against the chancellor, which helped lead to Schmidt’s downfall. In the protestors’ view, the Soviet Union’s immovable arsenal, which menaced Europe, could not be matched with countervailing missiles — even if West Germany suffered nuclear blackmail. With an attitude like this, perhaps it is no surprise then that Scholz has been keen on describing his confrontation with Putin as a mere “difference of opinions.”

At many moments since Russia renewed its aggression toward Ukraine, Social Democratic Party leaders have publicly eschewed these past political tendencies. The party’s chairman, Lars Klingbeil, wrote last October that “the assertion that there cannot be security and stability in Europe against, but only with Russia, is no longer valid.” Instead of taking the Social Democratic Party’s typical approach, he argued, “today it is a question of organizing security against Russia. Russia has abandoned the system of joint security and shared values.”

But despite this shift in sentiment, Scholz continues to stall on his promise to increase German defense spending to 2 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, researchers at St. Gallen’s University estimate that more than 50 percent of Western companies remaining in Russia are German and that, of all the E.U. and G7 firms who have kept operating Russian subsidiaries, about one-fifth are German. Political pressure from Berlin has, in fact, been more rhetorical than concrete — and has failed to produce the massive withdrawal portrayed in the media.

Ostpolitik in Osteuropa

Central and Eastern Europeans have long been collateral damage of Ostpolitik’s aims. In the policy’s original heyday, Social Democratic Party officials actively discouraged struggles for human rights that arose in the bloc. In 1982, Bahr went so far as to endorse a brutal crackdown and the imposition of martial law in Poland, remarking “how easy it is to demand freedom for the Poles” without considering the “many political calculations” that must be made within the “constraints of reality.” 15 years after Brandt knelt before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto, he refused Lech Wałęsa’s invitation for a meeting in Gdańsk. Instead of obliging his fellow Nobel Laureate, Brandt charmed Poland’s repressive leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, comparing him to Charles de Gaulle. 

Then, as in recent years, German officials believed Ostpolitik required acknowledging rather than undermining Russian power. Referring to Eastern Europe, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum summarized Germany’s disposition: “Their government just doesn’t take those countries seriously.” Ambassador Klaus Scharioth, an architect of Germany’s contemporary foreign policy, put an even finer point on it: “They should be thankful to us — after all we supported their entry into the [European Union].”

But perhaps it is Germany that should be more thankful to them. Hungary, where communist authorities murdered thousands in 1956, provided the “first cracks in the Berlin Wall.” Its government abolished restrictions on travel to Austria in 1989, thus enabling tens of thousands of East Germans to flee west. Czechoslovakia, which bore the brunt of the Brezhnev doctrine in 1968, allowed East Germans to overrun Prague’s West German embassy — hastening their escape.

Russia’s push to build economic ties over Central and Eastern Europe has fomented distrust within the European Union for nearly two decades. The now moribund trade in natural gas, which weakened Ukraine’s position for years, became the tip of Moscow’s spear. Former Polish foreign and defense minister, Radek Sikorski, invoked notorious historic acts of betrayal when denigrating Nord Stream 1. “Poland has a particular sensitivity to corridors and deals above our head,” he said in 2006, “that was the Locarno tradition, that was the Molotov-Ribbentrop tradition. That was the 20th century. We don’t want any repetition of that.” 

It is telling Scholz spent the anniversary of his Zeintenwende speech in India, the world’s fifth-largest economy. Germany’s decades-long dance with Russia is rooted in its emphasis on relations with great economic powers. Yet, here too, it seems that the importance of Central and Eastern Europe to Berlin has been far too easily overlooked. Rolf Nikel, former German ambassador to Poland and deputy foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Merkel, cautions against this oversight. “In terms of trade volume, it has been the case for some time that the Visegrad Group,” made up of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, “have been Germany’s largest trading partner as a bloc.” 

Data collected by the German Council on Foreign Relations substantiates this claim: As far back as 2018, these four countries represented a total trade volume of over 250 billion euros with Germany. Overtaking China and the United States, they together far outstrip Russia, Germany’s 14th-biggest customer. Before the onset of the war in Ukraine, in 2021, the Visegrad Group conducted $198.8 billion in trade with Germany, underscoring their unparalleled interdependence with Europe’s largest economy. In 2022, cross-border dealings with the 29 countries making up all of Central and Eastern Europe accounted for 18 percent of total German foreign trade. The 562 billion-euro sum proved greater than combined German commerce with the United States and China.

Yet despite the potential profits for Germany, Berlin was, at first, hesitant to embrace projects that would have built up north-south infrastructure for Central and Eastern Europe in place of the East-West transportation architecture that endured from the initial decades of Ostpolitik. Ambassador Nikel described his government’s “reluctance” to get behind the Three Seas Initiative and “agnosticism” on the Baltic Pipe. This suggests that rather than simple economic motives, this approach reflected Berlin’s geopolitical attitudes toward Moscow and Washington.

A veteran of U.S.-German tensions during President Donald Trump’s administration, Ambassador Peter Wittig attested to a general German instinct for incredulity toward anything the United States supported when these projects got underway. Discussing the Three Seas initiative, Wittig noted that Wess Mitchell, Trump’s first assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, “had a critical view of the [European Union].” This made it difficult for Merkel’s government to accept that, in backing the project, Washington’s real goal was to increase all Western investment and capital in Eastern Europe, instead of raising U.S. commercial influence there to crowd out the European Union. 

Going the ‘Equidistance’

Germany’s seemingly hard pivot away from the Ostpolitik tradition quickly proved much softer than many had hoped — and perhaps more short-lived as well. In a 5,000-word article in Foreign Affairs, released in December 2022, Scholz recapitulated his Zeitenwende entirely. He suggested it was not actually Germany but the globe which was experiencing a “tectonic shift” and chastised the “fatalistic view that the world is doomed to once again separate into competing blocs.” To avoid “a new Cold War,” as his title put it, Germany must be a “bridge-builder” while simultaneously serving as the “guarantor” of European security. 

In the span of just a few months, it seems Germany has already begun sliding back under the inescapable gravitational influence of Ostpolitik. The new Zeitenwende lacks deadlines, implying Germany’s own politically difficult work might need to be shuffled off to other worthy “partners.” Scholz appears to be going the “equidistance” — a term that his Social Democratic Party forebears used to justify not picking sides between Washington and Moscow. 

And indeed old attitudes persist among Germany’s foreign policy intelligentsia. Last December, Ambassador Chrobog told me: “I honestly do not think our foreign policy toward Russia has ever been wrong.” “Putin became evil,” he said, but nonetheless, the architects of Ostpolitik ultimately “believe in people.” Disentangling the Ostpolitik of the past from Germany’s current foreign policy requires that Berlin stop speaking over its neighbors. Concentrating on relations with Moscow — good or bad — has become a choice. As Ash notes, “whereas Brandt and Bahr had to go through Moscow first to get back to East Germany,” given Soviet domination, “it now has to be the other way around.” Germany is confronted with the challenge to “build Europe from Europe out,” the historian added. Doing so would not only conform to political realities, but it would lessen perceptions of condescension that too often ring in the ears of Central and Eastern Europeans.

 

 

George Bogden is a Kennan Fellow at the Kennan Institute and a fellow at the Yorktown Institute. His interviews for this article were completed while he was in residence in Berlin as the German Marshall Fund’s Helmut Schmidt Fellow.

Image: German Federal Government

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