Russia's invasion of Ukraine is forcing a long-overdue reevaluation of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel's legacy of appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pictured: Merkel greets Putin at the G20 economic summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images)
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is forcing a long-overdue reevaluation of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel's legacy of appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Questions are being belatedly asked — and grudgingly answered — about many aspects of Merkel's failed Russia policy, including her decisions to block Ukraine's prospective membership of NATO, gut the German military, undermine the transatlantic alliance, and institutionalize Germany's overdependence on Russian energy supplies.
A growing number of commentators in Germany and elsewhere are saying that Merkel's years-long deference to Putin made his invasion of Ukraine possible, and some are even accusing Germany of being complicit in the war.
The responsibility for Germany's failed Russia policy goes far beyond Merkel: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and a large cross section of Germany's business, media and political elite have supported — and continue to support — pro-Russia (as well as pro-China and pro-Iran) policies that sacrifice democracy, human rights, and the rule of law on the altar of financial gain.
Some commentators worry that Germany's pro-Russia policies will be difficult to reverse in the post-Merkel era because, they say, it is ingrained in the worldview of an entire generation of contemporary German leaders.
Facing intense political pressure after Russia invaded Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged to reverse Germany's pro-Putin policies. A month later, he is being accused of backtracking or backsliding on many of his promises. Especially disgraceful is the German government's repeated excuse-making to deliberately delay promised shipments of weapons to Ukraine.
Even with mounting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, German policy toward Russia remains hostage to naïve idealism and the energy dependency it created. More than half of the gas and coal that Germany imports comes from Russia, as does a third of its oil, according to the German Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Some analysts have postulated that Scholz is waiting for the war to end — regardless of who wins — so that Germany can return to the status quo.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk repeatedly have called out the hypocrisy of the German government's Russia policy:
April 3. Zelenskyy rebuked Merkel for enabling Russia's invasion of Ukraine:
"Questions must be asked, not only about Russia, but also about the political behavior that actually allowed this evil to come to our land. Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the NATO Summit in Bucharest. At the time there was a chance to take Ukraine out of the 'grey zone' in Eastern Europe, out of the grey zone between NATO and Russia, out of the grey zone in which Moscow thinks it can do anything, even the most dreadful war crimes.
"Under optimistic diplomatic statements that Ukraine could become a member of NATO, then in 2008 the refusal to accept Ukraine into the alliance, was hidden, among some politicians, an absurd fear of Russia. They thought that by refusing Ukraine, they would be able to appease Russia, to convince it to respect Ukraine and live normally next to us.
"During the 14 years since that miscalculation, Ukraine has experienced a revolution and eight years of war in Donbas. And now we are fighting for life in the most horrific war in Europe since World War II.
"I invite Mrs. Merkel and Mr. [Nicolas] Sarkozy to visit Bucha and see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years, to see with their own eyes the tortured Ukrainian men and women.
"I want to be correctly understood. We do not blame the West. We do not blame anyone but the specific Russian military that did this to our people and those who gave them orders. But we have the right to talk about indecision, about the path to Bucha, to Hostomel, to Kharkiv, to Mariupol."
April 1. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Melnyk said: "The president of Germany is not ready to admit any of his huge personal responsibility for the failure of Berlin's Russia policy mistake. Even in times of such a war he wants to build new bridges with Russia. It clearly sends a clandestine signal to Moscow: Once the war is over we are still here. We keep the flag flying. We will restore the historic German-Russian ties."
April 2. Melnyk tweeted: "Dear German government, you can sleep on and worry about fuel prices, inflation, and recession. Only: by looking the other way, Russia is committing a genocide in the middle of Europe. And Germany is dutifully financing these massacres. Good night, German coalition government."
April 3. Melnyk tweeted: "German 'Never Again' is bullsh*t. Pure hypocrisy."
April 4. Melnyk, in an interview with Germany's ARD television, called for an urgent reappraisal of Germany's Russia policy: "If this German foreign policy catastrophe is not dealt with then there is a risk that something similar will happen again and that you will become dependent on Russia again."
April 4. Melnyk, in an interview with Tagesspiegel, said: "For Steinmeier, the relationship with Russia was and remains something fundamental, even sacred, no matter what happens. Even the war of aggression makes no difference."
April 5. Melnyk tweeted: "German economy. Economy. Über alles. German prosperity. Prosperity. Über alles. Morality? Decency? Historical responsibility? None. So much for the embargo of Russian gas, oil & coal — even after the massacre at Bucha. Dear German government, how much longer will you look on?"
April 8. In an interview with Reuters, Melnyk said:
"It's not just Russian gas, it's oil, coal, metals, diamonds and other raw materials. We (Ukraine) have become the biggest victim of this perverted relationship. Ukrainians are paying for this failed German policy with their lives.
"This kind of hypocrisy with Russia dates back to Nord Stream 1 (gas pipeline). Germany's huge dependence on Russia, at a time of the worst aggression since the Second World War, is shameful.
"Germany is as far away from giving us the support we need today as it was at the start of the war. More than 40 days later, the German political elite apparently still does not believe that Ukraine can win the war."
April 10. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in an interview with the American television news program Meet the Press, said that Merkel's decision in 2008 to exclude Ukraine from NATO was a "strategic mistake." He added: "If we were a member of NATO, this war wouldn't be taking place."
April 12. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier abandoned plans to visit Ukraine after Zelenskyy refused to meet with him. A Ukrainian official in Kyiv told the German newspaper Bild: "We all know about Steinmeier's close ties to Russia. He is currently not welcome in Kyiv."
Sorry Not Sorry
On April 4, in a terse statement prepared by an aide, Merkel, who has remained conspicuously silent since the Ukraine war began on February 24, responded to Zelenskyy:
"Retired Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel stands by her decisions in connection with the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest."
German journalist Rayk Anders commented:
"Merkel let it be known today 'that it was right not to accept Ukraine into NATO.' Even in the middle of the war and in front of the bloody shambles of her foreign policy, she can't see her own mistake. Incomprehensible."
A few hours later, Steinmeier, who was reelected to a second term as German president just over a week before the Ukraine war began, issued an apology (of sorts) for his many years of appeasing Putin. The German head of state, who appears to be extraordinarily close to the Russian government, said:
"My sticking to Nord Stream 2 was clearly a mistake. We held on to bridges that Russia no longer believed in and which our partners had warned us about.
"My assessment was that Vladimir Putin would not accept the complete economic, political, and moral ruin of his country for his imperial madness. Like others, I was wrong.
"The bitter balance sheet: We failed to establish a common European house (ein gemeinsames europäisches Haus) that includes Russia. We failed to integrate Russia into a common security architecture.
"With a Russia under Putin, there will be no return to the status quo as it existed before the war."
Nord Stream 2, a highly controversial energy pipeline, was designed to double shipments of Russian natural gas to Germany by transporting the gas under the Baltic Sea. Facing intense international pressure after Putin invaded Ukraine, Berlin reluctantly halted the pipeline.
Steinmeier, Merkel and others have long ignored concerns that Nord Stream 2 would effectively give Moscow a stranglehold over German gas supplies. The leaders of many countries in Eastern and Western Europe warned that the pipeline would subject the continent to Russian blackmail.
German commentators noted that Steinmeier's apology actually sounded like a non-apology: by using the words "we" and "like others," he was essentially saying that he is not really to blame because many other German officials also supported Berlin's disastrous Russia policy.
Jochen Bittner, who writes for the German newspaper Die Zeit, tweeted:
"This 'like others' from Steinmeier is a self-righteousness that is difficult to bear. First, others weren't chancellery chiefs and foreign ministers. And second, there were admonishers and warners. They were willingly defamed as 'warmongers' and 'swashbucklers.'"
Steinmeier, who has held many senior positions in the German government since 1999 — including the post of foreign minister between 2005 and 2009, and again between 2013 and 2017 — did not offer his resignation.
Hans-Jürgen Jakobs, a senior editor with Handelsblatt, a prestigious German business newspaper, wrote that Merkel and Steinmeier issued their statements only because they were under political pressure to do so:
"The grand coalition partners Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier worked together for a good seven years. She as chancellor, he as foreign minister. They received much applause. With Vladimir Putin turning a civilized country into a slaughterhouse, however, the duo's performance looks a lot worse than we thought when they left office. The interwoven energy policy and Ostpolitik (Russia policy) is literally blowing up in their faces.
"The two politicians were only really motivated to issue their current statements because of critical voices from Ukraine: Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The difference: the Social Democrat [Steinmeier] has regrets, the Christian Democrat [Merkel] has no regrets.
"If Steinmeier's re-election had been scheduled for April rather than February, eleven days before the invasion, he would have been more worried about getting a second term."
In an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, Melnyk said that Steinmeier's admission of error was only a "first step" and called for the German president to back up his words with deeds:
"It is important for us that these statements are now followed by actions, but these actions are missing. Like many of my compatriots, I would like the German president not only to show his remorse, but also that, as head of state, he demands that Germany draw lessons from the Bucha massacre, and from other atrocities, that we in Ukraine are now experiencing day and night....
"We believe that what has happened here in Germany over the past two decades urgently needs to be dealt with, not only politically, but also at the level of society and the media. Everything really needs to be exposed and examined. How could it come to the point that Germany is almost completely dependent on the Russian state in terms of energy policy? And that Ukraine has become a hostage of these relations and has to pay for this suffering with civilian casualties?"
The chief foreign correspondent for Die Welt, Klaus Geiger, wrote:
"Olaf Scholz's change of course on February 27 was driven by fear — not courage. Ukraine was lied to, the closeness to Russia remained behind the scenes. This is one of the reasons why the Bucha massacre was possible."
German officials responsible for creating and implementing Merkel's failed Russia policy are now being promoted to positions of even more influence and responsibility:
- Jens Plötner, a so-called Putinversteher (someone who "understands" Putin) who served as chief of staff to Foreign Minister Steinmeier, is now national security advisor to Chancellor Scholz. Plötner, a strong supporter of Nord Stream 2, bears considerable responsibility for the policies that led to Germany's energy dependence on Russia. He now says that he is leading a "policy change" to end that dependency.
- Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's top foreign policy advisor who served as German Ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2021 (he managed Germany's shameful two-year anti-Israel stint on the UN Security Council), has been named chairman of the Munich Security Conference, a high-profile annual conference on international security policy. The position will allow Heusgen to continue to have an outsized voice on German foreign policy and transatlantic relations.
Heusgen has downplayed German policy failures by portraying Merkel as a victim of Russia. In a recent appearance on German national television, he claimed that Germany had "misjudged" Putin. This misjudgment occurred despite years of warnings from Eastern and Western Europe and the United States.
On September 25, 2018, when U.S. President Donald J. Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly, Heusgen, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and other members of the German delegation were filmed sneering when Trump warned:
"Reliance on a single foreign supplier can leave a nation vulnerable to extortion and intimidation. That is why we congratulate European states, such as Poland, for leading the construction of a Baltic pipeline [Baltic Pipe, a gas pipeline from Norway via Denmark to Poland] so that nations are not dependent on Russia to meet their energy needs. Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course."
- Thomas Bagger, a long-time senior foreign policy advisor to Steinmeier, has been appointed to the position of German Ambassador to Poland.
- Steffen Seibert, Merkel's long-time spokesman, has been named German Ambassador to Israel. With a straight face, day in and day out for more than a decade, he sold Merkel's failed policies to the German public.
Seibert's promotion has been heavily criticized on social media: German author Alexander Wallasch tweeted: "Steffen Seibert goes to Israel as ambassador. Dear Israelis, sorry in advance!" Another commentator noted: "Merkel is infiltrating Israel. I feel sorry for them." Yet another tweeted: "Our former chief liar and denier falls up the career ladder." Paul-Anton Krüger, Berlin bureau chief for Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported that Seibert's promotion had been coordinated beforehand between Merkel and Scholz.
Many analysts and commentators from Germany and elsewhere have taken to Twitter to offer cogent and concise analyses of Germany's failed Russia policy.
German geopolitical analyst Ulrich Speck noted:
"For Germans who invested so much in the partnership with Russia it's hard to accept that they were wrong. They always thought they were 'rational,' smarter than the Central Europeans who were warning about Russian aggression, and who the Germans saw as irrational, 'traumatized.'"
In another tweet, Speck added:
"German Russia policy since 2005 was a co-production of [Germany's two main parties] the CDU [Christian Democrats] and the SPD [Social Democrats], which is why both parties do not really want to distance themselves from it, change of era or not."
Anders Östlund, a Swedish analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis, tweeted:
"There is something fundamentally wrong with the value system in the German political establishment. The acceptance of wars and atrocities and the unwillingness to take action to stop the wars and atrocities will haunt Germany for a long time.
"The German leadership cannot claim to be against wars and atrocities when it passively stands by and watches such events unfold when the German government has had the power to stop them.
"The last twenty years Germany has acted like a corrupt and morally decadent policeman. It has looked on as crimes were committed despite having the powers to interfere and it has up until the last months always expressed more understanding for the perpetrator than the victim.
Stefan Auer, a professor of European studies at the University of Hong Kong, tweeted:
"The modus operandi of German & EU politics is the indefinite postponement of conflicts. This seemed to have worked well in times of peace (though not in relation to Russia, obviously). The consequences of such an approach in times of war can be catastrophic."
Bojan Pancevski, Germany correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, noted:
"During the eurocrisis [2009-2012], Germany helped impose austerity on ailing partners, demanding their immediate pain for a collective gain. Now, however, Germany is asking the EU for years to correct its policies that made it the world's biggest buyer of Russian gas."
Marcel Dirsus, a German analyst at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, tweeted:
"If you're German, please stop saying that nobody could've seen this war coming. People warned us for years, but we chose to ignore them because doing so was better for business and we like to think of ourselves as more clever than everyone else. Turns out we aren't.
"This is not a moment for Germans to throw up their hands and pretend that everyone is totally surprised by Putin. We should be asking for forgiveness for our arrogance and try to learn from our allies because they got it right and we got it wrong."
Czech political analyst Monika Richter wrote:
"The emperor is naked. At the critical moment, Germany has shown itself to be a feckless, unreliable ally, more deeply corrupted & coopted by its 'commercial' authoritarian entanglements than many (esp in the US) realized. With friends like these, you don't need enemies.
"It's time for Biden to stop pussy-footing around Berlin in prostration for his predecessor's offenses and privileging the bilateral relationship over other allies and the imperatives of transatlantic security — which, indeed, Germany has been consistently sabotaging for years.
"Strategic corruption is a disease, and it has weakened the German state to such an extent that it now clearly jeopardizes the global democratic community. We need to respond with tough love and public exposure of the disease....
"The rot runs deep, and it has been allowed to fester for far too long. Enough is enough."
Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote:
"I am deeply unimpressed by all the figures on German TV currently telling us that they couldn't have seen coming what Putin would do, that Nordstream 2 would turn out to be a problem. I was in so many talks where German officials dismissed CEE [Central and Eastern Europe] warnings.
"The fact that the people who were so fundamentally wrong about everything and so nasty to their European neighbors are the people we're STILL turning for advice to now frankly offends me."
German Russia expert Janis Kluge tweeted:
"Personal view: Today, no country in the West should feel more responsibility for #Ukraine's security than #Germany. Consequently, Germany should do more than any other country to help Ukraine....
"–We worked hard to keep Ukraine out of NATO.
"–We denied Ukraine arms, even blocked others from doing so.
"–We cooperated directly with Russia's military until at least 2014.
"–We funded Russia's armament more than most.
"–We helped Russia bypass Ukraine's gas transit (NS1&2).
"But most of all, we were [in World War 2] the last ones to invade, bomb and kill in Ukraine, and vowed 'never again.' It is painful to see that other countries are stepping up more than Germany at this historic time. I hope that we can still change course."
Georg Löfflmann, a German professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, concluded:
"The problem in my view is one of mindset.... This Zeitenwende [turning point in German-Russian relations] will only succeed if it arrives in the heads of an entire complacent generation of boomer politicians in Germany who have to accept that their naïveté, egocentrism and smug self-righteous conviction in the supposed higher morality of their actions has directly contributed to the greatest catastrophe in European politics since 1945."
The Chief Europe Correspondent of Politico, Matt Karnitschnig, in an essay — "Putin's Useful German Idiots" — wrote that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a repudiation of a whole generation of German politicians from across the political spectrum:
"Germany's stubborn insistence on engaging with the Russian leader in the face of his sustained aggression (a catalog of misdeeds ranging from the invasion of Georgia to assassinations of enemies abroad and war crimes in Syria) was nothing short of a catastrophic blunder, one that will earn Merkel a place in the pantheon of political naiveté alongside Neville Chamberlain.
"Slowly but surely, it's begun to dawn on Germans that Merkel's soft-shoe approach to Russia — which reached its zenith with the 2015 decision to green light the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite Russia's annexation of Crimea and its role in the separatist war in eastern Ukraine — didn't just open the door for Putin to go further, it effectively encouraged him to do so.
"Russia's invasion of Ukraine is not just a repudiation of Merkel's chancellorship, however, but of a whole generation of German politicians from across the spectrum blinded by nostalgia for Ostpolitik and Wandel durch Handel, the 1970s-era détente policies championed by Chancellor Willy Brandt that according to German legend led to the end of the Cold War.
"Germany's collective responsibility is why turning the page is easier said than done. There is no Churchill-like figure in German politics who has been warning for years of the perils of trusting Putin. While Merkel deserves most of the blame for falling into the Russian leader's trap, the truth is that Germany's entire political class is guilty....
"During the Cold War, the term 'useful idiot' became a label for moderates in the West who fell victim to the communists' credulous arguments.
"From Germany's veto of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 to its pursuit of gas deals with Moscow to its resistance to send arms to Kyiv — the country's leaders have served as Putin's useful idiots.
"All the while, the so-called Russlandversteher, the smug Russian sympathizers who populate the country's political establishment, rejected criticism of their course, insisting they knew better while (literally) laughing in Washington's face.
"No one's laughing anymore."
In an opinion article — "A Failed Generation of Politicians" — Jasper von Altenbockum, an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote that it will be impossible for Germany to forge a new security policy as long as the existing generation of politicians remain in office:
"The expectation was to create peace without weapons from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Anyone who rebelled against this view, mostly Eastern Europeans, were considered hillbillies. The German debate was thought to be ahead of its time and hid behind German history. In truth, however, the doubters were the realists and German idealism was the product of provincial thinking. This was entirely in line with the West German tradition of having others pay for security, under whose umbrella it was easy to moralize....
"German idealism is now proving to be a historical error, a deception, the moral and material failure of a generation....
"It seems unlikely that a new start in German and European foreign and security policy is possible. It is not to be expected from Germany's governing coalition. A good start would be if German politicians used the word 'we' sparingly. Because we didn't fail; we didn't deceive ourselves: That was you."
Writing for Bloomberg Opinion, German commentator Andreas Kluth, in an article — "Germany's President Embodies the Past Sins of Its Russia Policy" — argued that Steinmeier is the embodiment of Germany's disastrous policy toward the Kremlin:
"With this and other outbursts of undiplomatic honesty, Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine's ambassador in Berlin, has come to embody Germany's guilty conscience. When not seated like a moral phantom in the gallery of the Bundestag and glowering down at parliament's speakers, he goes from one talk show to another, relentlessly reminding Germans how they're falling short of the historical responsibility they're constantly invoking — by not sending Ukraine enough weapons, continuing to buy Russian gas, or what have you.
"By aiming at Steinmeier, Melnyk has picked what is in some ways the most obvious and symbolic target....
"As a Social Democrat who's been chief of staff to one former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and foreign minister to another, Angela Merkel, Steinmeier played a leading role in almost every misguided gesture Germany has made toward Putin in the last two decades....
"During all those Schroeder and Merkel years, Steinmeier was saying cheese for the photographers next to Putin and his cronies. Like other German politicians, especially Social Democrats, he became an oratorical robot spouting the German conventional wisdom: the only way to deal with Moscow is dialogue and more dialogue, as well as more economic and cultural exchange.
"Politely but obstinately, Steinmeier rebuffed the Poles, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — not to mention the Ukrainians — who worried that Germany was in hock to the Kremlin. He lectured them that energy dependence was instead interdependence and would make the Russian Bear cuddly rather than scary. In 2016, when NATO maneuvered near its eastern flank, Steinmeier theatrically decried this 'saber-rattling and warmongering' by his own country's defensive alliance. Hear any echoes?
"For Steinmeier, the 'relationship to Russia was and is something fundamental, even holy,' Melnyk told a German newspaper this week. For decades, he added, Steinmeier has 'woven a spider's web' of pro-Kremlin contacts. Melnyk then named some of them, including the current foreign-policy advisor of Chancellor Olaf Scholz....
"Germany's policy elites and intellectuals will have a lot of soul-searching to do for years to come. Few are doing so honestly."
The chief correspondent of Deutschlandradio, Stephan Detjen, in an article — "The Mistakes of the Previous Russia Policy are Deeply Rooted" — concluded:
"Frank-Walter Steinmeier represents the problematic aspects of German Russia policy over the past decades in three ways: as a social democrat, as a close companion and long-time confidant of Gerhard Schröder and finally as foreign minister in two of Angela Merkel's cabinets. This made Steinmeier a symbolic figure. The biting criticism, which was leveled against him, in particular by the Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Melnyk, was primarily aimed at the current German President. But it goes far beyond the person of Steinmeier. It applies to basic attitudes of German politics that have grown culturally and are superimposed economically. It's about interests, hopes and illusions....
"The bloody landmarks that Putin left behind in his neo-imperial expansion were always recognizable without any special German thoughtfulness: Grozny, South Ossetia, Syria, Crimea, the Donbas. The question is why they were not properly perceived and interpreted in Germany.
"The search for answers forces one to confront a mentality that goes far beyond politics. It mixes ... anti-Americanism, unscrupulous lobbying Gerhard Schröder, the cold sense for German business interests and the hard-nosed rationalism of Angela Merkel, who was able to visit Alexei Navalny, who had been poisoned by Putin, in the Berlin Charité one day and dismiss the toxic Nord Stream pipeline project as a purely private business matter the next.
"The view of the reality of Putin's Russia was obscured not least by a questionable culture and dialogue policy. Shady sponsors, naïve idealists and tough ideologues, supported by the state, cultivated the mystically charged image of a German-Russian special relationship that coolly ignored the interests, freedom and independence of other Central and Eastern European countries.
"All of this is food for thought that cannot be left for discussion at some indefinite time after the war. It is the prerequisite for being able to provide better answers than in the past to the challenge from Putin now — and in the future to the challenges from the neo-imperial and autocratic powers in Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere."