Germany’s Government Struggles to Act in the Russia Crisis

January 25, 2022
6 min read
Photo credit: S.Borisov /
This month there has been only one foreign-policy topic in Berlin: the Russia crisis.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his new government have not had the luxury to focus their energy on domestic priorities, such as fighting the coronavirus pandemic or the big signature project of greening Germany’s economy and infrastructure. 

The Russia crisis hits the chancellor on a particularly weak spot. While the Greens and most of the Christian Democrats have taken a more critical position toward Russia in recent years, moving away from the idea of a comprehensive “partnership” with the country, Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) remains split. Some Social Democrats think such a partnership is still possible despite all that has changed in Russia while others have become convinced that offering carrots cannot be the only way to deal with an increasingly aggressive Kremlin and some pushback is needed. The latter position is carefully advanced by the SPD’s foreign-policy experts, such as its foreign-policy spokesperson in parliament, Nils Schmid, and Michael Roth, the head of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

For Scholz, carrying the bulk of the SPD with him on this issue is a special challenge. He lost the party’s leadership race in 2019 and has often been viewed with suspicion by its left wing. This may be one reason why he has been slow to react to the buildup of Russian troops around and in Ukraine. 

For Scholz, carrying the bulk of the SPD with him on this issue is a special challenge.

While Scholz has in recent weeks regularly declared himself in line with the US-led response to Russia’s pressure on Ukraine, he remained cautious, apparently in an effort to play down a challenge that is controversial in the SPD and in Germany more broadly. His public remarks match the joint position agreed in the transatlantic alliance, but what the chancellor—who spent his whole career focusing on domestic issues—really thinks about the Russia challenge remains a mystery to observers. 

In a recent interview, Scholz gave his most substantial statement on the matter so far. He stated once more that borders should not be called into question; he spoke out against “spheres of influence in which countries are not allowed to determine their own development;” he called the annexation of Crimea by Russia a “serious violation” of principles laid down in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975; and he described the situation in eastern Ukraine as “dangerous” and “a violation of these principles.” On sanctions, Scholz refused to be specific. He said: “What the German government, what we Europeans have agreed with the American government, is in effect, namely that it would have high costs for Russia if there were military aggression against Ukraine.” 

It is widely assumed now that Scholz has accepted that an end to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline is on the table. Even the SPD’s secretary general, Kevin Kühnert, who is considered to be a dove, said when asked about Nord Stream: “All options are on the table. And all means all.” He also praised the United States’ leadership in the crisis: “We have to be very grateful to Joe Biden’s US administration for the way it bends down to find diplomatic solutions.”

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Greens, a party that has taken a fairly critical stance toward the Kremlin in recent years, has largely stuck to this line. But, while she and other Greens have made it clear that they are unhappy with Nord Stream 2, Baerbock has defended Germany’s rejection of sanctioning Russia by cutting it off from the Swift payment system—which the United States wants—when the EU foreign ministers met. In her first meeting with her Russian counterpart in Moscow on January 18, she mixed offers for cooperation with clear language about differences, a performance for which she was widely praised in Germany.

Despite Germany’s largely constructive position in the Russia crisis, it has also been criticized a lot. “Too little, too late” is what many in Central Europe, Washington, Brussels, and Ukraine think. They expect Germany to stand up, to speak up, and to play an active role rather than just reluctantly agree on a transatlantic position. This is what Chancellor Angela Merkel did in 2014–2015 when she co-led the transatlantic response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its covert invasion in Donbas.

The other frustration with Germany, especially in Central Europe, is over its unwillingness to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to resist a Russian attack by providing it with weapons. There was anger when it was reported that Germany had not greenlighted the delivery of German-made artillery by Estonia (a decision has not been made yet, a government spokesperson said on Monday). The issue also led to a dispute between the government and the Christian Democrats, whose new chairman, Friedrich Merz, tweeted that “Germany must not block the support of Ukraine with defensive weapons.” 

The lack of leadership from Germany may have been one of the reasons why US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Berlin on January 20.

The lack of leadership from Germany may have been one of the reasons why US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Berlin on January 20, between his trip to Ukraine and meeting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Blinken met Scholz and Baerbock, gave a speech in front of Berlin’s foreign-policy community, and engaged the broader German public through a long television interview. All this looked like the Biden administration wanted to make sure that Germany stays on board with its policy, to which the United States’ European allies have signed up.

France has also reacted to Scholz’s passive approach to the Russia crisis. While in 2014–2015 it was Berlin’s junior partner in negotiating with Russia, it looks like President Emmanuel Macron wants to reverse the roles this time, stepping into the vacuum the chancellor is leaving on the European side. Last week, Macron said that “we need to bring to being a European proposal to build a new security and stability order.” This should be built “between Europeans,” then “shared with our allies in the NATO framework,” and finally “proposed to Russia for negotiation.” This week, he announced that he will talk to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “to offer him a path of de-escalation.” Macron has also dispatched the veteran French diplomat Pierre Vimont to Moscow and convened an advisors-level meeting of the Normandy format (involving France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine) in Paris to discuss Donbas. The president’s trip to Berlin is meant to build a joint position with Scholz.

In Germany’s defense, this crisis has hit the new coalition government at a very early stage while it is still settling in. But history shows no mercy. A chancellor who has been very much oriented toward domestic issues for his whole career must now quickly get up to speed and play a role that is in line with Germany’s power and responsibility in relations with Russia, where Berlin plays a crucial role. What is at risk is the peace order that was established in Europe after the Cold War, which is profoundly in Germany’s interest. Scholz has hit the right tone; now he must act accordingly.