The Berlin Elite’s Ukraine Dilemma
After promising a sea-change in German foreign policy — a Zeitenwende — Olaf Scholz is reverting to type.
Recently the Berliner Ensemble has been staging a revival of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill classic, Threepenny Opera, at the theatre in the German capital where it first appeared in 1928. The musical play is known for the ominous line: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” The line, roughly translated as “first comes the devouring, then come the virtues”, captures a truism of human nature: that often animalistic desires precede morality in the hierarchy of needs. The interests of Germany’s most adroit political animals lie in political survival, relevance and power, which often flow from party loyalty and fealty to the status quo, so the play is a fitting one in Berlin, Europe’s most important political capital.
In many ways, the present moment is best clarified by the controversy around Kyiv’s decision not to accept an offer by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to visit Ukraine. Although the reasons for the decision are unclear, discontent in Berlin is less about the man or the presidency as a symbol of German democracy than the perceived attack on a political system, of which Steinmeier is the best example: the kind of party man that many in Berlin’s political elite aspire to be, somebody who can survive it all and have it all. Call it the Steinmeier system.
Kyiv also struck a nerve. Germany’s commitment to Ukraine has been softening and there are growing questions around the speech by Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, on 27 February proclaiming a Zeitenwende — a taboo-busting sea change in German foreign policy that set it on the path to an emergency military modernisation, defence spending, energy independence from Russia, lethal assistance for Ukraine and EU financing for weaponry. In fact, in a press conference on 19 April, Scholz decelerated Germany’s provision of heavy weapons to Ukraine and cast a cloud of doubt over the Zeitenwende and its spirit.
The Steinmeier controversy is the perfect prism through which to understand Berlin’s shifting posture toward Russia’s war on Ukraine. Steinmeier is a totemic figure in German politics but he is, first and foremost, a party man — forged in a 30-year career in the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Steinmeier is affable, hard-working and effective, but also anodyne, ferociously loyal and morally malleable.
He is part of the so-called Hanover Mafia of protégés of the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He was first the director of Schröder’s personal office in Lower Saxony in 1993, before accompanying him to Berlin where he would eventually become Schröder’s chief of staff and then Germany’s foreign minister in the first Merkel grand coalition. As such, Steinmeier criticised European missile defence and US nuclear posture as designed to give Nato first-strike capabilities against Russia. During the Merkel era he was perceived as the balancing force in German politics — an opposition leader for a party that was, in fact, part of the government. Steinmeier, like Angela Merkel but more so, embodies a consensus-based political culture with a demobilised base of voters largely satisfied with the status quo and a business elite invested in preserving Germany’s privileged access to markets in authoritarian states.
During the 2014-2015 Ukraine crisis and the Russian annexation of Crimea, when he was once again foreign minister, Steinmeier played a broker role seeking to de-escalate tensions, dutifully enforcing the Euro-Atlantic consensus on sanctions and strengthening Nato in central Europe, while also keeping the door open for “change through trade” (“Wandel Durch Handel”) as Germany and Russia deepened their energy relationship at the expense of Ukraine.
In February 2015 Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine drew up the second of the two Minsk agreements intended to put an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It required both sides to withdraw heavy equipment from the Donbas, cauterise the Ukrainian border and ultimately set up elections to enable potential constitutional reform that could give Russian-controlled areas more autonomy within Ukraine. Within months, a consortium of companies backed by Russia and Germany signed the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) agreement.
In 2016 Steinmeier was also the architect of the so-called Steinmeier Formula. This would have allowed for elections in the Donbas under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, but blurred the sequencing on whether elections in eastern Ukraine should be held before or after the withdrawal of Russian forces. If elections took place before the departure of Russian troops, it would have given Moscow preponderant control over their outcome, a fact clear to Kyiv, Washington and Brussels at the time. In one brisk moment, Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine smashed Minsk II, the Steinmeier Formula and NS2, and with them the notion of Wandel Durch Handel.
The SPD is still coming to terms with the limits of Wandel Durch Handel. More than a foreign policy, it was a moral worldview the Social Democrats had invested in for decades. It allowed them to both “do good” (transforming the lives of citizens behind the veil of authoritarianism, perhaps even the system itself) and to “do well” (making money hand over fist for Germany Inc, which became the world’s largest exporter with a 7 per cent GDP current account surplus). In many ways, the moral awakening is similar to what Silicon Valley underwent in the past decade as the 2012 sheen of techno-utopianism gave way to a reality of democracy-destroying disinformation, surveillance capitalism and a new class of unaccountable American oligarchs. Steinmeier himself has half-heartedly acknowledged past mistakes in the pursuit of Russo-German ties — including NS2 gas diplomacy — which discounted the security interests of Germany’s central European allies and Russia’s slide into authoritarianism.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have opened the debate about whether or not Steinmeier has the standing to represent the moral centre of Germany. It has not. Instead, the perceived attack on Steinmeier led not only to a rally around the man and the Schröder-Merkel system of geo-economic realism he represents, but it also opened up a window for the proponents of something closer to the status quo ante in how Berlin governs.
Rather than eliciting an outpouring of self-reflection, the perceived snub generated a fierce backlash against Ukraine across the political spectrum. Scholz called Kyiv’s decision “irksome”. Attacks on Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin have been particularly relentless. Florian Post, a former SPD Bundestag member, tweeted: “Not a day goes by that it doesn’t occur to the Ukrainian ambassador what types of weapons Germany could provide to Ukraine. I would recommend that he expand — and limit — his vocabulary to the following two words: “PLEASE and THANK YOU…”
It was not limited to the party of Steinmeier and Scholz. The Russo-curious Green politician Jürgen Trittin inexplicably called it a “propaganda victory for Vladimir Putin”, before condescendingly stating that “we expect that Ukraine will win it back”. Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the Free Democratic Party and Russlandversteher, haughtily stated that sympathy with Ukraine’s leadership “has its limits”. Numerous others piled on.
The backlash is emblematic of several shifts in Germany’s political posture. Aside from allowing Germany’s most ardent Russia-sympathisers to re-enter the political debate, it precipitated a snap back to a default position of delayed action to support Ukraine — at times couched in terms of serving “European interests”.
This is particularly important when compared with Germany’s key European ally, France. Whereas France often uses “Europe” as a kind of Ironman suit, Germany uses “Europe” as a kind of cloaking device. France speaks about Europe as a means of power projection for French national interests on the global stage. In contrast, Germany disguises some of its most egregious pursuits of “Germany First” policies as being in the European interest — primarily aimed at pacifying German domestic public opinion. This is how German politicians sold NS2 as a “European initiative” even as Ukraine, the European Commission and central Europe passionately argued against it. It was also the case for the Comprehensive Investment Agreement with China, the capstone of Germany’s 2020 EU presidency. The same is true for the morally dubious 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of Syrian refugees, which was largely foisted on Brussels by Berlin.
And it is for this reason that Scholz regularly warns that Germany would not act unilaterally but in co-ordination with European allies and the United States when considering any delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. On 13 April, when pressed on this spurious line with the fact that the Czech Republic had announced it would send tanks, Slovakia S-300 long-range missile systems, and the UK, Poland and the US heavy artillery, Scholz dismissed such provisions as essentially faulty equipment that Nato allies did not want. In fact, Ukrainian troops are familiar with this equipment. The German government has since announced that it will provide an additional €2 billion to finance the Ukrainian military. However, the Scholz government continues to delay decisions on providing the tanks, anti-ship missiles, long-range artillery and helicopters the Ukrainian government has requested. Scholz repeated the false narrative that Germany would not “go it alone” without Europe in his 19 April press conference.
Deferred action has long been the default political setting for Germany. In contrast, French politics is full of policy entrepreneurship, big ideas and grand visions. Limits are mostly imposed by the parameters of its capacities as a middling power and the French street, which works as an important brake. German politics is the opposite. Plodding and iterative, Germany has preferred to ride the brakes. In fact, Helmut Schmidt, the chain-smoking, Diet Coke-drinking former Hamburg mayor turned Social Democratic chancellor (and model for Olaf Scholz), famously said that people who have visions should get their eyes checked. Merkel was cut from the same cloth. Over the course of her 16-year chancellery, Merkel cultivated an image as a cautious Mutti, a steady hand who approached problems “schritt für schritt” (step by step).
There is a particular moment in which a brand of strong German executive leadership can punctuate the country’s political equilibrium to ram through a transformative policy. Like a sword of Excalibur, the Wende is the German moment in which a strong executive wields the power of the state. It has happened at pivotal points in recent German history: the Covid-recovery EU fund that Europeanised stimulus (2020); Merkel’s decision to let in more than a million Syrian and Iraqi refugees (2015); the post-Fukushima Energiewende that led to the decision to phase out nuclear energy (2011) and even the original Wende, the “Wende of all Wenden”, German reunification (1989-90).
In each of these, Germany’s Wendepolitik followed five basic precepts. First, it is always triggered by seismic external events rather than an ideological or political agenda. Second, it displays a bias towards action in the immediate aftermath. Third, it takes advantage of a fleeting moment in German public opinion before the riptide of public opinion knocks out. Fourth, the response is sweeping, reactive and not subject to the astringent effects of democratic debate. Finally, it mobilises the entire German political establishment to build up a strategic justification ex post facto. In the past, Wendepolitik has tended to stick.
The Zeitenwende has seemed to fit these precepts. It is closing the door to Nord Stream 2; laying the timetable for diversification away from Russian coal (now set for August), oil (now set for the end of the year) and gas (now set for 2024); implementing comprehensive changes to the German military; opening the door to support for Ukraine, a democratic European nation under siege by a dictatorial aggressor; and elevating Germany’s security responsibility in Nato, the EU and Europe.
But as mentioned, it is softening. The Zeitenwende numbers do not exactly run. At €50.1 billion, the 2022 budget request keeps defence spending essentially flat as a proportion of GDP. If the €100 billion special purpose appropriation is meant to bridge the difference, it will be exhausted by 2025, the moment in the political cycle when Germany will be headed into federal elections. February’s promises are inconsistent with absorption capacity issues, unanswered questions about long-term planning, a sclerotic procurement bureaucracy and even sticking points around taxation. A big point in its durability will be anchoring defence spending of 2 per cent of GDP — the target for Nato countries — in the German constitution.
Now the political basis for the Zeitenwende seems to be weakening as well. Scholz is losing both the moral high ground and cohesion within his coalition — particularly with the Greens — as he seeks to shore up his Social Democrats and the political system that has kept them in power (at times as the senior, at times the junior coalition partner) for 20 of the past 24 years. Perhaps, in his wavering, Scholz hears the dictum of Homo Berlinicus, a political twist to Bertolt Brecht’s famous words: Erst kommt die Partei — und der Status Quo — dann kommt die Moral.