Germany is therefore to blame for Putin. Really?


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz looks on before the start of the German federal government’s weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin on Wednesday. [EPA]

Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has sparked new soul-searching in the West. A number of commentators, most of whom write from the United States and the United Kingdom, have found their latest scapegoat: Germany is to blame, they say, with its longstanding policy of appeasement with Russia. decades. Really?

People like to dislike Germany. Often for good reasons. Successive Merkel administrations have been ruthless in their handling of the eurozone crisis, imposing crippling austerity on the South. They prioritized Germany’s narrow economic interests in the face of illiberal regimes, including an aggressive Turkey. Germany also pursued a similar policy with Russia, weaving a tight network of economic relations. Since the turning point of February 24, it is clear that this policy has lost its usefulness. But the vitriol hurled at Germany has been excessive in the extreme: “Putin’s Useful Idiots” was the verdict of a recent Politico Europe article on German leaders. The German president was prevented from traveling to Kyiv after being declared persona non grata. Everything is getting rather out of control.

Extreme criticism like this isn’t just about Germany and how to deal with brutal leaders like Putin. It is also about Europe’s role in the international system. And it went too far, for at least four reasons:

First, the story. Having recognized the crimes of Nazism, Germany was re-established on a new footing after 1945. No other country has made historical guilt such an integral part of its national consciousness. This led to the development of a pacifist constitution, the sidelining of German nationalism, and more than seven decades of commitment to European integration. When the Germans justify Nord Stream by citing the destruction wrought by Hitler’s Germany on Russia, or when they say they don’t want German tanks coming into Ukraine to kill Russian soldiers, there is content there deep history. One could dismiss it as a thing of the past, but it’s not meaningless, nor is it a pretext.

Second, Ostpolitik. The Social Democrats in Germany today have inherited Willy Brandt’s post-1960 doctrine of cooperation, dialogue and detente with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. This policy, followed by all administrations since, contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the peaceful reunification of the two Germanys. As a member of NATO, Germany has always played an active role in the containment of the Soviet bloc. But it supplemented this role with a far-sighted policy of openness to the Soviet Union. A wise policy that has been justified.

Third, Realpolitik. There is no doubt that its business dealings link with Putin’s Russia has been commercially beneficial to Germany. Should we be surprised if a State chooses to act according to its economic interests? And indeed, the commercialism of an export-driven German economy that thrives on the back of foreign trade often leads German foreign policy to engage with authoritarian regimes. Nord Stream 2 left Germany completely dependent on Russian gas. However, the Scholz administration closed the pipeline immediately after the invasion of Ukraine and moved forward to support any heavy sanctions imposed, accepting the resulting economic damage. But the bottom line here is this: if Europe’s main weapon to respond to Putin’s aggression is economic sanctions, it is precisely the density of trade relations with Russia that makes sanctions an effective lever. able to exert real pressure. Without these transactions, Putin would have nothing to lose – sanctions would be meaningless! Economic interdependence gives Europe the power to act as a deterrent by increasing sanctions. Even if he bears a good part of their cost himself.

There is nothing black and white about dealing long term with an overbearing militaristic rival, one who has nuclear weapons. It requires an ever-changing mix of incentives and sanctions to encourage positive behavior, discourage negative action, and respond directly to aggression; a toolbox containing both engagement and containment to be applied in alternating doses. The German logic of dealing with Russia helps maintain a balanced European foreign policy, which would otherwise be heavily skewed towards atavistic Cold War warmongering.

Fourth, Europe. Peace in post-war Europe owes a great deal to the pragmatic restraint of its leaders, to the taming of nationalisms, to the establishment of mutually beneficial cooperation. The EU owes its historic success to building bridges, not walls. Of course, when things change, Europe (and Germany) changes its mind, to paraphrase Keynes. The EU cannot and should not abandon its doctrine of soft power; rather, he must supplement it with hard power and defensive deterrence. But holding European leaders who have sought to engage Russia as a responsible partner in Putin’s war is worse than revisionism. It’s a simple distortion of logic.


George Pagoulatos is Professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, Visiting Professor at the College of Europe and Managing Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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