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German foreign policy under fire

April 11, 2022

Critics see Russia's invasion of Ukraine as proof that Germany's attempted "change through trade" policy was a mistake. An entire generation of politicians is under the microscope — including Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2021
Image: GUIDO BERGMANN/REUTERS

The images suggest a civilian bloodbath in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv. The Ukrainian government is holding Russian troops responsible. But Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is also pointing the finger at former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He invited her to Bucha, to see for herself "what the policy of 14 years of concessions to Russia has led to."

It was 14 years ago, in 2008, that Merkel, together with France's then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, helped block NATO's membership invitation to Ukraine during an alliance summit in Bucharest. They saw it as a provocation to Russia.

Zelenskyy has called that decision a "miscalculation" that has led to Ukraine now "fighting for our lives in the most horrific war in Europe since World War II."

Despite the rejection, NATO allies did agree at the summit to an unspecified timeline for Ukraine, along with Georgia, to become members.

Nord Stream 2 despite Crimea

Merkel's government continued to deny Ukraine weapons deliveries after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. At the same time, Germany approved the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic — which meant less gas potentially flowing through Ukraine, from which the country earns transit fees.

"How else should Moscow understand that than as a tacit acceptance of a violent border shift?" said Henning Hoff, the executive editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly, a magazine from the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Germany's EU partners, such as Poland, have also noted Merkel's silence on the issue.

"Ms. Chancellor, you have said nothing since the beginning of the war," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said. "German policy in the last 10 to 15 years has led to today's Russia enjoying a strength based on its monopoly over the sale of raw materials."

Merkel's successor, Olaf Scholz, has blocked important sanctions from the European Union, he added.

Can trade with Russia go on?

03:52

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Foreign policy as self-deception

The criticism goes beyond the previous and current German chancellors. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's president and former foreign minister, has also been accused of cozy relations with Russia.

"The relationship was fundamental, even holy, regardless what happened," Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, wrote in the Tagesspiegel, a German daily. "Even an unprovoked war makes no difference."

It is among the harshest criticism an ambassador has ever publicly leveled at a German official.

The last 30 years of German foreign, security and trade policies are being called into question. "Much too much dialogue and much too little hardball with the Kremlin," Melnyk wrote.

Former Chancellor Schröder has entertained the closest ties with Putin, but other former leaders are now in hot water over their policies of appeasing the KremlinImage: A. Druzhinin/TASS/dpa/picture-alliance

"Every German government since Putin became president has signaled that a smooth relationship with Moscow is more important than the fate of Ukraine. This encouraged the Kremlin's attack," Stephan Bierling, a political scientist at the University of Regensburg, told DW.

Critics, including the United States and EU countries, have noted that Germany's adherence to a policy of Wandel durch Handel ("change through trade") is not limited to dealings with Russia, but with China, too. They have warned that engagement without strings attached will not lead to the desired liberalization of these autocratic regimes.

Admitting mistakes

Steinmeier has since admitted that many aspects of Germany's Russia policy were "poor assessments." Sticking to Nord Stream 2 has cost the country credibility, he said, but it was impossible to know how Putin would act.

The second Chechen War, which was raging as Putin first assumed the presidency, was already evidence of his "criminal, hypernationalist" character, Hoff said.

Merkel, in a statement through a spokesperson, has stuck to her decision to block Ukraine's NATO accession, which remains the general position of the alliance itself, even as many of its members send Ukraine weapons with which to fight Russian troops. That includes Germany, in a major reversal of policy not to supply weapons to parties actively involved in conflict.

Zelenskyy, Merkel, Macron, and Putin met in 2019 under the Normandy format to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine Image: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS/picture alliance

Room for negotiation

Despite the strong criticism, and calls to beef up the Bundeswehr, there remains interest in Germany's playing a diplomatic role. In negotiations with Putin, "we need Chancellor Olaf Scholz's personal leadership," Melnyk told the news agency Reuters. "This would be a litmus test for the new German foreign policy."

The Ukrainian ambassador has also expressed support for the Normandy Format, a peace initiative between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, which began under Merkel and Melnyk said he wants to see Scholz continue.

That comes with one condition: The Ukrainians want to bring the United States into those talks, which so far the EU powers have been reluctant to do.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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