Contrary to geopolitical gossip Germany is not becoming pro-Russian

04.11.2018 | By Adam Zych

Since the outbreak of the conflict in the Ukraine Germany and Russia had been drifting apart. Both German politics and business understood that partnership with Putin-led unpredictable Russia could not be the foundation of becoming a geopolitical superpower. Recently “Bild am Sonntag” dedicated a whole issue to the topic of returning to the mandatory military service in Germany.  This topic has been rousing the public opinion. More and more people had been expressing the view that mandatory service is necessary. The unpredictability of Donald Trump nor the discussion about the increase of American tariffs are not the reasons behind this trend. It is the fact that Germany considers Russia to be the main threat to peace and includes it in its’ military doctrine. It, however, does not exclude the use of resources from the East to strengthen Germany and its’ European partners further.

What is Berlin’s deal with Nord Stream 2?

After the last meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, Poland has seen a resurgence of the feeling of threat resulting from the potential rapprochement between its’ two powerful neighbours from the East and the West. They met at the castle in Meseberg, which adds piquancy to the case because this beautiful site to the north of Berlin is usually the meeting place between German leaders and their most important partners. When we add the German policy of clinging to the Nord Stream 2 project, Trump’s anti-European policy bringing on a new German approach to the US and a traditional Polish fear of an “alliance over our heads”, we have all the ingredients for a (Ribbentrop-)Molotov cocktail in the Polish media.

Poland feels most threatened by the Nord Stream 2 project, that manifestly ignores Polish national interests. However, one needs to wonder whether NS2 signifies a new geopolitical rapprochement between Germany and Russia.

First of all, we cannot claim that there was a change in the policy of the Federal Republic. Germany continues to aim for cheap resources that can be safely and quickly transported. After all, the Nord Stream 1, which has a higher capacity than Yamal 2 pipeline flowing through Belarus, had been built many years ago. Moreover, both NS1 and NS2 are international projects. Besides the German Uniper and Wintershall, NS2 project was joined by Dutch-British Shell, French Engie and Austrian OMV. Thus, Germans are not developing a special relationship with Russia over the heads of their European partners, but instead they have invited them to partake in the profits.

From the German point of view, NS2 is not fulfilling Russian but rather German objectives. Ensuring easy access to energy resources is essential for the development of their economy; hence Germany needs the resource-rich Russia. This fact has been discovered long before Stefan Meister stated it, as was mentioned recently by dr Michal Kuz. Since the early 2000s George Friedman has been writing about it in Stratfor, and it has been patently clear for German geoeconomics since the end of the Cold War.

German diversification

We need to come to terms with the fact that NS2 is not a matter of life and death for Germany. It is one of the projects that would ensure diversification of energy sources – a fulfilment of policy that is well-understood in Poland. Our western neighbours do not wish to be dependent on the political situation in the Ukraine or Belarus, where the overland pipelines are located.

It is true that in Germany, 40% of the gas originates from Russia and it is their biggest singular supplier of this resource. However, Norway and the Netherlands, whose gas is more expensive, are responsible for supplying over 50% of German demand for this resource.

The most significant evidence of Germany’s serious approach towards the diversification and independence of Russia’s supply is its’ decision to build a gas terminal in Brunsbuttel near Hamburg to import LNG from Qatar, Trinidad or the US (due to the fracturing technology US became the biggest producer of LNG in the world, overtaking Russia in 2017). Recently, Martina Frietz, the spokesperson for the German government stated that Germany is open to importing LNG from the US.

At the beginning of September, Germany had been visited by the Emir of Qatar – country which is the biggest producer of liquefied gas in the world. German gas terminal project had been included in the coalition agreement of the current government at the beginning of 2018. It is the effect of a de facto political decision, without any economic justification. Suffice it to say, that currently the German system is connected to three gas terminals: in Zeebrugge, Rotterdam and Dunkirk. The capacity of these terminals is used at the minimum – 12% in Zeebrugge and 10% in the other two. Germany can import much more LNG through these terminals.

It could be said that dealing with that many players at the same time is a sign of a complicated geopolitical strategy. However, a simple explanation for the German approach can be found on the website of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Document titled Instruments for securing gas supply contains strategic goals of the German state: diversification of gas supply sources and transport routes; steady relations with suppliers; long-term supply contracts and a high degree of reliability of the supply infrastructure, such as storage facilities.

It is worth noting that as much as 42% of gas is used by the industry and around 25% to heat houses. For the last few years, due to the notorious “Energiewende” programme, renewable energy sources are being promoted on household and commercial levels. Heat recuperators are subsidized from regional and state funds. Since 2014 many studies on the topic of new energy sources, particularly renewable ones, had been published. Many of the authors openly state that their goal is diversification to decrease the dependence on the Russian supply.

After the infamous Trump speech, German media had seen a surge of articles analysing this matter. An objective observer has to concur that Germany has been making a lot of effort to become less dependent on Russia. Moscow is not the central player in this tandem. Germany enjoys a comfortable position, and its’ economy benefits from Russian partnership, thus becoming more competitive and enjoy its’ successes such as overtaking China in the ranking of the biggest surpluses of trade balance.

Europe first!

Recently Heiko Maas’, the head of the German diplomacy, announced the new chapter of German-US relations in “Handelsblatt”. Many commentators hailed it as Germany’s turn towards Russia. However, could it be inferred from one sentence stating that the old East-West conflict is no longer a pivotal axis dividing the world? Was Maas not correct in his statement when describing this conflict as capitalism versus communism?

Everyone who has read that text knows that the German Minister of Foreign Affairs focuses only on redefining the partnership between Washington and Berlin. For Maas, it is not the German-Russian tandem, but rather Europe that should become a counterbalance to the US and China. Moreover, Germany would not risk an open conflict with the US that would result from rapprochement with Russia.

America is the biggest receiver of German export. It buys 4,5 times more than Russia. How many Mercedes cars can be sold in a country of average nominal GDP per capita of around 9 thousand dollars versus the state where it amounts to 58 thousand dollars with a population twice as big. Cultural differences also play the part – such as the German fascination with a country that was built mainly by the hands of German immigrants.

It is true that since the fall of the Berlin Wall Germany had been increasing economic cooperation with Russia (with some short intervals). Examination of the statistics reveals two instances where cooperation faltered: first during the 2008 financial crisis, second time due to the war in Ukraine. Other than that, cooperation has been steadily maintained, and financial turnover reached 50, or even 70 billion US dollars, which ensured that Russia stayed among the dozen of Germany’s biggest trade partners (recently it is the 13th largest partner, ranking a few slots below Poland).

Between 2011-2014 the cooperation between the two countries was at its prime, a period which ended with the Ukrainian conflict. The decrease in trade caused by the European sanctions resulted in a drastic reduction in the rouble value. In 2017 Russia again increased its trade exchange with Germany. Rouble value began to climb up, not to mention the increase in the price of oil – rising 60% in the last three years.

Russian budget is the source of income for most of the households in the country. Majority of the Russian population is employed in the public sector, with state enterprises staffed by an est. 40% of Russians along with direct employees of the public administration. Thus, weak rouble is a short-term problem. 2015 and 2016 reflect it best: consumption had declined causing a decrease in import.  However, in the medium term, a weak currency contributes to the more significant returns from export in roubles (in this instance two-fold: weak currency plus a global increase in resource prices). Government and companies were able to increase wages which stimulated import despite the weak currency.

On the other hand, Germany bought Russian resources cheaply, resulting in the import increase of 19% from the Russian Federation. However, imports still stay at a level 25% lower when compared to the best years, right before the Ukrainian crisis.

Generational change at the German left is advantageous for Poland

Sine 2014 German politics experience an exact opposite process than the one Polish experts search for after the last meeting in Meseberg. The change is slow, but German politics become more and more distrustful of Russia.

Paradoxically, the best example of that is… the approach of the above-mentioned Heiko Maas, one of the most prominent politicians of SPD. Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose statements were hailed in Poland as a challenge to the US – and thus calling for rapprochement with Russia, has a record of sharp criticism against Russia. Examples include his expose in March and, which is even more telling, his speech during the SPD party congress in May – a party regarded as strongly pro-Russian (as a reminder: ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, nowadays chairman of Rosneft was a member of SPD).

Maas has stated that acts of aggression committed by Russia are unacceptable and that Germany needs to change its’ rhetoric towards the Kremlin. There is a clash of opinions on this among the German SPD between the old pro-Russian guard (Schroder, Gabriel, Schulz or even president Steinmeier) and the new generation. They associate Russia with the ultraconservative, anti-democratic, antiliberal and aggressive state, stomping not only on the independence of other countries but also the rights of its’ citizens (i.e. homosexuals, expressive artists). It is symptomatic that politicians such as Maas are in the government, while Sigmar Gabriel and Martin Schulz have been left out.

Those pointing out that Germany is challenging the US and dollar are correct. However, this is nothing new! The necessity of facing down the domination of world powers has been spoken of for years in the European Union. It is one of the foundations of the ever-closer Union, which Jean-Claude Juncker spoke of recently. There is nothing novel in the statement that one of EU’s goals is the need for a more competitive European economy and creating the euro is a challenge to the dollar as the main transactional currency. However, the euro has existed for 16 years and still is ways away from the global power of the dollar.

Germans want to arm themselves

Other evidence for Germany distancing itself from Russia is the matter of Bundesrepublik’s military. A few weeks ago “Bild am Sonntag” dedicated its’ whole issue to the topic of the return to mandatory military service in Germany.  This topic has been rousing the public opinion, and more and more people had been expressing the opinion that mandatory service is necessary. The unpredictability of Donald Trump or the discussion about the increase of American tariffs are not the reasons behind such a trend. Germany considers Russia to be the main threat to peace and includes it in its’ military doctrine. It is a danger to the eastern flank of the European Union, which is still the most important political project for Germany. Assertive governments in the Visegrad group or the rise of euroscepticism will not change such an approach.

Germany’s Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen stated in June this year at the NATO meeting that Russia is “still the closest threat to the freedom and security of Europe”. Bundeswehr is very active in the eastern flank because German military doctrine points to this region as being vital for the security of German borders.

Now it is worth pointing out that Germany decided to gradually raise its’ army budget with a target of 55 billion euro by 2020. It would be comparable to the Russian budget, which caps now at 66 billion euro. Moreover, Russians intend to decrease military spending (which happened in 2017, comparing to 2016 the budget shrunk by 20%).

As a reminder – military budget in Russia amounts to 4,5% GDP, which becomes an ever greater burden on the overall budget. For comparison, all the European countries together spend yearly around 300 billion euro. This spending increases and will increase in the future. The US just in 2017 spent 610 billion dollars on the army.

The ball is in the Polish side of the field

All this Mesembergen commotion had been summed up well by the head of the foreign policy department at “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, Klaus-Dieter Frankenbauer. He called the German-Russian rapprochement an “illusion”. The writer of FAZ reminds that Russia is responsible for cyber attacks, the annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine. According to him a partnership with Russia is less in Germany’s interest and more in Russia’s. Putin’s proposal for Germany to fund the rebuilding of Syria has been hotly commented across this country, which is understandable – Germany did not join this war, yet it has taken on the cost of millions of refugees. Many commentators acknowledged this proposal as tactless. Nonetheless, the Syrian matter, wholly overlooked by Polish commentators, has been the focus of the Mesemberg meeting.

On the other hand, it needs to be recognised that the US, which wants to protect the current world order from China, is, in fact, landing blows against the economic system which has been the foundation of German industrial machine that enriched this country for decades. Germany can not stand idly watching the US play the game of global poker. However, Germans are not eager to play the Russian roulette, which is why they should seek support within the strength of a united Europe, the only sensible alternative in the ever more complicated world. This direction may not sound too attractive when looked on through the lens of grand geopolitical theories favouring complicated alliances and agreements. However, it usually turns out that the less complicated, the better the solutions are. For Germany, France, Italy or Poland will always be better partners than culturally different Russia, China or even the US.

At the height of the migration crisis, when it seemed that Angela Merkel would not survive the political storm caused by immigration policy fraught with mistakes – a few Polish commentators stated that Poland should lend a helping hand to Merkel to gain as much as possible for itself. Including the cases of the judicial and other necessary reforms carried out in our country.

Geopolitical timing is still favourable for Poland. Germany needs strong Europe. Poland’s participation in this project would be an effort hard to underestimate.

Europe’s current disadvantageous position could enable Poland to negotiate for itself more than would be possible at the height of the migration crisis. In return for unambiguous support for strengthening the Union and the European army project which would ensure a place for Europe at the geopolitical table, the Polish government could seek support from the European institutions for reforms that would be in accordance with the citizens’ expectations and the democratic verdict. After all, it is not possible to change the fact that Poland lies in Europe.

Translation from Polish: Małgorzata Raś


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.