It is increasingly obvious that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed German society in a quandary.
On the one hand, Germany is a member of NATO, and while Ukraine is not a NATO nation, its neighbors are.
On the other hand, successive German governments have, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, increasingly linked their economy with Russia’s.
The “easy” solution, purported not that long ago by former President Donald Trump, would have been for Germany to decouple its economy from dependence on Russian energy. This unheeded advice today may seem prescient, yet the post-World War II history of both Russia and Germany suggests that “easy” would not have been that simple.
Germany and the Soviet Union were engaged in not one but two bitter wars during the first half of the 20th Century. Long before Americans entered World War I in 1917, the conflict was essentially between the Entente or Allied Powers (initially France, Britain, and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and, presumably, Italy).
Italy, however, remained neutral at first, then joined the Entente in 1915, after Japan and long before the United States. [Wilson’s reelection was largely because “He kept us out of war.”] Russia withdrew from the Entente in the wake of successive internal revolutions, but not before dividing Germany’s troops between two fronts.
Less than three decades later, Germany and its allies tried again to conquer Europe, and once again against the U.S., France, Britain, and (perhaps surprisingly) the Soviet Union. After the final crushing defeats in 1945, Germany was divided, with the Soviet Union (Russians, mainly) occupying the entire eastern half of the country for the next 45 years.
Partly as a result of the long occupation, notes German-American business strategist Michael Marquardt, for many Germans, Russian was their first, and often, only, foreign language. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel is near-native-level fluent in Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin gained fluency in German while serving as a KGB officer in East Germany.
Marquardt, who lived in Germany through high school, also points out that more than 3 million Russians reside in Germany. Many are highly educated and well-integrated into German society. Russians occupy major positions in German institutions and universities. The Russian who until April led the Bavarian State Ballet was often visited by his girlfriend, President Putin’s daughter Katerina Tikhonova.
Russia also welcomed former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a longtime Putin friend, who has served as a director for several large Russian corporations, including Gazprom, Rosneft, and Nord Stream AG. Schröder in his sixties (he is nearly 80 now) even adopted two children from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.
While the cultural ties are important, even more significant is the degree to which German industries have relied upon cheap Russian energy to maintain profitability – and the degree to which Russians have relied upon German manufacturers for chemical products and machinery (and German automobiles). The Ukraine invasion has resulted in a massive interruption to Germany’s “change through trade” approach to foreign policy.
Until recently, Russia was Germany’s 11th largest export market and Germany was Russia’s seventh biggest buyer of goods and services. Germany was getting a third of its oil and gas from Russia, and about a third of EU exports to Russia came from Germany.
The many German exporters who once routinely traded with Russia are now scrambling to find other markets.
The repercussions of the German decision to support Ukraine against Russia is causing consternation within the nation. Saxony Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer back in July asserted that, “… the idea of isolating Russia permanently or never again cooperating economically is absurd and dangerous.” [It should be remembered that in 2014 former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt called Russia’s seizure of the Crimea “completely understandable.”]
Far worse, added Kretschmer, was for Russia to reorient towards China. He added that German industry is at risk if Russian gas supplies are lost. He concluded, “Our entire economic system is in danger of collapsing. If we are not careful, Germany could become de-industrialized.”
And Kretschmer’s fears may be coming true.
Already, German chemical manufacturers are beginning to permanently shut down plants. Trinseo has plans to shutter its styrene plant in Bohlen, Olin announced it will end methyl chloride and chloroform production in Stade early next year, and Japan-based Arakawa Chemical Industries will be closing a hydrogenated hydrocarbon resin plant in Germany in 2023. Others may soon follow.
High energy costs, reports CNN, have savaged the German industrial sector, causing layoffs and relocations outside Germany and threatening a deep recession that could further weaken the German economy. Eric Heymann, a senior economist at Deutsche Bank, admits, “We might consider this time as the starting point for an accelerated deindustrialization in Germany.”
Perhaps this “complicated” relationship with Russia is impacting the German response to the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just a few years ago, former President Trump criticized Germany for underfunding its military in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The nation’s first commitment to Ukraine’s defense was a laughable 5,000 helmets. Even today, notes Marquardt, Germany is in 18th place in terms of its military support for Ukraine.
This is nothing new. Back in 2016, UkraineAlert contributor Andreas Umland posited that several Bavarian politicians had “caused a schism” by coming out against prolonged EU sanctions on Russia in the wake of its aggression into Ukrainian territory in 2014. Their reasoning then was that the sanctions “have caused considerable economic downfalls on both sides.”
Umland (whose piece called the German-Russian relationship “complicated”) cited German historian Karl Schloegel’s diagnosis, stating that “there is a historically determined mixture of feelings of obligation, fascination, shyness, inferiority, and guilt vis-à-vis Russia” that amounts to a pathology he called “Russland-Komplex” (Russia hang-up).
The saddest reality behind the current Russia-Germany schism, Marquardt suggests, is that the Russian people have been kept in the dark by the Russian president and his security forces.
The failure to find a non-military solution to the crisis inaugurated by Putin’s anger at the alleged treatment of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukrainian provinces is a failure of worldwide diplomacy that is now bearing ugly fruit.
One would think that two world wars and ongoing divisions for decades thereafter would have awakened Europe to the need for diplomatic solutions of festering problems. Wars only hurt the common people in every affected nation.
Germany may hold the key to solving this dilemma – and it is Germans, along with Ukrainians and Russians, who are paying the price for past diplomatic failures.
As many have pointed out, Europe and the world need a stable Russian-German relationship, but that relationship has been damaged severely.
Defending Ukraine against Putin’s aggression while seeking a lasting peace is the only positive future. And, as Marquardt says, “It’s really not that complicated.”
Duggan Flanakin is a Director of Policy at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). The views expressed are his own.