Germany scrambles to change its policy towards Russia

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Hello and welcome to the Financial Times’ Europe Express Weekend newsletter. I’m Tony Barber, the FT’s European Commentary Editor, and every Saturday I unpack one of the big themes of the week.


Let’s start with a question. What is the connection between the ruling Social Democrats in Germany and the liverwurst?

German speakers know that I am thinking of Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin.

It all started when Olaf Scholz, German chancellor of the SPD, criticized the Ukrainian government for indicating last month that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German head of state (and another luminary of the SPD), was not welcome to Kyiv.

The diplomatic row was patched up this week after a phone call between Steinmeier and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. But before that happened, Melnyk fired back at Scholz, saying, “It doesn’t seem very political to behave like a Beleidigte Leberwurst.”

Literally, it means “insulted liver sausage”. He describes a thin-skinned person who is easily offended.

Why was Melnyk making a pop at Scholz? On the one hand, he is dismayed that Germany was slower than its NATO and EU allies to provide large-scale military support to Ukraine after Russia’s unprovoked invasion on February 24.

As Guy Chazan, the FT’s Berlin bureau chief, reports, Scholz is actually getting Germany back on track after a hesitant start. But Guy’s analysis contains this telling observation from Christoph Heusgen, who served as foreign policy adviser to former Chancellor Angela Merkel:

We do the right thing but we always do it a little late.

Yes indeed. Some would say that sums up German policy during the Eurozone banking and sovereign debt emergencies.

However, have no doubt: Germany can act quickly and independently in a crisis whenever it wants. A year after German unification in 1990, communist Yugoslavia was disintegrating into war. To the shock of most of its EU partners, the German government unilaterally recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. The war spread to Bosnia and Herzegovina a few months later.

Melnyk’s second point is that Germany is burdened by a policy of niceness to Russia that has lasted for decades. This turned out to be particularly wrong in the days of Vladimir Putin. He often seemed to trample on smaller Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.

Steinmeier symbolizes this policy. In a powerfully argued article for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Tyson Barker calls Steinmeier “part of the so-called Hannover mafia of proteges of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder”.

Steinmeier was Schröder’s chief of staff, who, much to the embarrassment of the German establishment, makes no secret of his Russophile leanings. Then, before being elevated to the presidency, Steinmeier was Merkel’s foreign minister. In 2008, he visited the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where he gave a speech titled “Time for a German-Russian modernization partnership”.

Now Steinmeier admits that Germany misinterpreted Putin. But many Ukrainians suspect that the instinct to try to “understand” Russia is still prevalent within the German government. Melnyk embodies those suspicions, though other Ukrainians praise Germany for its help.

Die Zeit, a major German newspaper, published this penetrating profile of Jens Plötner, Scholz’s foreign policy adviser. “He perceives Ukrainians as difficult friends. The fact that the country is locked in a struggle for existence does not seem to register with it,” Die Zeit wrote.

But German public opinion seems to be hardening. An ARD-Deutschlandtrend poll shows that more and more Germans think the government is not doing enough to support Ukraine.

It is a commonplace that Berlin’s desire for constructive relations with Moscow derives from the notion of Wandel durch Handel — beneficial development of Russia through trade with Germany.

I hope I am not turning this week’s newsletter into a lesson in German, but I would like to introduce readers to an equally important official concept of German foreign policy over the past 15 years – Annäherung durch Verflechtung. This can result in a rapprochement through interconnection.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has discredited these ideas. But let’s be clear on something. About half a century ago, Willy Brandt’s SPD-led government pursued a policy of reconciliation with the West German neighbors known as the Ostpolitik.

It was brave and absolutely the right thing to do. But that has nothing to do with the mess of Germany’s Russian policy since the beginning of this century.

What do you think? Is Germany doing enough to support Ukraine? Should he do more? Should he do less? Let us know by voting in our poll here.

Speedometer poll that asks people's opinion on Germany's reaction to the war in Ukraine with two options for the government doing too much and the government not doing enough

and finally

Is the Turkish opposition wasting its chance to beat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? Asks Laura Patel. The imprisonment of businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala underscores the drift towards autocracy under the Turkish strongman, writes the FT editorial board.

Tony’s picks of the week

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